Aquitaine is certainly not a European region on everyone’s lips. In contrast to areas such as the Andalusia, I would have had a very very hard time figuring out where it was before visiting it. If anything, it is known as the area of “Bordeaux and environs.”
Calling it that, it would be obvious it is the French region that is very popular for “Bordeaux wine.” Bordeaux is an interesting destination for a late winter/early spring stopover; the climate is mitigated by the Gulf Stream and it is not as cold at that time as in other parts of Europe. If we add to this small climatic advantage the relatively cheap cost of getting there, we can see how it is an ideal destination for a very short but intense ontheroad itinerary on French soil.
What to see in an on-the-road itinerary in and around Bordeaux
In this article I want to offer you a series of places to see in Aquitaine that will allow you to discover the area in 4 days, one of which is dedicated to the city of Bordeaux. These are wonderful areas to drive through, especially in the stretches of the vineyards of Saint-Émilion, where the rows of vines are lost to view.
If you want to stay longer in this south/west stretch of France, you can add a few days on the coast near Biarritz, so famous for its waves that it is known as the surfing capital of Europe.
1 – La Rochelle, a romantic seaside town
Strange that in an itinerary between Bordeaux and its environs you should start with the surroundings and not its main city. Instead, that is exactly what I recommend. La Rochelle is a small town almost 200km and 2 hours by car from Bordeaux. It does not have any prominent sights, but it is a good way to get into the main thread of the itinerary: relaxation.
It is a quiet town with a beautiful and important harbor overlooked by numerous restaurants. La Rochelle should be discovered on foot by wandering around its streets full of little restaurants, creperies and bars where you can have a drink, or by discovering the beautiful towers (Tour de St. Nicolas and Tour de La Chaine) to get a better taste of its history.
In La Rochelle there is a romantic air throughout the city, which makes it very pleasant.
2 – La Île de Ré, a thin tongue of land towards the Atlantic
Opposite beautiful La Rochelle is Île de Ré, a well-known French vacation resort. But Île de Ré is not only beaches, it is also beautiful views and vistas that even out of season give serenity to those who have the pleasure of being there.
Île de Ré is connected to La Rochelle by a scenic and long bridge for a fee (8 euros round trip). Beyond the bridge you have to let yourself go and discover the island, perhaps stocking up on food and water first because
I saw few places to stop and find something to eat/drink. In fact, I’ll give you a little tip on the subject, mark Steph la Boulangerie…it is a bakery that you can find near the town hall (google it), you will find it on your left proceeding towards Kloster Notre-Dame-de-Ré Abbey.
By the way, the abbey is all ruined but stands in the middle of nowhere in a beautiful spot. Lots of greenery and a view that sweeps down to the sea and the bridge that connects La Rochelle to Île de Ré.
Finally, on Île de Ré you cannot fail to reach the most easterly point that looks “straight into the eyes” of the Atlantic Ocean. I am talking about the Whale Lighthouse. In all honesty I tell you that it is not a scenic lighthouse on some steep cliff where the waves break.
It is a simple lighthouse with expanses of sand or water behind it depending on the tides. However, the fact that it is the westernmost end of the island and beyond there is only the ocean makes it a particularly fascinating stop on the itinerary around Bordeaux.
3 – Cognac and cognac wine
The surroundings of Bordeaux are dotted with small villages that give their names to well-known delicacies. Such is the case with Cognac where the distillate of the same name is produced. Due to time constraints, I unfortunately was not able to visit the town, which they say is very beautiful, but if you are in the area you should definitely include it in your itinerary. And not only to visit the town center, but also and especially to visit a distillery and learn about the Cognac production process!
4 – Saint-Émilion, the village nestled among miles of vineyards
East of Bordeaux, past Libourne, nestled between rows and rows of vines lies Saint-Émilion, a small World Heritage village. Saint-Émilion is famous for its wine cellars and vineyard views. The village itself is not surprising, or at least it did not excite me. Perhaps it was the unfavorable period, the fact is that it did not “leave me with anything.”
That is not to say that it is a stop to be skipped; I only recommend that you give it its due. Perhaps its surroundings deserve more, perhaps doing a winery tasting in the summer months when the vines are completely green.
5 – The dunes of Pilat, the giant dunes on the Atlantic
This place a few kilometers away from Bordeaux has the absurd. A giant tongue of sand, almost 3 kilometers long and 100 to 120 meters high, gradually encompassing the forest behind. I had never seen a sand dune of these proportions.
It is an absolute must-see on the itinerary between and around Bordeaux. The advice is not to visit it “hit and run,” the advice is to bring flip-flops, beach towel and everything you need to spend a day at the beach. Maybe, why not, waiting for the sunset on such a special beach.
Any photograph does not give an idea of how extraordinary this place is. For more insights read this article of mine dulle Dune di Pilat -> The Dune of Pilat: the highest dunes in Europe.
6 – Bordeaux, the elegant city
Take a city and its entire historic center, inscribe it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you have Bordeaux. I know, the incipit of this paragraph is utopia, but Bordeaux is just that.
The entire historic center is a World Heritage Site. So, to the question “what to see in Bordeaux,” the answer should be: everything!
In fact, it is by walking through its historic center that one fully appreciates it. From the Opera House, to the large city gates, via the beautiful Cathedral, everything is embedded within an elegant and functional city.
It is also a city that has also moved toward the redevelopment of certain areas, such as Darwin Park, a must-see stop to best finish an itinerary exploring the French territory of Aquitaine.
On Bordeaux, I recommend you elaborate on this recent article of mine -> Best Things to do in Bordeaux
Tips on possible other things to see around Bordeaux
Had I had more time to explore this beautiful piece of France, I would have definitely included these other two destinations:
- Biarritz: south of Bordeaux, this well-known resort overlooking the Bay of Biscay is a favorite destination for all surfing enthusiasts and has been elected as the surfing capital of Europe. An excellent reason to include it within the itinerary and appreciate the ocean breeze even more.
- Rocamadour: one only has to catch a glimpse of a photo of this small village perched, nay, encased in rock, to understand how it is a must-see stop should one have the time to visit. It is rather far from Bordeaux (about 250 km), but with an effort it could be a very interesting detour.