The Undiscovered and Splendid Corner of Southwest France

French Countryside, Landscape of Beynac, France.

Tim Stocker Photography / Getty Images

In France's Atlantic corner, Southwest France has everything visitors have come to expect from a top-notch French region: a well-preserved history fabulous wines, and beautiful rural vistas—plus the sunniest and sandiest beaches in France. Extending from the sparkling port city of La Rochelle all the way to the tremendous Pyrenees Mountains at the Spanish border, you'll find medieval cities, prehistoric cave paintings, and some of France's best vineyards.

Boasting more days of sunshine than most of Europe (an excess of 300 sunny days a year average in Montpellier, for instance), Southwest France is a great destination for spending your days outdoors, whether that means tramping through a national park or trodding through the vines. This region has more parkland than any other in France, including over 200,000 acres in the Pyrenees National Park alone.

Geography

France’s Atlantic coastline stretches from Poitou-Charentes in the north all the way down to the Spanish border. The beaches on this stretch of the French coastline are fabulous; long and sandy and running as far as the eye can see. This is the best region in France for surfing, particularly around the chic city of Biarritz, one of France's most popular seaside resorts, which is located right on the border and is only an hour's drive to the Spanish city of San Sebastian.

This region also happens to be one of the major places for nudist and naturist resorts, which are very popular with Europeans.

Port Cities

The main port cities of Southwest France are La Rochelle and Rochefort. La Rochelle is a delightful maritime destination and is sometimes known as the ‘White City’ because of the pale stone that was used to construct the two towers that guard the sheltered harbor.

Rochefort, on the other hand, was once a vital location for the French navy in the 17th century. The city is naturally protected by the Pertuis d'Antioche, a strait between two islands, so it made for the perfect shipbuilding center. This was also the place where the original L’Hermione was built; a warship destined to take General Lafayette over the Atlantic to help the Americans fight the British in the Revolutionary War. A replica of the ship can be found at the maritime museum.

Atlantic Islands

Rochefort is naturally protected by the beautiful islands of chic Ile de Ré, and the traffic-free, more rustic, Ile d’Aix, where Napoleon spent his last days of freedom. Both of these islands are celebrated holiday destinations where you can swim, sail, walk, and cycle around the coastline. Ile de Ré is accessible via bridge from La Rochelle, but Ile d'Aix can only be reached by ferry from La Fumée.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a vibrant historic city, recently revitalized and now back to its former glory. The city is a wonderful place to base your vacation and has a very good selection of hotels to choose from. With this lovely city as your home base, you can easily spend a few days to a week visiting many of the world-renowned vineyards around Bordeaux.

In the city's immediate surroundings you can also venture into Cognac Country to the northwest, near Saintonge. Or to the south, visit the Landes, the largest continuously forested area of Western Europe.

The Dordogne

Inland from Bordeaux, you'll come into the Dordogne, a well known holiday region, particularly popular with British tourists. It’s a gorgeous region, centered around the unofficial capital town of Perigueux. It’s known for pretty villages, imposing castles, rolling landscapes, and its abundance of foie gras.

When in the Dordogne, you should visit the sacred site of Rocamadour, one of the stops for pilgrims on the route from Le Puy-en-Velay to Spain's Compostela. This village dramatically perched on a mountaintop makes for an incredible photo opportunity. The area surrounding the town is also apt for cycling, hiking, and cave exploration; the Padirac Chasm and Merle Cave are particularly scenic. Also worth visiting in the region are the hanging gardens of Marqueyssac that sit on a hill, overlooking the gently flowing Dordogne River below.

The Midi-Pyrenees

The Midi-Pyrenees takes in much of the province Gascony, an area of fortified towns and traditional French cuisine. As the region's capital, Toulouse is a city most famous for its university and also happens to be the home of aviation in France. From this area, you could also embark on a slow-moving barge cruise along the canal through the province.

The nearby city of Albi is recognized for its extraordinary, red brick cathedral and the impressive museum of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The French painter, best-known for his posters of the Moulin Rouge, was born in the city and spent much of his early life here. The museum is located in a former former fortress and holds over a thousand of the artist's works.

Edited by Mary Anne Evans

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