Southwest France has everything you expect from a top French region. There are wonderful vistas wherever you are – in the mountains of the Pyrenees or along the long Atlantic coast. The food has a reputation to envy and the wines are some of the best in France. Medieval fortified cities and small villages of old stone houses clinging to the hillside; long rolling Atlantic surfing beaches and fabulous theme parks... These are just a few of the attractions of this part of France.
This area boasts more days of sunshine than most of Europe (in excess of 300 sunny days a year average in Montpellier, for instance), and features more parkland than much of France (including more than 200,000 acres in Pyrenees National Park alone).
Geography of Southwest France
France’s Atlantic coastline stretches from Poitou-Charentes in the north down south 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 place for surfing, particularly around the chic city of Biarritz, one of France's most popular seaside resorts.
The Atlantic Historic Ports
The main ports are La Rochelle and Rochefort. La Rochelle is a delightful maritime destination, known as the ‘White City’ from the pale stone that was used to build the likes of the two towers that guard the sheltered harbor.
Rochefort was vital for the French navy in the 17th century. It’s naturally protected so it made the perfect shipbuilding center. It was the place where the original L’Hermione was built; a frigate destined to take the Revolutionary General Lafayette over the Atlantic from the remote Auvergne to help the Americans fight the British.
In 2015, the replica L’Hermione sailed from the west coast of France to New England, visited all the cities that the original had helped liberate, then sailed back, to land in Rochefort in July.
Rochefort is naturally protected by the beautiful islands of chic Ile de Ré (voted as one of the 52 places around the world to visit in 2016 by the New York Times), and the traffic-free, more rustic, Ile d’Aix, where Napoleon spent his last days of freedom. Both these islands are known as perfect holiday destinations where you can swim, sail, walk, and cycle around the coastline.
This is one of France's major places for nudist and naturist resorts, popular with both the French and other Europeans.
Inland From the Atlantic Coast
Inland the area takes in Charente-Maritime and Deux Sèvres of the Marais Poitevin often called the ‘green Venice’ because of its canals and waterways.
Bordeaux and Its Surroundings
Bordeaux is a vibrant city, revitalized recently and now back to its former glory. It makes a wonderful vacation center and has a very good selection of hotels to choose from. From here you can visit the world-renowned vineyards around Bordeaux.
To the northwest, you venture into the home of Cognac around Saintonge, as well as the aperitif called Pineau de Bourgogne.
South of Bordeaux the landscape changes; Les Landes has the largest continuously forested area of western Europe.
Inland from Bordeaux, you come into the Dordogne, a well known holiday region, particularly for the Brits. It’s a gorgeous region, centered around the famous town of Perigueux. It’s known for pretty villages, imposing castles and gardens, rolling landscape and its cuisine, particularly foie gras. If you're there, visit the sacred site of Rocamadour, and the hanging gardens of Marqueyssac that sit on a high hill, overlooking the gently flowing Dordogne river below. If you're in Sarlat, you must try to visit one of the most famous markets in southwest France.
The Midi-Pyrenees takes in much of Gascony, an area of fortified towns and more top cooking. Toulouse is the capital of the region, region’s capital, a city famous for its university, old buildings and the home of aviation in France. Just nearby, take to the canal on a slow barge trip through Gascony.
The nearby city of Albi has another extraordinary, red brick cathedral and the impressive museum of Toulouse-Lautrec who was born in the city and spent much of his early life here.
To the south, the Pyrenees form the border with Spain. The mountains are good for hiking in the summer along the top and skiing down in the winter.
Edited by Mary Anne Evans