From rolling vine­yards famed for pro­duc­ing world-class wines to At­lantic beaches, la­goons, his­toric vil­lages and a cos­mopoli­tan cap­i­tal, Gironde is a di­verse de­part­ment with some­thing for all, says Caro­line Bishop

Living France - - CONTENTS -

Cover story It’s hard not to fall in love with Gironde’s ir­re­sistible mix of sweep­ing sandy beaches, rolling vine­yards and his­toric vil­lages

There’s a 16th-cen­tury wind­mill on a hill on the out­skirts of a small vil­lage deep in En­treDeux-Mers, the tri­an­gle of wine coun­try be­tween the Garonne and Dor­dogne rivers. To sit on one of the mill­stones and look out over the val­ley be­low is to see into the heart of Gironde. Vine­yards sweep through un­du­lat­ing fields in neat rows; hawks and the oc­ca­sional hoopoe sit on tele­graph poles; and the ochre roofs of farm­houses are clus­tered in ham­lets that can be seen over the low hills in the dis­tance.

This is the Gironde that many for­eign­ers flock to ex­pe­ri­ence: a ru­ral idyll in south-west France, car­peted with care­fully tended vines and dot­ted with re­stored châteaux and me­dieval bastide towns, their cen­tral squares host­ing weekly mar­kets that fill the air with the smell of siz­zling poulet rôti and the chat­ter of lo­cals.


The weather and its ef­fect on the vines is likely to be a ma­jor topic of con­ver­sa­tion. Are the grapes de­vel­op­ing too slowly af­ter a late spring? Will the har­vest be com­pleted be­fore an au­tumn hail­storm threat­ens to dec­i­mate the vines? Has there been enough sun, or too lit­tle rain? It’s no won­der, be­cause this is the largest wine­pro­duc­ing area in France and ar­guably the most fa­mous and pres­ti­gious in the world. These things mat­ter.

The ter­roir around the cav­ernous Gironde es­tu­ary – the largest in Europe – and the mighty Garonne and Dor­dogne rivers that feed into it has gifted the de­part­ment over 120,000 hectares of qual­ity grape-grow­ing land and 10,000 wine pro­duc­ers across six des­ig­nated re­gions. The names on the road signs are fa­mil­iar to ev­ery­one – wine buff or not. Not least the cap­i­tal, Bordeaux, syn­ony­mous with the smooth, easy­drink­ing reds of the re­gion. There are the big, pres­ti­gious châteaux – Lafite Roth­schild in the Mé­doc, for one – and fa­mous ap­pel­la­tions such as Gironde’s small­est and most widely sought-af­ter, Pomerol, and the sweet, rich Sauternes, the wine pro­duced around the town of the same name south-west of the Garonne.

No won­der wine tourism is big busi­ness, per­haps nowhere more so than in St-Émil­ion, the area’s most fa­mous wine vil­lage with an ex­tra­or­di­nary her­itage dat­ing back to the 8th cen­tury, when the monk Émil­ion founded a re­li­gious com­mu­nity there. Now UNESCO-pro­tected as much for its me­dieval ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures as its his­toric vine­yards, it’s a de­light to wan­der through the pretty tertres (nar­row, steep, cob­bled streets), stop­ping to tour its nu­mer­ous caves and eat in its restau­rants.

“The coun­try­side there is beau­ti­ful,” says Carol Young, founder of lo­cal es­tate agency Bordeaux Beyond ( bor­deauxbe­ “You’ve got all the her­itage sur­round­ing wine, so that re­ally does pull in a lot of peo­ple. St-Émil­ion it­self is a beau­ti­ful vil­lage to visit; it’s al­ways busy and bustling.”

Wine may be one of Gironde’s trump cards, but it’s by no means the only thing that has made it one of France’s most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions. In land­scape, life­style and at­mos­phere, it’s hugely di­verse. For ex­am­ple, less than an hour west of the pre­served me­dieval streets of St-Émil­ion is the beat­ing heart of mod­ern Gironde, Bordeaux. Af­ter a pe­riod of de­cline, its once grime-cov­ered cen­tre has been spruced up in re­cent years by its mayor, for­mer prime min­is­ter Alain Juppé, and it’s now a thriv­ing, cos­mopoli­tan city. There’s the bustling new shop­ping precinct Prom­e­nade Rue Ste-Cather­ine, the smooth tram sys­tem, and the grandiose river­front where the scrubbed-clean 18th-cen­tury fa­cades on Place de la Bourse re­flect dou­ble in the stun­ning miroir d’eau (wa­ter mir­ror), cre­ated in 2006. Not for­get­ting the swanky new €81m wine mu­seum, the Cité du Vin, which helped to pro­pel Bordeaux into Lonely Planet’s global list of the top 10 cities to visit in 2017.


Trav­el­ling south-west out of Bordeaux re­veals a fur­ther side to Gironde. Soon, the vine­yards give way to kilo­me­tres upon kilo­me­tres of pine trees in the Lan­des re­gional park, ideal for pic­nick­ing in the shade when the heat soars in the height of sum­mer. Then the trees part to re­veal the la­goon formed by the Bassin d’Ar­ca­chon and the long white beaches that sweep up and down the coast, bat­tered by the At­lantic Ocean.

“I think we live in a re­ally di­verse de­part­ment and as a re­sult the peo­ple who are com­ing here are com­ing for re­ally di­verse rea­sons,” says Carol. “It of­fers an aw­ful lot of dif­fer­ent things. We aren’t sim­ply a ru­ral de­part­ment or a coastal de­part­ment; we’ve got a bit of ev­ery­thing go­ing on.”

While many peo­ple still seek the ru­ral dream, many oth­ers are mak­ing the most of Gironde’s var­ied charms and mov­ing to live and work in Bordeaux, or turn­ing hol­i­day bolt-holes on the coast into full­time homes, she says.

“Ar­ca­chon has be­come more and more at­trac­tive to Bri­tish buy­ers. Prices are much more rea­son­able than they are on the Mediter­ranean. But also I think the pace of life and the cul­ture is dif­fer­ent. The Med is quite an ag­gres­sive, fast-paced life.

Ar­ca­chon has beau­ti­ful beaches, it’s fam­ily ori­en­tated, it’s a nice place to be.”

It’s easy to see why the Gironde coast­line is so pop­u­lar. Both north and south of the Bassin d’Ar­ca­chon the beaches stretch for miles, their sands clean and wide, with an un­ob­structed view of the vast hori­zon stretch­ing into the At­lantic Ocean. Sun­bathers are over­looked by the oc­ca­sional graf­fiti-cov­ered Ger­man block­house, a re­minder of this part of France’s oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, when the Ger­mans built an ‘At­lantic wall’ to de­fend against Al­lied in­va­sion. These days the only face-off is be­tween surfers and the fe­ro­cious waves that pum­mel this coast­line, espe­cially in La­canau, north of the bay, which hosts reg­u­lar in­ter­na­tional surf­ing com­pe­ti­tions.

The Bassin it­self is Gironde’s sum­mer play­ground, to where the Borde­lais re­treat in the Au­gust shut­down. Here, the re­sort towns of An­der­nos and Ar­cha­chon pro­vide re­laxed nightlife and myr­iad seafood restau­rants of­fer­ing mus­sels and oys­ters cul­ti­vated in thou­sands of beds within the bay’s calm tidal la­goon.

On its western side the town of Cap Fer­ret stretches down the penin­sula to the light­house at the end; it’s pos­si­ble to climb its 258 steps for a far-reach­ing view of the bay and the ocean.

“Ar­ca­chon has be­come more and more at­trac­tive to Bri­tish buy­ers”


An­other fine view is from the epic Dune du Pi­lat, Europe’s high­est sand dune. A tourist hotspot (lit­er­ally; it can be scorch­ing on bare feet) for its Sa­hara-like moun­tain of sand, it re­wards the con­sid­er­able ef­fort you must put in to climb to the top of it by lash­ing you with sand­pa­per-like fin­gers when the wind gets up.

But no mat­ter – the sweep­ing panorama of the rolling dunes and the sea stretch­ing into an in­fi­nite hori­zon is well worth it, as is the huge fun to be had from run­ning back down the dune. So much fun you’ll be tempted to climb up again – al­most.

It was the area’s lo­ca­tion close to all these as­sets that ap­pealed to Heather Watts and hus­band Peter, orig­i­nally from Ed­in­burgh, who now run a gîte ( al­bagite. com) in Castets-en-Dorthe be­tween the mar­ket towns of Lan­gon and La Réole.

“We came to this re­gion to have the best of both worlds; the coast at 45 min­utes from here and the [Pyre­nean] moun­tains two hours, with Spain just round the cor­ner,” says Heather.

The mild cli­mate al­lows them to spend plenty of time out­doors ex­plor­ing the abun­dance of sites just a short drive away. “Visit­ing this area and other neigh­bour­ing de­part­ments we’ve dis­cov­ered for­ti­fied cas­tles, a fam­ily-run goat’s cheese farm, and a three-gen­er­a­tion busi­ness pro­duc­ing Ar­magnac, let alone all the wine châteaux in the Sauternes and Graves.”

In­deed it would be dif­fi­cult to run out of things to do in Gironde. With a his­tory as rich as its ter­roir, the de­part­ment boasts his­tor­i­cal sites in­clud­ing Château de la Brède, the 14th-cen­tury Gothic cas­tle where the philoso­pher Mon­tesquieu lived and wrote; the UNESCO-listed for­ti­fi­ca­tions on the bank of the Gironde es­tu­ary at Blaye, built by mil­i­tary en­gi­neer Vauban in the 17th cen­tury to pro­tect Bordeaux from at­tack; and the town of Castil­lon-la-Bataille, where the last bat­tle of the Hun­dred Years’ War fi­nally put an end to Eng­land’s 300-year-long rule of Aquitaine. Ev­ery year the town stages a re­cre­ation of the 1453 bat­tle; a kalei­do­scopic spec­ta­cle in­volv­ing a cast of 400 peo­ple.

It’s hard to equate this his­tory with the ut­terly mod­ern sight of barges trans­port­ing fuse­lages for the Air­bus 380, the world’s big­gest pas­sen­ger air­craft, down the River Garonne. But some­how that con­trast seems wholly ap­pro­pri­ate for this di­verse de­part­ment.

Proud of the rich his­tory and ru­ral tra­di­tions that re­main its back­bone, but nev­er­the­less a key player in con­tem­po­rary French life, Gironde is a place of many faces – just pick your favourite.

The Dune du Pi­lat is a sweep­ing panorama of rolling dunes

Main: Gironde is syn­ony­mous with wine­mak­ing; the de­part­ment boasts 120,000 hectares of grape-grow­ing land Above: Bordeaux’s new mu­seum Cité du Vin is a must-visit for wine lovers

Top: The for­mi­da­ble Dune du Pi­lat at dawn Bot­tom: St-Émil­ion’s ‘mono­lithic church’

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