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
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 ( bordeauxbeyond.co.uk). “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”
SANDS OF TIME
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’