Things to Do in Aquitaine
Found in the sandy flatlands of the Médoc region in southwest France, Château Margaux is today known for producing some of the finest – and most expensive – Premier Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux wines in the world. Unusually for Bordeaux, the Margaux estate produces whites as well as rich, spicy world-renowned reds, and sells around 30,000 cases per year. All Margaux wines are produced organically and the average age of the vines is 36 years old, forming from a mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc grapes.
Although wines have been produced on the estate since the 1580s, it was confiscated from its aristocratic owners in the French Revolution of 1789–99 and its fortunes were only revived with the advent of the Marquis de la Colonilla in 1810. He built the elegant Palladian mansion, to a design by Louis Combes, which still stands at the heart of the estate; since 1977 it has been the home of the Mentzelopoulos family, who are credited with restoring the reputation of Margaux wines and consistently improving their quality. In 2010 an upgrade of the cellars was undertaken by British mega-architect Lord Norman Foster; a new cooperage, visitor center and tasting rooms were added at the same time.
The Place de la Bourse (or Place Royale) faces onto the river Garonne. It was laid out in the 1700s by Louis XV's architect, Gabriel, to act as a dramatic frame for an equestrian statue of the monarch.
The Place de la Bourse is framed on one side by the Stock Exchange (the 'Bourse' that gives the square its name) and on the other side by a museum. In the center of the square is its chief beauty and attraction, the fountain of the Three Graces, built by Visconti in 1869. When it's lit at night it is highly photogenic.
Bordeaux has long been one of the world’s top wine destinations but when Cité du Vin opened in 2016, it finally got a museum to match its reputation. Housed in a modernist building that resembles a wine decanter, the center comprises exhibition spaces, cultural events, a wine bar, a cinema space, and more.
Built in 1495, this dramatic Gothic Revival 35-meters tall city gate was built to commemorate King Charles VIII's victory at Fornovo in Italy during the Italian War of 1494. At the time, it was the main entry point to Bordeaux from the port. It faces Place du Palais and features several ornamental sculptures and towers, something that is very typical of architecture built under the reign of Charles VIII; indeed, the monarch wanted this gate to showcase his power and affluence. The gate, which was once part of the Bordeaux city wall, was later on used as a defensive tower (the multitude of portcullis, murder holes, and machicolation features are there to prove this), and as a salt scale and storehouse.
Nowadays, it houses an informative exhibition dedicated to the tools and materials with which the tower was built as well as the urban development of Bordeaux. There is a wonderful view of the old town center, the Garonne River, and the Pont de Pierre Bridge from the top floor.
The most remarkable religious building in Bordeaux, according to locals, the Bordeaux Cathedral (Cathédrale St. André) is famous for having a separate and independent bell tower. The cathedral was first built in the 13th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, while having once played a significant role in the religious and cultural development of Bordeaux; it is indeed where the prosperous Eleanor of Aquitaine got married to the future King of France, Louis VII. Her considerable wealth benefited the entire city and even the cathedral itself, which was subsequently enlarged and lavishly decorated. One of its most remarkable features is undoubtedly the wrought ironwork by local craftsman Blaise Charlut, which is located in the middle of the transept. The cathedral’s 14th-century tympanum depicts the Last Judgment in the most dramatic way in prominent Gothic architecture.
Bordeaux Cathedral is also where Archbishop Bertrand de Goth found out that he had been elected Pope and officially became Pope Clement V, the first to move the Curia from Rome to Avignon. Its also infamous for suppressing the order of the Knights Templar. The cathedral would again see the wedding of a royal family in 1615, this time between King Louis XIII and Queen consort Anne of Austria, following a tradition of fortifying military and political alliances between the Catholic powers of France and Spain with royal marriages.
Surrounded by the vineyards of Bordeaux, the medieval village of Saint-Emilion is pure eye candy. The picturesque town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, takes its name from a Benedictine monk who—according to local legend—took refuge in a cave here in the eighth century. Centered around a monolithic church that was painstakingly carved from limestone in the 12th century, the village comprises a cluster of cobbled streets lined with historic stone houses, Romanesque ruins, and shops selling Saint-Emilion wines.
Founded in the 12th century, but abandoned from the 17th century until after World War II, Commarque Castle (Château de Commarque) is a ruined medieval chateau. Visit to see the ruins and a cave with prehistoric art, as well as caves once used as homes. Participate in games, workshops, and treasure hunts held on school vacations.
Standing more than 360 feet (110 meters) above sea level in Bordeaux, France, Pyla Dune (Dune du Pilat) is the tallest sand dune in Europe. In the summer months, a staircase is constructed to allow visitors to climb the dune—an activity that draws over one million visitors every year.
Stretching north and west of Bordeaux along the Garonne River, the Médoc region produces some of the area’s best wines. Renowned for its idyllic vineyards, historic chateaux, and cabernet sauvignon wines, Médoc should be at the top of the list for wine lovers visiting Bordeaux.
One of Bordeaux’s most popular attractions is, predictably, also one of the most historically significant: Grosse Cloche. So much so, in fact, that the edifice is heavily featured in the city’s coat of arms. What once was the old Town Hall’s belfry dates back to the medieval times and was built as part of the city’s thick fortifications. It actually consists of two 40-meter-high towers connected by a central structure toward the top, which contains the famous bell and features an 18th-century solar dial. The tower is often referred to as the “golden lion,” a clear reference to the weather vane atop the central dome that represents the English Kingdom back when the Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England. Grosse Cloche–literally, the big bell, as it weighs well over 16,500 pounds (7,500 kilos)–was up until quite recently used by city magistrates to announce the start of harvest season, or alternatively, to warn residents of a fire. Rumor has it that locals were so attached to the bell that the king threatened to take it away when a resident misbehaved!
Nowadays, the bell only rings only six times a year, for national holidays and military celebrations.
More Things to Do in Aquitaine
Built in the 18th century, Bordeaux’s Grand Theatre is a well-known symbol of French culture. The ornate neoclassical building is used for theatrical and operatic performances and has also served as the location of the French parliament during times of war.
Pomerol is an undersized, wine-oriented village located about 45 minutes east of Bordeaux. But its relatively small size–just 2,000 acres–definitely isn’t an obstacle to quality; indeed, Pomerol has become one of the region’s most respected Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) over the second half of the 20th century, despite being slightly different from the strictly categorized, upmarket Bordeaux wines.
With a yearly production that edges about 3,000 bottles per winery, Pomerol wines find prestige in rarity. Most of them are produced on small farmlands and insist on remaining a high quality, low volume type of wine, a feature that is unquestionably reflected in their steep prices.
With most wines in Pomerol being of the Merlot kind, the region is therefore a brilliant destination for wine neophytes with a large budget, as Merlot is one of the most palatable red wines present in France. Cabernet Franc also plays a supporting role, a wine that will appeal to those in search of crisp, savory flavors.
What is perhaps one of the most iconic bridges in all of France is definitely a must-see for visitors to Bordeaux. Connecting the left and right bank of the city since 1819 but ordered by Napoleon I during the First French Empire, Pont de Pierre–the stone bridge– was the first bridge to cross the mighty Garonne River. Indeed, its construction was a challenging one, as the current is extremely strong at this point in the river; more than 4,000 workers were needed to build it, using an English diving bell to stabilize the pillars. Consequently, Pont de Pierre was actually the only bridge to connect the two banks for nearly 150 years!
The red-stone bridge consists of seventeen spans–the exact number of letters in the name Napoléon Bonaparte–lined with elegant iron light posts; each of the bridge’s pillars is capped by a medallion to honor both the emperor and Bordeaux’s coat of arms. A transport route was created in 2004 to convey the over-sized structural sections of the Airbus A380 airliner from the manufacturer to the headquarters in Toulouse; Pont de Pierre had to be slightly modified to allow the passage of barges, and thus became a new quintessential thing to do in Bordeaux in the process.
Stretching more than 12 hectares (30 acres) along the banks of the Garonne River, Quinconces Square (Place des Quinconces) is Bordeaux’s largest square. Comprising a vast esplanade flanked by tree-lined walkways and fronted by the grand Monument to the Girondins, it’s among the most important sites of the city’s UNESCO-listed historic center.
Aquitaine’s National Prehistoric Museum (Musée National de Préhistoire) was founded in 1918 by Denis Peyrony on the des Eyzies-de-Tayac commune, in the very heart of the UNESCO Valley of Mankind and prehistoric capital of the world. The site as well as its collections are rich in history. It holds one of France’s most important Paleolithic collections including the first global set of Paleolithic art on engraved or carved blocks.
The museum’s displays enable visitors to see the oldest traces of life left by mankind and to understand the evolution of societies over the last 400 millennia. Objects on display include stone tools, art objects made of bone or ivory, and life-size imitations of prehistoric humans and extinct animals. The museum was expanded in 2004.
The name Bordeaux most commonly passes our lips when we are talking about French wine, but the city of Bordeaux has more to offer than just its famous grapevines. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Port of Bordeaux, known locally as the Port de la Lune (Port of the Moon) is filled with stunning historic architecture largely unchanged for over two centuries.
There are over 350 buildings and monuments listed as Historic in the city and in the past decades a major project has been undertaken to clean the facades and put in a tram-service with no overhead wires to mar the beauty of the city.
Greeting arriving ships to the port is a one kilometer stretch of gracious historic palaces which line the quay built in the 17th and 18th century - even back then Bordeaux was keen to make a good first impression on visitors and it continues to do so today.
Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, the small town of Bourg (also known as Bourg-sur-Gironde) was built in Roman times, invaded by the Visigoths, ravaged by the Normans, fortified by the English, and visited by royalty such as Louis XIV. His time in town even gave birth to the famous Bourg specialty — the King’s Fig —made of marzipan, figs, cream, chocolate, and fig liqueur.
Surrounded by medieval walls in the Aquitaine region, Bourg has been officially recognized as an historic village that’s known for its beauty. In the upper town you can visit the covered market, the Hôtel de la Jurade, and the old castle. You can also wander its tumbledown alleyways which lead to the port via ‘the King’s stairway’. Bourg is also known for the many orchards and AOC vineyards that surround the town.
Often considered to be the very birthplace of Bordeaux wine (with some vines being over 2,000 years old), Graves also happens to be the largest wine-growing area in all of France–120,000 hectares of vineyards to be exact. A top destination for wine aficionados!
It doesn’t come as a surprise that one of the most popular things to do in Graves would, understandably, be the wine route. Visitors from around the world flock to the area to taste new wines, discover the esteemed Grands Crus and talk all things epicurean with lively, passionate wine-growers. The wine route is not only an excellent opportunity to find out more about the longstanding craft of wine-making, but also to get a better grasp of the tremendous amount of work and expertise that is required to produce a good vintage, and of course to visit lavish French estates.
Some of the most popular wineries to visit are prestigious Château Suduiraut, Château Carbonnieux, Château Smith Haut Lafitte and ancient Château la Mission Haut-Brion. Not to forget Château d'Yquem, notorious for its production of Sauternes, an intensely sweet dessert white wine.
Located in the very center of Place des Quinconces in Bordeaux, the Girondins Monument (Monument aux Girondins) was elevated in the late 1800s to commemorate the Girondists, a fervent republican political faction consisting of militants originally part of France’s Legislative Assembly, and one of the first group to openly denounce Louis XVI’s reign and the monarchy in general. Their 1793 mass execution, which was caused by their resistance against the rapidly increasing momentum of the revolution, is often considered to be the starting point of the Reign of Terror.
At 54 meters high, the Girondins Monument overlooks one of the city’s busiest squares and is adorned with an intricate bronze statue representing Lady Liberty breaking free of her shackles and gracing Bordeaux with her palm of victory. At the base of the column stands a colossal fountain and two basins, with dramatic bronze sculptures of charging horses, each signifying a different aspect of modern French society. The south-facing side honors the “Triumph of the Republic” and focuses on work, security, power, obligatory education and the victory over ignorance, vice and lies, while the north-facing side is dedicated to peace, fraternity, trade, arts and abundance, ultimately representing the “Triumph of the Concord.”
Opened in 2008 in the historic Chatrons district of Bordeaux, the Bordeaux Wine and Trade Museum (Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux) is a must for anyone interested in learning more about the history of the wine trade in France from the Middles Ages to the present day.
Located in what was traditionally the wine merchants quarter of the city, the museum presents artifacts, models and two-dimensional realizations designed to explain the Bordeaux wine trade system. It also tells the stories of the great wine merchant families of the 18th and 19th centuries through documents and personal testimonies. The museum also attempts to educate visitors about the various classifications of wine and different ageing processes used in the local cellars. Artifacts, documents and other enactments provide insight about the Port of Bordeaux and its wine exports. Finally, visitors can sample a couple wines and learn from the experts how to differentiate between certain grape varieties.
The intricate facade of the Basilica of St. Michael (Basilique St. Michel) in central Bordeaux is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. It took more than 200 years to build, from the end of the 14th century to the end of the 16th century. The freestanding belfry, with its ornate decorations, also draws many visitors.
The converging point of many of the city’s high streets, pedestrianized Place de la Comédie is an inevitable stop on any Bordeaux itinerary. This lively and elegant square dates back to Gallo-Roman times, back when it was still home to the busy forum of Burdigala, and visitors could be momentarily fooled into thinking they've actually traveled back in time thanks to the Grand Théâtre’s exceptional architecture. Designed in the neo-classical style, it features a 12-column Corinthian portico surmounted by statues that represent the nine muses and three goddesses. Nevertheless, itwasn't until the 18th century that Place de la Comédie gained its prestige.
Architect Victor Louis–who also conceived Paris’ Palais Royal and Théâtre Français–wanted Bordeaux to have a temple of the arts that would reflect the city’s newly found grandeur. Grand Théâtre would quickly become one of the most sumptuous theaters across Europe (it was, in fact, the inspiration behind Paris’ lavish Opéra Garnier), and eventually, one of the very few wooden frame opera houses not to have burnt or required extensive rebuilding.
The Grand Théâtre may be most famous for its exceptional interior, but its impressive façade gives Place de la Comédie an enviable allure, which is only enhanced by the presence of the five-star Regent hotel. It may not be Bordeaux’s largest square, but it surely is the most elegant and most romantic, especially after night fall.
The Museum of Aquitaine (Musée d'Aquitaine) has been open since the late 18th century and its collection spans from pre-history to the present day. A section of the Lescaux cave paintings kicks things off; there are also stone-age axes, Gallo-Roman ceramics and glass, and a famous Venus.
There is an ethnographical focus, and the collection evokes the life of Bordeaux throughout its lifespan through domestic objects, photographs, sound recordings and commentaries. English language catalogs are available to help guide you around.
Bordeaux in southwest France was once a vibrant port city. The port itself was known as the Port of the Moon (Port de la Lune) because it sat on a semi-circular part of the Garonne River. Historically the left bank of the port has been the center of commerce and culture. Throughout the past 2,000 years, the port has played an important role in shaping the city's history and its place as a world city of wine.
When the automobile became more prominent, the historical buildings in this area began to degrade and turn black. The roads were not meant for cars, and traffic jams clogged up the port area. The port's importance declined, and it was eventually moved downstream to the northern suburbs. In the 1990s great efforts were made to clean up the area, including the buildings, and the waterfront is now lined with pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, shops, and museums. In 2007 the Port of the Moon waterfront was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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