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Bordeaux travel diary: from Dordogne to Arcachon.

cultural visits | destinations tips

Bordeaux is a hugely popular destination among French as a foreign language students. We have devoted an entire article to the capital of wine and vineyards, but that doesn’t stop you venturing out of the city! Bordeaux is surrounded by fantastic places to visit within a 2-hour radius.

Let’s join Taylor, a literature student from Hungary, as he explores the Nouvelle Aquitaine region during his French as a foreign language course. Here’s his travel diary visiting Gironde and Dordogne, the dunes, vineyards, forests and fortresses!

 

Following in the footsteps of Eleanor of Aquitaine

We say farewell to the “Sleeping Beauty” that is Bordeaux to meet a famous French queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine. What a rebel the Queen of France and England was! The female head of state was incredibly modern and independent given she lived in the 12th century. We experienced some of her journey and life story as Eleanor made her mark on some of Aquitaine’s greatest landmarks. She was born near Bordeaux and donated a lot of money to build the nave at Bordeaux Cathedral, which we visited when we first arrived. She had her first wedding there before they split up and she married the heir to the English crown, Henry II, in 1137. 

Blaye citadel

We followed Eleanor of Aquitaine’s path to Blaye, where she lived for years. The citadel was designed by Vauban (well after Eleanor’s time!) and it’s a sight for sore eyes: the star-shaped layout is home to impressive defensive architecture by the river. We met craftsmen working inside the citadel who told us what the structure was for: to monitor traffic and keep an eye on enemies between the river and Atlantic Ocean. How exciting!

Dordogne and its 1001 châteaux

We left Blaye for Périgord, a leafy region full of forests, rivers and châteaux! Take your pick from medieval fortresses and Renaissance châteaux, this place has them all! We visited the village of Beynac on the banks of the Dordogne. We picked up Eleanor’s story here: after marrying the future King of England, some of the land fell into English hands. The Dordogne River marked the border between the two enemy kingdoms: Château de Beynac stood on the French bank opposite the English Castelnaud Fortress. This is what we experienced when we visited both amazing castles with views overlooking the valley.

Turn back the clock: prehistoric caves in Lascaux

We got back in our time machine and travelled from the Middle Ages right back to Prehistory: it was time for a guided tour of Lascaux Cave! Well, not the original one. This one is the perfect copy of the original that was closed to the public for its protection. 

This world-famous cave is unique, as is the story of how it was discovered: 4 teenagers and their dog stumbled upon it in 1940! I’d have loved to be in their shoes… 

Our guide tells us all about the incredible cave art painted here over 17,000 years ago by cave men: horses, bears, bulls, birds and people to name but a few. They used colour pigments and the wall’s texture to bring their drawings to life and make them more realistic. 

From Dordogne to Gironde:
Saint Emilion and the fabulous vineyards

We learnt some essential vocabulary during our morning French class so we could soak up our tour of the region’s wineries. We went to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Saint Emilion on a journey over 2000 years back in time… The hilltop town stands in the middle of the vineyards with its towers and churches: it’s amazing! We loved the story behind it too: a monk from Brittany called Aemilian founded the town in the 8th century. He came to live as a hermit in a cave (which we visited!) and tended to the sick, performing miracles on the region’s inhabitants.

When he died, the monks wanted to pay tribute to him and built a church named after him: the Monolithic Church of Saint-Emilion. The entire church is carved into the rock in a single block of limestone. After visiting the mind-blowing crypt, we scaled up 200 steps to the bell tower and vineyard views. 

We then visited the Cordeliers Cloister and its underground cellars where they make and store sparkling wine.

Before heading back to Bordeaux, our bus took us through sprawling, straight and staggered vineyards past world-famous wineries including Angélus and Prince Noir!

Set sail for Pilat Dune and Arcachon Bay

From leafy vineyards to sandy dunes!

It was time for a change of scene: we swapped leafy vineyards for sandy dunes!

We came face to face with the highest dune in Europe: Pilat! Just take a look at the figures: it’s 100m tall, 3km long and began forming over 4000 years ago! 

The pine forest next to the dune was sadly destroyed by a fire that lasted weeks back in 2022. The exotic yet majestic dune really does stand tall: there’s nothing for it, you have to climb over it to see the ocean!  

It’s no mean feat climbing up the dune: it feels more like being on a mountain than on a beach! It’s hard to get a foothold in the soft sand, but once you get to the top, it’s worth it for the views. The ocean stretches as far as the eye can see…

We spot the nearby Banc D’Arguin, a nature reserve home to protected wildlife that is left to live in peace. 

At the top of Pilat Dune, we feel like nothing can stop us and we head down the dune to visit Cap Ferret. 

Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />
Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />
Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />
Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />

Boat trip to Cap Ferret 

Cap Ferret is famous for its beautiful villas (owned by celebs!), traditional oyster huts and Île aux Oiseaux. “Bird Island” is highly protected and you can only get there by boat. You tend to sail in pinasses, small wooden and flat-bottomed boats typical of Arcachon Bay. You can’t miss Île aux Oiseaux for its cabanes tchanquées, cute and colourful oyster huts that look like storks standing in the water. They are surrounded by countless species of protected migratory birds.

 

We began with a trip in Cap Ferret around the bay. We visited oyster farming districts with original names (L’Herbe, Le Canon etc.) home to colourful oyster huts. It was time for a tasting! We couldn’t come here without trying the local speciality: oysters. With or without sea water? With or without lemon juice? With or without buttered toast? What oysters lack in looks, they make up for in flavour! 

Then we went back to the Atlantic Ocean and walked along the coast where countless bunkers formed the Atlantic Wall during World War II. It reminded us that in 1940, the Germans occupied Arcachon Bay and ordered these concrete structures be built… now they’re half-buried in the sand. 

We ended the day on a high in Le Ferret with a sweet treat! “Dunes blanches” are a scrumptious speciality invented by a local baker: vanilla cream puffs. Delicious!

Institut des Frères Lumière à Lyon<br />

What a week we had in Aquitaine! We travelled back in time through the history of France, learning about landscapes, monuments and famous names including Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

Our guide and French lessons taught us so many new words and so much about French. It was a highlight of our French trip after our time in Paris!

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