Nouvelle-Aquitaine (Gascon: Nòva Aquitania, Basque: Akitania Berria; all mean "New Aquitaine" in English) is the largest region of France. It stretches from the Spanish border and Pyrenees in the south, to the Loire Valley 500 km to the north, and from the Atlantic coastal sands in the west to the Massif Central in the east. Though centred on the refined city of Bordeaux, the region is predominantly rural, with sweeping agricultural vistas lying comfortably between sleepy villages and market towns. It is hard to generalise what is a genuinely diverse landscape that contains both mountain and beach, city and country, but at its heart this is la douce France at its softest and sweetest. Lazy river valleys, sunflower fields, pine forests and vineyards share the stage with tumbling hill towns, rocky promontories and rustic farmhouses. Local life is shaped by strong traditions, fine wine and hearty cooking, and you won't lack opportunities for surfing or cycling either. If joie de vivre really exists, you'll find it here.
- Charente — pastoral landscape of dairy farms and vineyards, and the home of cognac
- Charente-Maritime — mild coastal department blessed with many Romanesque fishing ports and resorts
- Deux-Sèvres — medieval and Romanesque architecture, country walks, traditional artisanry; a perfect place to relax
- Dordogne — magical hill towns lining the eponymous river, with troglodyte dwellings and neolithic cave art to discover
- Gironde — wine central, surrounding the Bordeaux metropolitan area and a fair section of the Landes coast.
- Landes — vast Atlantic pine forest fronting miles of sandy beach
- Limousin — cattle country leading onto the slopes of the Massif Central
- Lot-et-Garonne — fine medieval towns abound in this department of strong south-western character. Wikivoyage guide in French.
- Pyrénées-Atlantiques — where the Pyrenees meet the ocean, and France meets the Basque Country
- Vienne — the ancient city of Poitiers and the Futuroscope theme park
- Bordeaux — The capital of the region, known as la ville girondine. Easily one of France's most-visited cities, the hordes are drawn to its sophisticated atmosphere, World Heritage riverfront, aristocratic architecture and, above all, the famous red elixir - wine. Santé !
- Angoulême — Often seen as the archetypal provincial city, Angoulême is France's capital of cartoons (bande dessinée). Admire its beauty from high on the ramparts, or else stroll along its winding, sloping streets to discover the painted walls.
- Bayonne — A heady mix of Gascon and Basque, Bayonne comes alive in August for the annual fêtes. For the rest of the year, visitors can't help be drawn to the city's museums and galleries, and its gastronomic specialities.
- Biarritz — Pricey Basque seaside resort, built for pleasure. Great for surfing the ocean wave by day and hitting the casinos and nightclubs after dark, Biarritz is also known for its luxury hotels and swanky restaurants.
- La Rochelle — Nicknamed la ville blanche (the "white city") for the colour of its buildings, this is a harbour city known for its maritime defences, huge aquarium and bountiful seafood in its markets and restaurants.
- Limoges — Cathedral city blessed with two botanical gardens, a pedestrianised Mediaeval old town and bridges spanning the sluggish river Vienne. Limoges' domed railway station is a sight to behold.
- Poitiers — Quiet city with exceptional heritage close to the sites of two major battles of European history. Due to its position about halfway down France, it is a popular stopping point for travellers driving south. Just outside is futuristic theme park Futuroscope.
- Périgueux — heart of the Périgord (otherwise known as the Dordogne) one of the most beloved areas in all France.
- The compact French part of the Basque Country, located at the innermost point of the Bay of Biscay
- The western Pyrenees include some of France's most remote and beautiful countryside
Nouvelle-Aquitaine was created in 2016 with the merger of three smaller regions: Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes. The region has played a significant role throughout history, from the earliest neolithic art discovered in caves such as Lascaux, to the Battle of Poitiers/Tours in 732 which saw the tide turn against the Moorish conquest of Europe. In the Middle Ages, the region was under the Duchy of Aquitaine, one of the major continental territories held by the Kingdom of England. There are many castles and locations of note from the Hundred Years' War fought by England and France, which resulted in the firm expulsion of the English and incorporated the region into France. The Duchy's boundaries more or less corresponded to those of the modern-day Nouvelle-Aquitaine. More recently, the area gave birth to the Girondins - a powerful liberal/left-wing faction in the French Revolution. Arguably of most interest to visitors is the perfection, over centuries, of wine production in the terroirs around Bordeaux.
Ironically, the region is now hugely popular with British holidaymakers and hundreds of thousands of Britons reside and own property in the south-west of France (as the rather horrible term "Dordogneshire" attests). But don't let this put you off; Nouvelle-Aquitaine is still a mainly rural area steeped in traditions and enjoying a mild climate tempered by the ocean and the relatively southern latitude.
The popularity of the region among English-speaking tourists and migrants means it is highly feasible to get by without any knowledge of French, though visitors who do make the effort to learn a few phrases will invariably receive a much warmer welcome than those who don't bother. If you are a French speaker, you will notice a slightly tonic accent, especially in more rural areas of the south. Further north, the accent is fairly close to the 'neutral' standard spoken in the Loire Valley and Paris.
The main regional language spoken is Gascon, a dialect of Occitan. Like most local tongues in France, Gascon is in decline and struggling to turn the tide against decades of institutional discrimination, though you will probably see signs written in the language and you may hear older residents speaking it. Gascony is an alternative name for the southern half of the region, and indeed the French name for the Bay of Biscay is le Golfe de Gascogne. The extreme south west of the region is part of the Basque country, though the status of the language is far sorrier than in Spain. Whereas over the border, Basque enjoys co-official status equal to Spanish, the language receives almost no recognition in France and is thus spoken by few. Basque culture, on the other hand, is alive and kicking throughout the French part of the country. Basque is a unique language with no known relatives either living or dead, so is a fascinating topic of study for linguists.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine has a lot of airports, reflecting its importance as a holiday destination. It is particularly well-connected to the United Kingdom by air, thanks mainly to low cost carriers Ryanair and FlyBe. With the exception of Bordeaux, the region's airports are small and only receive a handful of flights each day, but all have a connection to Paris (Charles de Gaulle and/or Orly). The summer months bring a greater variety of flights.
- Bordeaux Mérignac is the main international airport in the region, with three terminals. It offers connections all over Europe and the Maghreb, and receives a seasonal transatlantic service from Montreal Trudeau. It is also a hub of domestic services from all parts of France, including Paris Charles de Gaulle, where the vast majority of long-haul flights to the country land. The airport is situated next to the Bordeaux ring road (rocade), offering easy access to the region's road network. A shuttle bus transports passengers to Bordeaux Saint Jean railway station in the city centre.
- Bergerac Dordogne Périgord has year-round flights from Amsterdam Schiphol, Liverpool John Lennon, London Stansted and Southampton.
- Biarritz Pays Basque has links to European cities, including London Stansted.
- La Rochelle Île de Ré has year-round flights from London Stansted, Lyon Saint-Exupéry and Southampton.
- Limoges is connected to several airports in England (East Midlands, London Stansted, Manchester and Southampton), as well as offering some domestic flights.
- Poitiers Biard receives year-round flights from Edinburgh, London Stansted and Lyon Saint-Exupéry.
2017 has been an exciting year for rail travel in and out of the region. In July, a new high speed line from Tours to Bordeaux opened, slashing journey times on direct trains from Paris (Gare Montparnasse) to the Girondin capital.
TGV services run high speed from Paris (Gare Montparnasse) via Tours (Saint-Pierre-des-Corps), before entering Nouvelle-Aquitaine itself, serving Poitiers (1hr 18 min from Paris), Angoulême (1hr 59 min) and Bordeaux (Saint-Jean) (2hr 4 min). TGVs utilise slower lines for part of their journey to access La Rochelle (2hr 49 min), Bayonne (4hr) and Biarritz (4hr 12 min). The Basque line terminates at Irún, Spain, which receives trains from all over Iberia.
To get to Limoges and the eastern part of the region by train from Paris, Intercités trains depart from Gare d'Austerlitz. Fastest journey times Paris Austerlitz to Limoges Benedicti are 3hr 14 min. Intercités also connects several Nouvelle-Aquitaine cities with the rest of southern France, namely Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon, Toulouse and Marseille.
Journey times from northern Europe are now more competitive with air travel; you can get to Bordeaux from Lille or Brussels in 4h 45 min, from London in 5h 30 min, and from Amsterdam in 6h 41 min. All of these journey calculations incorporate a change of trains in Paris: take the Metro Line 4 from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse-Bienvenüe, a connection which takes roughly 30 mins.
From Paris, northern France and the Channel ports (count on a 6-8 hour drive from Caen to Bordeaux), the A10 is the main road access to the region. Traffic enters from Spain on the A63, continuing directly from the Spanish AP-8. The A83 brings traffic from Brittany to the A10 at Niort. From eastern France, the A89 is your friend, and offers an interesting drive through the Massif Central. Finally, anyone coming from parts Mediterranean will need to pass via Toulouse, and join either the A62 (Bordeaux, Limousin) or A64 (Pyrenees, Basque Country).
All long-distance motorways are tolled, and the vast majority are operated by a company called Vinci Autoroutes.
For more detail on the region's autoroute system, see Get around below.
Driving your own vehicle still offers the most flexible way of getting around Nouvelle-Aquitaine, especially when penetrating more rural spots. As noted before, the region is large and its road network is extensive, with the most useful routes being:
- A10 (north-south): from Paris, Tours, Poitiers (N10, N147), Niort (A83), Saintes (N141, N150), Bordeaux (A630)
- A20 (north-south): from Orléans, Limoges (N141), Brive-la-Gaillarde (A89), to Toulouse
- A62: Bordeaux (A630), A65, Agen, to Toulouse
- A63 (north-south): Bordeaux (A630), Landes, Bayonne (A64), Biarritz, to San Sebastián, Bilbao (Spain)
- A64: Bayonne (A63), Pau (A65), Pyrenees, to Toulouse
- A65: A62 (from Bordeaux), Landes, Mont-de-Marsan, Pau (A64)
- A89 (west-east): Bordeaux (as the N89), Libourne, Périgueux, Brive-la-Gaillarde (A20), Massif Central, to Clermont-Ferrand
- N10 (north-south): Poitiers (A10), Angoulême (N141), A10 (to Bordeaux)
- N141 (west-east): Saintes (A10), Cognac, Angoulême (N10), Limoges (A20)
- N147: Poitiers (A10), Limoges (A20, N141)
- A630/N230 (Rocade de Bordeaux): Ring road, links with A10, A62, A63, N89, access to Bordeaux-Mérignac airport
Rail is an excellent way of travelling between towns and cities. While some longer distance routes within the region are covered by TGV and Intercités trains, the vast majority of rail services are provided by Trains Express Régionaux (TER Aquitaine, TER Limousin, TER Poitou-Charentes). All journeys can be planned using Voyages SNCF, and each of the TER websites has a network map.
- Historic towns, many with castles, are the main thing to see in the region. Moving from place to place, you can check out ancient churches, wander delightful streets, mooch around various markets, and of course stay for lunch! You won't be 'doing' much per se, but you will discover the essence of Nouvelle-Aquitaine in a very relaxed and satisfying way.
- Prehistoric cave art — mainly centred on the Dordogne, and including the stunning Grotte de Lascaux, there are dozens of caves in the region where you can see paintings left by our ancestors more than 10,000 years ago.
- There are hundreds of miles of beach to explore, and away from the main resorts (Arcachon, Biarritz and Royan), far from being crowded. There are also quite a few nudist beaches along this stretch of coast, though all are clearly marked as such.
- Futuroscope — this futuristic multimedia theme park is advertised everywhere in the region, though is located just north of Poitiers. Most attractions are based around 3D / 4D cinema and light shows.
- Boating — there are many navigable waterways in the region, notably the Gironde estuary, the rivers Charente, Dordogne, Garonne and Vézère, and the canal de Garonne. All are gentle and highly accessible: craft, including barges, rowing boats, canoes and kayaks are available to hire along these, and you can generally get away with having no licence or experience. A wonderful way to spot aquatic wildlife such as coypu, kingfisher and heron.
- Cycling — the region's country lanes and cycle tracks make this a perfect way to get around. You can mountain bike in the Pyrenees and Massif Central, while the extensive forest trails of the Landes are suited for families.
- Surfing — pretty much anywhere from La Rochelle down to Spain is viable, though the most commercialised surfing beaches are near Biarritz. The long stretch of beach in the Landes is another great place to try.
- Hike the GR 10 — starting on the Atlantic coast at Hendaye, and climbing swiftly into the Pyrenees. If you have a spare 7 weeks, you can walk all the way to the Mediterranean, though most will only do a section. Despite being a long-distance trail that runs the length of the Pyrenees, much of the route is accessible for much shorter walks that can be completed in a few hours.
- See also: French cuisine
The South West of France has a distinctive rustic cuisine, with many delicacies that are well-known all over the world. As a general rule, in Nouvelle-Aquitaine the cuisine becomes more "south-western" in character the further south you go. Poultry-based, and with many stews, roasts and pâtés, this is certainly a meat-lover's paradise. Who can forget their first confit de canard, fried fatty duck breast / legs, the true treasure of Gascon cooking? The leaner magret de canard is also delicious, and often served on the rare side. Cassoulet, a sausage, beans and sometimes duck casserole, may not strictly be from this region (purists should head to Occitanie), but you can expect to find it on many a good menu. For all its controversy, if you're ever going to try foie gras - duck or goose liver pâté, made by force-feeding the bird - it should be here. The cruelty inherent to its production cannot be denied, but nor can its flavour.
Apart from duck and goose, the love of sausages (saucisses) and black pudding (boudin) is ubiquitous. The Gironde is the place to try lamb (agneau), roasted of course in the red wine-based sauce bordelaise. The same sauce is also used to cook fresh fish, oysters (huitres) and mussels (moules). The seafood along the coast is invariably excellent, if pricey. If you have lots of time - and money - consider pigging out on a sharing platter of fruits de mer - prawns, oysters, mussels, langoustine, lobster, crab, clams, cockles, winkles, you name it - served with plenty of bread and green salad.
Away from the core south-western fare, the Basque Country also offers plenty of seafood, often cooked in the Iberian way - lots of tomatoes, beans and peppers. Anyone who's a sucker for prosciutto, serrano and the like, will want to taste jambon de Bayonne, which is cured for seven to ten months before sale. The north of the region, between the Charente and Limousin, is well-known for its cattle farming, and the beef and dairy produced here is considered some of the best in France. For all the finery of French gastronomy, and all the weird and wonderful things they can do with beef, nothing beats a good steak frites - steak and chips to die for!
You will find an extraordinary variety of cheese, which can be based on cows' (vache), goats' (chèvre) or ewe's (brebis) milk. Well-known marks include bleu d'Auvergne and cantal, but most are little-known appellations with small-scale production.
You've probably guessed by now, and there's no getting around it - this region, especially in the countryside, is not vegetarian or vegan-friendly. In some really rural areas, the concept of vegetarianism is practically unheard of, with travellers being offered chicken, as "that doesn't really count as meat, does it?" You will find a few vegetarian restaurants in Bordeaux, and some 'foreign cuisine' restaurants are better geared up for catering to non meat-eaters: try Italian, Lebanese or, if you can find any, Indian. Pescatarians have a much easier time - even inland, there are river fish dishes to try. Still, aside from animal products, the region is strong in potatoes, nuts, beans, mushrooms and truffles. In restaurants at least, green vegetables are somewhat lacking, however.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine is home to many great wine regions, and the drink is one of the major draws to travellers. First and foremost is of course Bordeaux, and the city and its surrounding Gironde area are often called the home of wine. The Bordeaux region actually covers eight separate Appellations d'origine contrôlée (AOC), the vast majority reds, but there are also rosés made too. Travellers can visit individual vineyards and participate in tasting sessions, and there is also a wine museum in Bordeaux city centre. Wine also plays a huge part of the local gastronomy, both as an accompaniment to dishes and as a primary ingredient. To the east of the main Bordeaux region is the appellation Entre-Deux-Mers, which produces white wine.
Inland, there is a larger region known simply as Sud-Ouest (South West), which has various sub-regions sometimes known as "wine islands" in a wider sea of other agriculture: Dordogne/Bergerac, Gascony and Béarn/Pays Basque. Meanwhile, up north, the Haut-Poitou AOC (Vienne and Deux-Sèvres) is just about on the southern edge of the Loire Valley wine region.
There are also two areas where wine is distilled into the two most famous varieties of brandy. The Charente, in the north of the region, is known for producing cognac, while further south in Landes and Lot-et-Garonne, armagnac is distilled. Despite its common usage in English, the French language doesn't have a word for brandy; cognac and armagnac are described as eaux de vie.
The south west of France is very well geared-up to host large numbers of visitors, and the accommodation base is extensive and varied. While the grandest hotels are probably found in Biarritz and Bordeaux, most of the bigger towns and cities will also have decent hotels of some description. Poitiers particularly has a lot of budget rooms, due to its location next to the main road south and its position about halfway between Paris and Spain. In the countryside, practically every village has at least one bed and breakfast or self-catering gîte. Camping is perennially popular in France, and while most sites will be located along the coast or in the mountains, there are good numbers of campgrounds all around. The region's diversity and size certainly lend themselves to touring in a caravan or campervan, and most towns and villages have sites where you can park the night and hook up your power lead.
This is a region that is on the whole safe and welcoming to visitors, though there is always a threat of pickpockets in the most touristy areas. As you would at home, think twice before mixing alcohol with driving; a far safer way of touring vineyards is to go on a guided excursion or to hire a taxi for the day.
In the remote Pyrenees, there are small numbers of wild animals (wolves and brown bear) with the potential to harm humans, though attacks on people are unheard of in the 21st century. Both creatures are very elusive and keep out of the way of people; European brown bears in particular are much warier of humans than their American cousins, and due to their rarity your chances of seeing either animal are sadly very low. If you do have an encounter, the best thing to do is to retreat slowly and calmly to a safe distance with your gaze averted (staring eyes are the mark of a predator), perhaps while speaking in soft, non-threatening tones.
- Loire Valley — the two administrative regions of Centre-Val de Loire and Pays de la Loire invite you into the land of châteaux and gardens. The Loire herself is a wild, meandering goddess of a river, lined with towns where seemingly little has changed since the Renaissance.
- Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes — the main part of the Massif Central range is a paradise for walkers, and lovers of goat's cheese and saucisson. The industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand is ringed by extinct volcanoes. Further east still will get you into the Rhone Valley.
- Occitanie — shares many similarities with Nouvelle-Aquitaine, and the same south-western vibe. The pilgrim site of Lourdes is just over the boundary, as are the High Pyrenees. Toulouse is a buzzing, youthful city with a very different atmosphere to Bordeaux.
Northern Spain lies beyond the Pyrenees:
- Sweep along the Costa Verde (green coast) to discover the major part of the Basque Country, including its unique and artsy capital Bilbao.
- Navarre is home to the city of Pamplona, of bull-running fame. The region is mountainous and lush in the north, but much more arid in the south; there's even a desert!
- Aragon — a largely empty land that has got mixing desolate landscapes and interesting architecture down to a tee. Don't miss its hugely underrated capital, Zaragoza, where 2000 years of heritage await you.
- The Way of St James starts in the Pyrenees, and continues all the way through northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela