Wine and other wonders await you in Aquitaine, home of Bordeaux

Contributing Travel WriterNovember 2, 2012 

  • Aquitaine, France

    Where to stay:

    ■ Le Prieuré, Biron. For 500 years, a working monastery and home to the priests of Biron, Le Prieuré (the priory) is now a five-room bed-and-breakfast at the foot of the village's castle fortress. It's operated by native Frenchwoman Elisabeth Vedier, who lived in Lexington for 27 years. The rooms have been carefully restored and furnished with period antiques. Leprieurebiron.com.

    ■ Le Manoir d'Hautegente, Coly. An exquisite ivy-covered country inn that has been in the same family for more than 300 years. The 16 individually decorated rooms all have views of the surrounding park or river, and the proprietress, Marie-Josée Hamelin, is the epitome of a gracious hostess. Manoir-hautegente.com.

    ■ Château dans les Arbres, Nojals et Clottes. Translated as "house in the trees," it is surely the most unusual accommodation in the area. Make your way up a ladder to your own treehouse, one of three deluxe huts modeled after historic castles of the Dordogne. Chateauxdanslesarbres.fr.

    Learn more: Tourisme-aquitaine.fr/en, Dordogne-perigord-tourisme.fr

BORDEAUX, France — Benoît Trocard, a winemaker, moonlights as a professeur at the Bordeaux Wine School, and recently, I was one of his pupils, one with a willing but untrained nose.

As any oenophile knows, Bordeaux, in the Aquitaine region of southwestern France, is the capital of the world's wine industry (dating back to the 8th century), with nearly 300,000 acres of vineyards surrounding the city. The region's great wine-producing chateaux are legendary: Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, Petrus and Mouton Rothschild.

The wine school is the best place to begin your odyssey. Whether you choose a two-hour or two-week session, you'll leave with knowledge to complement your nose and palate.

Most Americans come to Bordeaux to taste its incomparable wines, but they discover that the city has plenty of other attractions. Take a leisurely stroll along the Garonne River, and photograph its most elegant bridge, the Pont de Pierre, commissioned by Napoleon in 1822.

Take time to splash around in the miroir d'eau, or water mirror, on the river's edge, just across from the elegant Place de la Bourse. Every 20 minutes, clouds of mist rise from the pool, giving it a surreal, dream-like quality.

Pay a visit to three of the city's churches: Saint-André, Saint-Seurin and Saint-Michel (boasting the second-tallest steeple in France), all of which have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Book a performance at or at least a tour of the Grand Theatre, an architectural jewel, and then cross the square for lunch or dinner at the elegant Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. The hotel's Beaux-Arts ambience makes it the kind of place where you could imagine a dapper, mustachioed Hercule Poirot lurking behind a potted palm, or Coco Chanel sipping an aperitif in the dimly lit bar.

If you prefer more casual dining, grab a table at the open-air Marche des Chartrons in the former wine merchants' district, and enjoy freshly shucked oysters and French charcuterie with a glass of Bordeaux wine.

Bordeaux is the main city of Aquitaine, but there is much to explore beyond the city limits. Aquitaine is a vast region extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Midi-Pyrénées. Movie fans who saw The Lion in Winter will recall that the feisty heiress Eleanor of Aquitaine brought the region as a dowry in her marriage to Henry II of England, and for 300 years, Aquitaine was under English rule.

This is a part of France that begs for careful exploration. Its delights unfold more subtly than do those of Provence or the Riviera, but they are no less memorable. After leaving Bordeaux, I journeyed to the beautiful Dordogne, a historic region also known as Périgord, which itself is divided into four separate areas: Red, Black, White and Green Périgord.

Red Périgord, named for the proliferation of wineries in the area, boasts — in addition to medieval castles such as the Château de Bridoire, which is open to the public — the charming town of Bergerac.

Lest you get the idea that the town was named for 19th-century playwright Edmond Rostand's beloved character Cyrano de Bergerac, who was equally adept with the sword and the pen, town fathers quickly refute the notion, stating that Cyrano was from Gascony.

That didn't stop them from erecting a statue of Cyrano, complete with heroic nose, in the Place Pélissière, the town's most beautiful square. Also worth a visit are Notre Dame Church and the 19th-century covered market (open Tuesday to Saturday).

Black Périgord gets its name from the pine and oak forests in the Vézère Valley, although a more romantic version claims that it comes from black truffles, one of the Dordogne's specialties.

Whatever the name's origin, this area is the epicenter of France's pre-history. The Lascaux cave, with its paintings of prehistoric animals known from fossil evidence to have lived here during the Paleolithic era, dates back to 17,000 B.C. and is often referred to as "the Sistine Chapel of prehistory."

The cave was discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys searching for a lost dog; it opened to the public eight years later. Carbon dioxide from 1,200 visitors a day visibly damaged the paintings, and to preserve them, Lascaux was closed in 1963.

In 1983, Lascaux II, a replica of two of the original cave halls, opened to the public. Making my way through the Great Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery, I was mesmerized by the rich colors — cobalt blue, mustard yellow and lipstick red — mimicking those in the original cave.

Next, it was on to White Périgord, named for the limestone prevalent in the area. Since I was there on a Wednesday, I was able to visit Périgueux, a renowned market in the shadow of the town's monastery, and I followed that with a leisurely lunch in the Bistro Castel Peyssard, in a 19th-century castle.

The verdant emerald landscape of the Green Périgord proved to be my favorite. I spent an afternoon in the lovely town of Brantôme on the Dronne River, which is referred to as "the Venice of the Périgord."

The obligatory canal cruise took me past Jardin des Moines, or monk's garden, the abbey church that has France's oldest church tower and was once visited by Charlemagne; and the hospital, with decorative scallop shells on its dormer windows, built by Napoleon Bonaparte as a convalescent home for his soldiers.

Brantôme is so ridiculously picturesque that you will want to spend at least a day here, leisurely soaking up the ambience and charm.

Don't leave the area of the Green Périgord without stopping for lunch at the imposing Château le Mas de Montet in Ribérac. A favorite of former French President François Mitterand, its turrets and gables and landscaped gardens make it the epitome of a fairy-tale castle.

However, the culinary artistry of chef Marie Verdier is the real reason to come. Beginning with the pumpkin soup and ending with the French toast brioche with fresh raspberry coulis, Verdier displayed her wizardry in the kitchen.

From the incomparable wines of Bordeaux to the history and beauty of the Dordogne, Aquitaine offers a smorgasbord of delights for any traveler.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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