The Lot-et-Garonne

The Lot-et-Garonne. It was the French novelist Stendhal who most famously compared the Lot-et-Garonne with Tuscany, but he’s not the only person to see the similarities. Like Tuscany, the Lot-et-Garonne has a sunny, softly rolling landscape punctuated with hilltop towns and fortresses. With its fertile, undulating hills and valleys interspersed with farmland, forests and rivers, the Lot-et-Garonne claims some of France’s most beautiful and inspiring scenery.

One of the original 83 departments created during the French Revolution, the Lot-et-Garonne is a jewel of agriculture and natural resources. Today, the Lot-et-Garonne is the essence of la France profunde — genuine French country living. Family farms yield bountiful harvests of fruits and vegetables. Local vineyards produce wines comparable in quality to those of neighboring Bordeaux, often at a fraction of the price.

The Lot-et-Garonne offers much to satisfy lovers of history, culture and recreation, all in an authentic and relatively untouristed setting.

Château de Bonaguil. Situated on a rocky outcropping and surrounded by dense forest, the fortified Château de Bonaguil has an imposing approach complete with storybook ramparts, turrets and towers. Our first visit was on a hot, clear summer day, when it was easy to imagine how formidable the structure and high walls would have been to approaching enemies in the 13th century. On the self-guided tour, take special notice of the enormous subterranean kitchens, the Great Tower, and the drawbridge. Climb the 800 steps of the keep to the platform for panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Monflanquin. This town, dating from the mid-13th century, is officially listed among the most picturesque villages in France. Built into a hillside, it is laid out on an oval. The main square is lined with arcaded houses. Three streets, rue de l’Union, rue des Arcades and rue Sainte-Marie, are also lined with arcaded stone and half-timbered houses. It’s worth spending time in one of the restored historic gardens filled with aromatic and medicinal plants typical in medieval times. Villéreal. Here is another bastide town dating from the mid 13th century. It features a well-preserved town square, lined with arcades and beneath corbelled houses. The center market, built in the 14th century, is large and has a second story which today houses the town hall. The 13th-century church also has fortifications and two turrets connected by a wall-walk. It’s worth exploring the cluster of smaller villages nearby — Bournel, Rives and Montaut — for their Romanesque churches. Castillonnès. This bastide town was founded in 1259 and was hotly contested between the French and English during the Hundred Years’ War. Two gates remain of the ramparts. Other features include the former Maison du Gouverneur with its Renaissance courtyard, and the church, with its particularly beautiful stained glass.

The Gironde

The Gironde. The ancient Romans were first to cultivate vineyards in the Gironde, establishing a tradition that long ago made this department the center of the most prestigious wine trade in France. Wine plays such a vital part in the area’s history, culture and landscape, that travelers here run the risk of overlooking other attractions the region offers.

Bordeaux is the region’s capital and historcally its largest port. Referred to often as Le Petit Paris, it is both a grande dame of Beaux Arts elegance and a thriving center of contemporary, diverse French culture. The city has been undergoing an extensive refurbishment since 2000, restoring facades, civic buildings, plazas and arcades to their original splendor. A new and well-coordinated system of public transit and parking makes the city center easily accessible.

On the coast, soft sand beaches are perfect for relaxing, sunbathing, swimming, surfing and boating. For something truly unique, spend time atop the Dune de Pyla, the largest sand dune in Europe, two miles long and almost 400 ft. high; definitely worth a detour.

The Gironde estuary is perhaps the best in Europe, a treasure for fishing and bird watching. These banks are also home to legendary winery chateaux — Margaux, Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, and some of the finest examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Saint-Emilion, another essential wine stop, with origins dating from the 8th Century and an almost unparalleled architectural heritage, sits a bit further eastward.

Continuing eastward, travelers can take in alternating fields of sunflowers and grapevines dotted with postcard-perfect bastide towns.

Dune du Pyla. If you’re like me, the thought of spending the main part of a day to visit a giant sand dune isn’t that motivating. But seeing Dune du Pyla, will far exceed your expectations. “Big” doesn’t begin to describe it. This is the largest sand structure in Europe — more than two miles long and several stories high. On our first visit, we watched hang gliders lift off, float out over the water like seagulls and circle back for a soft landing.

Walking the top of the dune is like being in a different world. It’s very quiet, and the enormous expanse of sand makes it somewhat difficult to judge distances. There’s a clear, beautiful view of the entire Arcachon Basin, dotted with sailboats and flat-bottomed pinasses water taxies. Across the bay is Cap-Ferret; the chic resort there, the Phare du Cap-Ferret gets its name from the town’s famous lighthouse with its enigmatic red lantern.

The Dune du Playa is southwest of Bordeaux. If you’re coming to Gibeau through Bordeaux, you may want to plan a visit at either the beginning or end of your stay.

Gibeau. An authentic country home for vacation rental in Southwest France. Inquire about availability