Exploring southern France by river and land reveals a region of enchanting medieval villages, scenic rolling countrysides, vast vineyards, and incredible historic landmarks.
My trip was essentially an off-the-beaten journey to areas of southern France not often visited by American tourists, even though is an area of cultural and historic interest. It is not too easy to reach. The tour, part a river cruise and part a land trip, was sponsored by Grand Circle Cruise Line, which tailors its trips for seniors. The trip began in Nantes, proceeded along the Atlantic Ocean to Bordeaux, and then inland to Toulouse. Later I ventured on my own to the Dordogne area of France, which I will describe in a subsequent article.
We spent the first three days in Nantes, a large commercial city in Brittany along the Loire River. It suffered major damage during World War II, but has made efforts at restoration. It is a modern city, but has maintained a medieval section with cobblestone streets. Its featured attractions are a large cathedral that is 450 years old and the stately Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany dating from the 13th century, with six towers.
Our next visit was to the ancient seafaring town of La Rochelle, which is called “The White City” because of its limestone facades on the medieval buildings lining its narrow streets. Two huge 13th century towers guard its maritime entrance. The attractive seaport is frequently visited by the French.
Bordeaux, widely known for its famous wine, was our next destination. Here we boarded our river ship for a seven day cruise in southwestern France. Bordeaux’s old town retains many 18th century buildings from when it was a major trading center for wine. It has some major town squares, and its featured building is the splendid acclaimed Classical Grand Theater. It also has a large boulevard along its river, and colorful markets.
Our first stop on our river cruise was at the small untouched medieval village of Bourg, an authentic preservation of a charming old town. Blaye Citadel, a UNESCO world heritage site, was our next destination This huge fortified structure dates from 1685, and is one of the largest remaining in Europe. Our next stop in Pauillac afforded us the opportunity to explore a wine chateau and observe the local vineyards. We also saw how coopers make the elaborate wine barrels.
Libourne followed, a pleasant town on the banks of the Dordogne River, which has a large market square and large towers along its old town walls. A visit of St. Emilion followed; a delightful classic medieval village known for its wine. Its colorful atmosphere includes cobblestone streets and buildings with red tile roofs.
Following our return to Bordeaux we traveled to Toulouse, France’s sixth largest city. It has reminders of its medieval past and glimpses of its vibrant future. It is well known as the maker of Airbus. It is called “La Ville Rose” in recognition of the red bricks in its buildings.
The next day we traveled to the highlight of our tour – the huge glorious walled and fortified medieval “La Cite” of Carcassonne, the largest fortress still in existence in Europe. It dates from the 13th century. It is a magnificent structure with double-lined ramparts, contains a large turreted castle, and has many winding cobblestone streets. It appears untouched since the Middle Ages and is still surrounded by its massive walls.
After my two week guided tour, I ventured for a week on my own to explore the Dordogne area of southern France, which has some of the best preserved medieval cities, bastides, and castles in Europe, as well as the prehistoric caves with drawings 17 centuries old. I will describe this journey in a future article.