On one level, the meandering journey beside the Vézère river is simply a joyful drive through a towering landscape of limestone sculpted by nature over millions of years. But dig deeper, and you discover the roots of European civilisation.
The north-eastern reaches of Aquitaine is the place to begin a journey through many millennia that stretches across the region to the ocean – and to unravel man’s relationship with this fascinating corner of Europe.
The limestone cliffs, riven with caverns, provided prehistoric humans with shelter and security. In return, they have left their mark on the caves of the Vézère valley for the benefit of 21st-century man. The cave of Lascaux bears exuberant sketches of creatures that shared France with humanity 25,000 years ago. After the discovery of this subterranean gallery in 1940, it rapidly became a tourist attraction; the drastic alternation of the atmosphere began to erode the images. The neat solution is Lascaux II, a cave where artists have recreated the cave paintings – and ambience – of the original.
Many more prehistoric residences remain downstream, such as the Grotte du Grand Roc and the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume on either side of the town of Les Eyzies. The latter still allows tourists to witness sensitive paintings, though numbers are strictly controlled.
A dreamy drive north-west follows the line of the railway whose construction led to many of the discoveries of ancient cultures, and takes you to Perigueux – a city that visibly wears its Roman origins. What did the Romans ever do for Aquitaine? Introduce vines, which immediately took to the local soil and have defined this part of the world ever since.
You may be aware of St-Emilion only as a name on some of France’s finest wines. The reality is as complex and rewarding as a good claret. The town drapes itself prettily over hills, presenting a three-dimensional puzzle that is a joy to solve.
Hills, in these parts, spell limestone – which means there are more secrets to be discovered. While many visitors are content with the ample wine-tasting opportunities in the district that puts the “noble” in vignoble, you can instead join a tour of underground St-Emilion. It begins by paying respects to the man himself, the eighth-century hermit who moved from his Breton home to Aquitaine and wrought the miracles (such as turning bread into wood) that would lead to his beatification – and the establishment of St-Emilion as a centre of pilgrimage.
The human miracle of St-Emilion is the “monolithic church” that rivals the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia. The usual way to construct places of worship is to start at ground level and build up. This architectural masterpiece is, instead, hewn from a single massive rock: 38m long, 20m wide and 11m high. Could the Holy Grail be hidden somewhere here? Local legend maintains it might.
The builders – or should that be diggers? – bequeathed Aquitaine with a marvel that a mixture of ambition and damp have combined, literally, to undermine. In the 12th century, further devotion to the cause of St-Emilion led monks to build an impressive tower above the church. Aesthetically, it acts as a beacon for the town. Gravitationally, its 4,500 tonnes act directly downwards on the church that has been hewn from the rock. Add in the natural springs that infiltrate the foundations, and you understand why some heavy-duty stabilising work has gone on – and why the guide warns that this is one of the 100 most dangerous places on the planet. And what happened to the relics of the saint himself? They have not been moved to a place of safety, but were removed in 1528 and apparently hurled into the Dordogne river. With or without the great man, Unesco still recognises St-Emilion and its environs as a world heritage site.
Leave the 12th-century church tower tottering above St-Emilion and spend the next 20km grafting through the vineyards. The D122 is a prosaic classification for what turns out to be a premier cru among French country roads, flanked by the near-naked vines that, by autumn, will be heavy with fruit. Leave the experts to extract as much magnificence as they can from the wine, while you explore another few centuries of this drive through time.
Even in a rented Clio, Cadillac looks irresistible. Partly because of the hot-shot name, but mostly because it is a great example of a bastide. Between 1141 and 1350, around 400 of these towns were built in south-west France. It comprised a fascinating flowering of town planning. Instead of the usual agglomeration of buildings around a church, they were planned within strong fortifications with streets laid out on a grid pattern. The centre was a busy square, secular rather than religious, often with a covered marketplace. Cadillac is a classic example – with the added bonus of the Château des ducs d’Épernon, to the north of the town. “Château” can cover everything from an impressive house to a proper castle, and this is very much at the fortress end of the spectrum. Cadillac also has a link to the 20th century, thanks to Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, who founded Detroit – another waterside location. The rest is automotive history.
My rental Renault proved well up to the task of finding its way through the autoroute network around Bordeaux and onwards to the coast. Or coasts. The Bassin d’Arcachon is a remarkable bay, almost cut off from the ocean. Fed by the Eyre river, which dissolves into a delta that melts into the shallow bay, it provides ideal breeding grounds for seabirds and excellent vacances terrain for families. You can walk, cycle or ride horses in this serene segment of Aquitaine. The resort of Arcachon itself has a beautiful north-facing beach of soft sand, along with some fascinating 19th-century architecture: like the other great Aquitaine resorts of Biarritz and St-Jean de Luz, the British are rediscovering the joys of their 19th-century winter escapes.
So far, all the places on this chrono-geographical journey are firmly on the tourist map. For a final flourish, make your way to an unassuming south-western suburb of Bordeaux called Pessac. Track down Rue Le Corbusier and you will be on course to discover some of the most intriguing architecture of the 20th century. A group of a few dozen houses were created by the great French architect – and have been overlooked ever since. From a design perspective, they are to France as the Bauhaus creations of Dessau are to Germany, but with the added bonus of being very lived in.
Beside the main railway line from Bordeaux to the Spanish border, Le Corbusier created a community of sharp edges but innate humanity. No monolithic tower blocks here: instead, amid leafy streetscapes a range of cubic houses offer residents space, light and a sense of order – something that Cro-Magnon man, across the far side of Aquitaine, would have cherished.
Simon Calder flew on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) from Gatwick to Bordeaux for a fare of £55, and from Bergerac to Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) for a fare of £30. He rented a car from EuropCar for two days, costing £159.