A road to the past in a dazzling region of France

Simon Calder embarks on a journey through space and time, from pre-history to the 20th century

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor