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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution