While the Côte d’Azur flashes glamour, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine coast is more genteel. But then no-one likes a show-off, do they And to miss this region’s huddle of seaside towns would be a crime.
The “BAB” towns of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz have culture, history and plenty of old-fashioned style. They sell themselves on beautiful beaches, great seafood, and more, but they also have something the Côte d’Azur doesn’t – Basque culture. It’s actually unique across France – just 239,000 of the country’s 66 million people declared themselves Basque in the last census.
And this is the area of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, with all that history and culture, that drew us near. Here we detail what we loved about these towns plus other destinations for you to discover during your holidays in south west France.
Cultural overload in Bayonne
Bayonne’s ancient architecture alone makes it a must-see. Buildings in its old town lean like old men creaking under the weight of their mediaeval history.
Wooden beams painted in red, blue and green – traditional colours that have their history in the natural dyes available in the 12th century – pattern across the facades, while metal doors hide courtyards, and we’re sure plenty of centuries-old secrets.
But Bayonne isn’t just a well-preserved mediaeval town – it’s a melting pot of many major architectural styles flowing from century to century between its two rivers, the Adour and La Nive.
The twin-spired Gothic cathedral of St Mary de Bayonne is an outstanding example of the town’s cultural heritage. Construction began in the 13th century and to stroll its interior is to step back in history, while its ancient cloisters were particularly impressive.
Bayonne’s bustling heart is a rich shopping experience along cobblestone streets, with a mix of Basque specialities including local linen and crafts, tasty cured ham, and cheeses for shoppers.
We came upon a wonderful example of Bayonne’s Basqueness at the small workshop of Gérard Léoncini. The Léoncini family have been hand-making the makhila, a traditional Basque walking stick, with a concealed dagger since 1928, and today Gérard continues the family business.
The makhila is more than a walking stick or even a defensive weapon, it reflects a Basque philosophy and way of life. And as Gérard spoke with passion about its meaning, and how he lovingly crafts each makhila over a period of six months to create a beautifully decorative and distinctive masterpiece, the deep importance of this cultural implement was clear.
But while the makhila remains a specialist purchase, Bayonne’s other famed product is popular around the world. The town is highly regarded for the quality of its chocolate and the Cazenave Chocolate shop founded in Bayonne in 1854, has been one of its most popular destinations with chocaholics for years. We stopped by to sample a few chocolatey delights.
Firstly we had a house speciality – the frothy Le Chocolat a Boire Mousse a la Main, followed by a rich thick pure chocolate drink flavoured with cinnamon. It had more depth than a Turkish coffee and nearly as much of a kick, but our first experience of real chocolate (it was traditionally served as a drink by all of Europe’s early chocolatiers) was a tasty one.
It was enhanced further by the exquisite surrounds of Cazenave, which revels in Art Nouveau and has a lovely stained glass window on the back wall.
While in Bayonne we stayed at the brand new Hotel Des Basses Pyrenees. It was a lovely modern hotel, tastefully furnished with a restaurant serving delicious food and wine. On one side it looks out over the old city walls and has a tower set to be transformed into honeymoon suites. From the other side of the hotel, it merged into the ancient buildings of the old town for an extra historic mystique.
Angling for Anglet – one of the finest south west France beaches
The central town of the BAB conurbation, Anglet, just five minutes from Bayonne has an array of lovely beaches alongside its near five-kilometre coastline. Beach life is what Anglet is known for and it’s definitely the place if you want to do nothing more for the day than feel the sand between your toes.
But in addition to the great quality of its golden sands, there is surfing amongst its Atlantic breakers and plenty of water and other sports available at nearby golf clubs and more.
While in Anglet we paused for lunch at Le Comptoir de La Plage, a restaurant nestled next to the beach, that could have been like any unremarkable seaside snack bar. But it was far from unremarkable.
The food was typically French in its quality and creative in its nature. Dining on cod beignets, with humous, and a grapefruit salad, a dish of seared tuna with petit legumes, and dessert of caramelised pineapple with homemade ice-cream, we soaked up good wine (did we mention the Nouvelle-Aquitaine coast is just a few miles from Bordeaux?) and plenty of sunshine. Convivial staff and surroundings all helped to make Le Comptoir de La Plage a very pleasant place to dine.
Things to do in Biarritz, in south-west France
The drive from Bayonne to Biarritz was a short 10-minute journey taking us through Anglet, before arriving on the busy Biarritz seafront.
Reputedly, surfing in Europe is said to have begun here in Biarritz in 1957, today it is a mecca for those that love to ride the waves. Surfing is just one of the many things to do in Biarritz.
Our visit was more sedate as we preferred to gaze out over the kilometre after kilometre of golden sandy beaches that Biarritz is famous for. We also took a walk around its iconic lighthouse, set amid relaxing gardens, the trees and shrubs helping to shade us from the already fierce mid-morning sun.
Away from the seafront, Biarritz’s chic unveiled itself. The architecture of the town speaks of a prestigious past when the great and the good ventured here. The famous Hotel du Palais, with its ageless charm, reinforces that reputation. I think it was my favourite building as we toured the town, but there’s also plenty of Art Deco mansions, a Russian Orthodox church (a relic from the town’s popularity with Russians before the Soviet Revolution), and a neo-Gothic church to catch the eye of any architecture fan. And if you wish to see Biarritz at a leisurely pace there is a tour of the town aboard a replica 1850’s train.
But the town’s architectural mishmash (including some of the less favourable buildings of the 1970s) and views beyond it of the mountains of Spanish Basque Country, provide a great panorama from the footbridge to Rocher de la Vierge, named after its white statue of the Virgin and child.
The Nouvelle-Aquitaine region proved a revelation to us and to be a great visit. The BAB towns of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz provided an array of history and architecture, Basque culture, delicious dining, and glorious beaches. Being so close to the Spanish border, and the shared Basque mentality makes the area a little different to the rest of France. However, this uniqueness and strong cultural identity is all part of the attraction.
Some of the best places to visit in France – more south western towns and cities
The Nouvelle-Aquitaine region is a large one – here is a selection of other destinations for you to consider in the south west of France:
La Rochelle a city that is architecturally rich and long in history. La Rochelle port has an old harbour which is defended by three magnificent 500-year old towers looking out to the Atlantic ocean. It has a historic and picturesque town centre, with medieval houses, and a very good market. La Rochelle also has annual music and film festivals, and this is where you will find some of the loveliest south west France beaches.
The graceful city of Bordeaux is an architectural delight and a wine drinkers’ haven. There are a huge array of Bordeaux wine tours at châteaux across the wider region, where you can sample wines that are exported across the world. Among the offerings are the famed Château de Margaux, Château Pape Clement – one of Bordeaux oldest wine estates, Château Haut-Brion widely thought to be first authentic winemaking estate and Pichon Longueville Baron in Pauillac is worth visiting if only for the spectacular neo-classical design of the château.
La Cité du Vin wine museum on the banks of the Garonne river gives you a comprehensive understanding of the history, culture and heritage of wine. Open since 2016 the building itself is magnificently designed and has quickly become, for wine lovers at least, one of the best places to visit in France. You can visit La Cité du Vin with a Bordeaux City Pass, but to ensure free entry you must be at the ticket office before midday. Besides the Bordeaux wines, the food scene here is fabulous too, we visited a very creative cheese restaurant, in the city.
Lying in the heart of the Bordeaux wine region is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Saint-Emilion. This mediaeval village is replete with cultural and historical attractions, such as the 13th century Trinity Chapel which is dedicated to the town’s patron saint, Emilion, and The King’s Keep another 13th-century monument which is now the backdrop for the Jurade celebrations when the season’s new wines are assessed for quality. The highest point in the town is the Bell Tower, whose construction started in the 12th centuries.
However, visitors don’t only go to Saint-Emilion for the history – wine is a big draw with a range of vineyard tours and tastings to appeal to every taste.
Dating from the Roman period, the spa town of Dax is famous for its thermal waters and mud treatments. It is also home to the renowned Art Deco Hotel Splendid. The hotel is regarded as an important symbol of the Art Deco period, and novelists Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Kessel were amongst its famous guests.
Located within the beautiful Dordogne region is the town of Bergerac. It lies on the northern bank of the Dordogne river. The olden part of Bergerac has an extensive medieval centre, with beautiful squares, streets and half-timbered buildings. A different way to see Bergerac is from the river, where you can take a Gabarres, a traditional type of boat. And with a distance of just 70 miles from Bergerac to Bordeaux you can combine two iconic cities in one trip.
South west France map
How to get there
There is a good choice of international airports in south west France, with great connections to the UK and US. Most international flights go into Bordeaux-Mérignac, Bergerac Dordogne Périgord and Pau Pyrénées airports.
Where to stay in Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Search for hotels across the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region below (this is an affiliate link and we would receive a small commission should you book your hotel via Hotels Combined but this is at no cost to you).