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Southwest France

The southwest of France is all about farming – green and peaceful land where crops from sunflowers to walnuts thrive. Key products from this area include forest timber, Bordeaux wines, and wild mushrooms. Major modern industries, including aerospace, are focused on the two chief cities, Bordeaux and Toulouse. Visitors are mainly drawn to the wine chateaux, the ski slopes of the Pyrenees, and the prehistoric caves of the Dordogne. The major sights of this favored region include some of France’s most celebrated Romanesque buildings.

POINTS OF INTEREST

BORDEAUX

Built on a curve of the Garonne River, Bordeaux has been a major port since pre-Roman times and a focus and crossroads of European trade for centuries. The export of wine has always been the basis of the city’s prosperity, and today the Bordeaux region produces more than 70 million cases of wine per year. Along the waterfront, a long sweep of Classical facades is broken by the Esplanade des Quinconces, with its statues and fountains. At one end, the Monument aux Girondins (1804–1902) commemorates the Girondists sent to the guillotine by Robespierre during the Terror (1793–5). Buildings of architectural interest include the massive Basilique St-Michel, begun in 1350, which took 200 years to complete, and the 18th-century Grand Théâtre, a magnificent example of the French Neoclassical style. The Musée des Beaux Arts holds an excellent collection of paintings, ranging from the Renaissance to our time.

LASCAUX

Lascaux is the most famous of the prehistoric sites in the Dordogne region. Four young boys and their dog came across the caves and their astounding Palaeolithic paintings in 1940, and the importance of their discovery was swiftly recognized. Lascaux has been closed to the public since 1963 because of deterioration due to carbon dioxide caused by breathing. An exact copy, Lascaux II, has been created down the hillside, using the same materials. The replica is beautiful and should not be spurned: high-antlered elk, bison, and plump horses cover the walls, moving in herds or files, surrounded by arrows and geometric symbols thought to have had ritual significance.

TOULOUSE

Toulouse, the most important town in southwest France, is the country’s fourth-largest metropolis, and a major industrial and university city. The area is also famous for its aerospace industry; Concorde, Airbus, and the Ariane space rocket all originated here. Airbus tours can be booked at www. taxiway.fr. Cité de l’Espace has a planetarium and interactive exhibits on space exploration. Construction on the church known as Les Jacobins was begun in 1229 and took more than two centuries to finish. The Gothic masterpiece features a soaring, 22-branched palm tree vault in the apse. The bell tower (1294) is much imitated in southwest France. Toulouse became a center of Romanesque art in Europe due to its position on the route to Santiago de Compostela (see p292). The largest Romanesque basilica in Europe, the Basilique de St-Sernin, was built in the 11th–12th centuries to accommodate pilgrims. The Musée des Augustins has sculptures from the period and incorporates cloisters from a 14th-century Augustinian priory. Also featured are French, Italian, and Flemish paintings. The 16th-century palace known as the Hôtel d’Assézat now houses the Fondation Bemberg, named after local art lover Georges Bemberg, with Renaissance art and 19th- and 20th-century French work.

PYRENEES

The mountains dominate life in the French Pyrenees. A region in many ways closer to Spain than France, over the centuries its remote terrain and tenacious people have given heretics a hiding place and refugees an escape route. The Parc National des Pyrénées extends 100 km (62 miles) along the French– Spanish frontier. It boasts some of the most splendid alpine scenery in Europe and is rich in flora and fauna. Within the park are 350 km (217 miles) of footpaths. The region’s oldest inhabitants, the Basque people, have maintained their own language and culture. Bayonne, on the Atlantic coast, is the capital of French Basque country and has been an important town since Roman times. Biarritz, west of Bayonne, has two casinos and three good beaches, with the best surfing in Europe. A short distance south, St-Jean-de-Luz is a sleepy fishing village that explodes into life in summer. The main attraction is the Eglise St-Jean Baptiste, where Louis XIV married the Infanta Maria Teresa of Spain in 1660. A lively university town with elegant architecture, Pau is the most interesting large town in the central Pyrenees. It has long been a favorite resort of affluent foreigners. Other places of interest include the many mountain ski resorts, the shrine at Lourdes, and the pretty hilltop town of St-Bertrand-de-Comminges.

LOURDES

In 1858, a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous experienced 18 visions of the Virgin at the Grotte Massabielle near the town of Lourdes. Despite being told to keep away from the cave by her mother – and the local magistrate – she was guided to a spring with miraculous healing powers. The church endorsed the miracles in the 1860s, and since then many people claim to have been cured by the holy water. A huge city of shrines, churches, and hospices has since grown up around the spring, with a dynamic tourist industry to match.