Posted by on 01 Nov 2019 , in Europe
Magnificent architecture, historic villages, vine-ribboned countryside and more await in Aquitaine, an expansive region known for its foie gras, truffles, oysters and of course, superb wines. Aquitaine used to be a kingdom and a duchy in the Middle Ages and such powerful history is inevitably mirrored in the region’s structures. A lot of visitors to Aquitaine fly straight to vibrant Bordeaux, its capital, but those who seek a different way of exploring the region turn to its waterways.
Rivers, canals and Roman aqueducts weave in and out of Aquitaine, making it a pleasurable destination for self-drive boating holidays and allowing travellers to discover lesser-known towns and villages. There are several itineraries for an Aquitaine boating getaway but if you want to immerse in the Aquitaine way of life, embark on a week-long journey that follows Canal de Garonne, starting at the town of Le Mas d'Agenais and ending at the flower-filled city of Castelsarrasin. This itinerary combines historic monuments with tasty gastronomy, passing through medieval towns and picturesque villages where you can mingle with the locals, explore traditional markets and sample regional specialties.
Here’s a rundown of the key towns and villages you will want to spend some time in during your canal cruise:
LE MAS D’AGENAIS
Colourful flowers are so at home in La Mas d’Agenais. Make sure to check out the town’s incredible old wash basin and the remains of a destroyed castle. There’s also intriguing covered market built in the 17th century.
Quiet, pretty and colourful are some ways to describe Damazan. Founded in 1259 by Alphonse de Poitiers, brother to St. Louis King of France, Damazan was a fortified town complete with thick castle walls and deep ditches that made it inaccessible. Throughout history, the bastide suffered and survived several conflicts, including the Battle of Castillon and the Wars of Religion. Today, Damazan is a picturesque village best explored by foot, boasting a lovely town square with aged, multi-coloured buildings.
Wine lovers, hear this one: Buzet is where the great wine Buzet is produced but the pretty town has other local wines you’ll probably want to sample. Drop by at the Buzet Cave for free wine tasting and don’t forget to buy a bottle to take with you back to the boat!
Another bastide, Serignac-sur-Garonne has its origins in the Gallo-Roman era when it was the site of Sereniacum, a Roman camp. It was also one of the strongholds of the kings of Navarre and the house of Armagnac when it was attached to the royal estate of Henry IV in the 13th century. Such interesting heritage is quite evident in its half-timbered houses, dovecotes, mills and arcaded square. Don’t forget to explore the Romanesque church and its helicoidal bell tower built in the 16th century. Its beautiful banks are also perfect for walking and biking.
Agen’s proud past lives on in its timbered houses, historic mansions and Gothic cathedrals. The town’s fine arts museum is housed in a complex of four stately mansions all dating from 16th and 17th centuries. Imagine generous fireplaces, spiral stairways, elegant courtyards, and period furniture spread out in 26 rooms. If that’s not enough though, history buffs are bound to have a field day in the archaeology department where they can kill time with more than 1,600 artefacts from Syria and Lebanon, including statues, coins and even toys acquired during the Crusades. Nearby is the Romanesque-Gothic Agen Cathedral from the 12th century, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Be sure to take a good look at the apse which is perhaps the oldest portion in the entire cathedral as it traces back to the 1100s, and there’s no way you’ll miss the Agen Aqueduct spanning the Garonne, a structure made up of 23 arches and a triumph of 19th century engineering. Lastly, grab the chance to taste the delightful local speciality: the Pruneau d'Agen.
Foie gras, anyone? The pretty market town of Valence d’Agen might not have jaw-dropping sights, but its attractive stone-and-brick arcaded buildings, specially its market hall called Marché au Gras, are enough to keep visitors coming. Tuesday morning is market day and that’s when you’ll want to be in Marché au Gras to search for delightful foie gras.
Located 40 kilometres east of Agen, a lot of people probably know of Moissac for two reasons: it is situated on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, and it is where the 7th century Abbey of Saint Peter is found, renowned for its incredible cloister and porch. Hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful cloisters, the Abbey features 76 alternating single and double marble columns, exquisite carvings and a charming courtyard garden which, as suggested by old pictures, used to be an ornate tropical garden. Hundreds of churches around the globe took inspiration from the Abbey’s cloisters.
Dubbed the red city by some, Montauban’s graceful brick architecture lures in travellers all year round. Place de Nationale, Centre du Patrimoine, Musée Victor Brun and almost everything in the city is made of the same red bricks, giving it a nice pink glow. As you guide your self-drive boat down the River Tarn, take time to admire Pont Vieux, an arch bridge that took 200 years to build, and the Église Saint-Jacques whose octagonal bell tower dates back to the 13th century. Since you’re already in Montauban, you might as well get a taste of Montauban wines and local food. One of the most famous must-try specialities is the local cheese called Cabécou Autan, a creamy goat’s cheese with hints of hazelnut, and Mountalbane, a local brioche flavoured with rum, vanilla and orange blossom water.
Rising at the tip of the Languedoc, Castelsarrasin is a city replete with historic buildings, Gothic churches and lovely open gardens. The City Hall is home to magnificent statues of Ceres of Minerva and a lock made in 1847 by the Parisian master watchmaker Lepaute. Relics of St. Alpinien, the city’s patron, are lodged in the Gothic Church of the Sr. Savior, and interesting arms of local characters can be found in the nearby Church of St. John. Castelsarrasin also won’t be left out as far as quaint streets go. Its Rue de la Solitude and Street of Discretion are all typical of the Middle Ages and both worthy of a visit.
Depending on your speed, this Aquitaine self-drive boating itinerary lists about 29 hours of cruising so there’s enough time to go ashore and experience the best of each town and village listed above. As for locks, there are about 57 automatic locks along the route—plenty of chances to master your way around them! Locks are part of the fun and some of them are like mini tourist stops where other travellers get to mingle and share their boating stories!