Aquitaine, in the southwest of France, is a popular tourist destination for many reasons: to the west the Atlantic Ocean provides a vast stretch of coastline with sandy beaches, the Pyrénées mountain range to the south forms a border with Spain, the city of Bordeaux proclaims itself the wine industry capital of the world. At the beginning of 2016 Aquitaine became part of a larger administrative region, with Limousin and Poitou-Charentes. The region is now called Nouvelle Aquitaine (New Aquitaine). This guide to the former Aquitaine region includes information for archaeology and history sites and museums in the Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot et Garonne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques departments.
Bordeaux may very well be thought of as the wine capital of the world, having been produced here since at least the 8th century AD. There are more preserved historical buildings here than any other city in France, Paris aside of course. The city has its origins in the Iron Age, when it was named Burdigala. By 60 BC the city fell under Roman rule and soon became the capital of Roman Aquitaine. Unfortunately little remains from this period. The historic centre of the town has been added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, in particular the classical and neoclassical architecture from the 18th century onwards.
The town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac has been attracting prehistorians, archaeology enthusiasts and tourists alike for well over a hundred years. The discovery in the nineteenth century of what were then the earliest known prehistoric sites in Europe, the finds made since then, as well as the decades of internationally renowned research has led many to identify the town as the World Capital of Prehistory. Situated at the heart of the Vézère Valley in the Dordogne, Les Eyzies offers exceptional archaeological and historical attractions, from about 400,000 years ago to more recent periods of French history, the Hundred Years War … Visiting Les Eyzies >>
Sarlat was the first towns in France to have its extraordinary Medieval architecture restored and cleaned under an initiative implemented in 1964 by the country’s post-war Cultural Affairs Minister André Malraux. Since then the town has come to be widely regarded as one of the most beautiful Medieval towns in France – awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide. Besides an exceptional architectural heritage from the Middle Ages, Sarlat is also well known for its gastronomy. Markets, fine restaurants and an annual programme of culinary events serve visitors everything associated with Perigord cuisine.
France has some of the finest prehistoric cave art in the World, many of which are in the Aquitaine region. Besides the well known cave of Lascaux, there are many other caves in the Vézère Valley (Dordogne) still open to the public, and some all year round. And it is not just in the Dordogne region that you will find cave art sites to visit in France. For a comprehensive guide to visiting cave art in France, including details about each cave, links to their websites and how to get the most out of your tour, whether you want to see a few of the best sites, or have a few days and want to see as much as you can … Guide to Cave Art in France >>
Deep in a large limestone cave are a number of finely incised depictions of animals and geometric patterns, including the frequently depicted horses, bisons, bears and deer – thought to be about 14,000 years old. Before the cave was inhabited by humans, its was a cave in which bears hibernated during the winter. Besides the physical remains of bears, there are also scratch marks on the walls of the cave. And as at other caves, the Bara-Bahau artists made clever use of some of these scratch marks … go to Bara Bahau
The quality of the paintings in this cave lead experts to call this cave one of the six giants of Palaeolithic art. Now, this is the last cave in France with polychrome paintings that is still open to the public. In a narrow gallery there are over 200 animal engraved and painted images, the highlight of which is a frieze of 5 bison, where the artist(s) made use of the contours of the rock face to give added shape to the painted bison. Access to the cave is therefore heavily restricted, but for your time spent waiting in a queue you will be heavily rewarded … go to Font de Gaume
Isturitz is one of the more important Palaeolithic caves in France. Not only did the archaeological deposits reveal that the cave was continuously occupied for a period of about 70,000 years, hundreds of artefacts, beautifully carved from bone and antler, were recovered from the excavations in the first half of the 20th century. Also, there are engraved images on the walls of Isturitz and Oxocelhaya, and relief sculptures on a large stalagmite in Isturitz, including a depiction of a reindeer that is over a metre long … go to Isturitz
Lascaux II is the amazing replica of only part of the cave of Lascaux – the most well known Stone Age cave art site in Europe, if not the World. Because of the damage caused to the the paintings by thousands of visitors to the cave each week, Lascaux was all but closed to the public in 1963. For a while thereafter access was greatly restricted, but now the cave has been closed to everyone indefinitely. In the 1960s the Ministry of Culture embarked on an intensive and expensive project to create a replica. Lascaux II opened to the public in 1983 … go to Lascaux II
Unlike many other caves in the Les Eyzies area that are open to the public, Les Combarelles has many more finely incised, engraved images than painted ones. There is the usual range of animals to be seen, including horses, bison, mammoth, reindeer, bears, and lions. What is unusual and different about the art in this cave, however, are the many of depictions of human being, including some stylized outlines of female bodies. Images of human figures in European Palaeolithic cave art are generally quite rare … go to Les Combarelles
Along the cliff face one hundred or so metres from the centre of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is the entrance to the rock shelter, easily visible from the road. Although there are ongoing excavations at the site (in September), which is under the direction of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the site is very well set up for guided visits of the excavation trench. An important site for the early periods of the Upper Palaeolithic, and one of the few sites of this period to have yielded human remains – 6 in total. An excellent onsite museum allows visitors to grasp the important of this site.
Rouffignac is the largest of the decorated caves in the Vézère Valley that is open to the public, with over eight kilometres of underground tunnels. Visitors are taken to the various locations in the cave with prehistoric art by an electric train. The journey lasts about an hour, and is a favourite with the kids. Besides seeing some spectacular the prehistoric art, the train passes by the remnants of ancient bear pits as well as historical graffiti, indicating this cave has been used for thousands of years and known about in modern times for a few hundred years … go to Rouffignac
In a small rock shelter up against a high limestone cliff-face above the picturesque village of Saint-Cirq is an extraordinary and well preserved engraving of a human figure. This is the so-called ‘sorcerer’, who is intriguingly and clearly depicted as being very well endowed. Although there are not many other images to see in the cave, it is definitely worth a visit nonetheless. If not for the rare depiction of the human figure, but also to see that not all the decorated caves are as big Lascaux with large spectacular panels … go to Saint-Cirq
A small part remains of what was once quite a large Roman amphitheatre, believed to have seated about 17,000 people. The amphitheatre was built in the 3rd century AD when Bordeaux, then known as Burdigala, was the capital of the Roman province of Aquitaine. It is thought that the amphitheatre was built to mark the visit to Aquitaine by the Emperor Lucius Septimius Bassianus. Visitors to Bordeaux will see the ruins called ‘Le Palais Gallien’, some say this is the palace Charlemagne had built for his wife Galiene. Read More
At the centre of the town of Montcaret are the remains of a Roman villa. The villa is relatively well preserved, but it is the exceptionally well preserved mosaic floors that really should lot be missed. The villa was built in the 1st century AD; it obviously belonged to a wealthy individual as it had its own private thermal baths. The villa was destroyed by the Vandals in the 5th century. A Benedictine priory was built on the villa during the Merovingian era, and Roman carved stone can be seen on the 11th century church. [Website]
During building work to extend the church in 1883 a mosaic floor was uncovered. But, it was not until 1962 that archaeological excavations of the site began in earnest, and carried on for several years. After all this work the impressive remains of a large Gallo-Roman villa is now open to the public. With a museum created in the nearby church that was crucial to the villa’s discovery. The villa was built in the 1st century AD, and continued to be used until the 5th century. A highlight of your visit will be the beautiful mosaic floors, indicating this villa belonged to a wealthy citizen. [Website]
The Roman city of Vesunna, modern day Périgueux, is the best understood Gallo-Roman city in the Aquitaine region, and the presentation of the Roman period in the museum should not be missed if Gallo-Roman archaeology is your passion. The city was founded in about 16 BC and by the end of the 3rd century AD it was a large, walled city, with the usual features of a Roman city – including a temple and an amphitheatre both still visible today. But, by 418 AD the city was invaded by Visigoths. Photo © Père Igor [Website]
Construction of the fort was ordered by the French king Charles VII following the defeat of the English at the end of the 100 Years War. Over the centuries the fort served as a garrison for royal troops, a ducal palace, a refuge for protestants and tax collectors and as a prison. During World War II political prisoners and Jews were imprisoned here until being shot or sent to the death camps in eastern Europe. Read More
In 1963 a number of different museums in Bordeaux amalgamated to form Le Musée d’Aquitaine. With over 70,000 objects, this museum covers the history of the Bordeaux region from prehistory to the 20th century in over 5,000 square meters of displays. The range of objects included is quite amazing, from carved bone of Palaeolithic age to carved stone from the Medieval period.
A theme park with reconstructions of prehistoric life in the Stone Age. And for so many reasons it is a great attraction to take the children. The museum has a number of replicated panels from Lascaux, not included in the Lasxaux II replica, as well as a number of dioramas showing how hunter gatherers lived. In the grounds you are able to see the various animals that were painted on the cave walls. For the now extinct animals, such as the woolly mammoth, there are some great and amusing mechanised life-size models.
The Musée d’art et d’archéologie du Périgord was founded in 1895 by the bringing together of two separate Departmental collections, archaeology and fine arts. The archaeology collection is wide ranging, but is particularly noted for its Palaeolithic collection of artefacts from the area. The museum also has a modest collection of archaeological artefacts from outside of Europe. [Website]
Set up against the limestone cliffs overlooking the town of Les Eyzies is the National Museum of Prehistory. The museum was greatly expanded, and reopened in 2004 with a truly innovative and fascinating series of exhibitions that explore the early prehistory of humanity. Besides displays of stone tools, there are also a number of exquisite objects carved in bone and ivory on display, as well as reconstructions of extinct animals from excavated remains. A visit is a must if you are visiting the nearby cave art sites.
Inaugurated in July 2010, the centre provides visitors to the region with the necessary information required to visit the decorated caves and other archaeological sites and museums in the Vézère Valley. Besides being able to get your physical bearings, the centre also has a series of state of the art displays that introduces visitors to the archaeology of the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons … read more