Gironde Estuary is the larges estuary in Western Europe; 75 km (46 mi) long and at its widest point 11 km (7 mi) wide!
The estuary is formed by the combined waters of Garonne and Dordogne Rivers that meet downstream of Bordeaux and are flowing together towards the Atlantic.
Both the left and right banks of the estuary are part of the outstanding grape growing and wine making region of Bordeaux with, on the left bank, the famous Médoc and Pauillac appellations – the “grand crues” of the Bordeaux wines – and on the right bank the Bourg and Blaye appellations.
The combined waters of the two rivers brought not only the sediments that make the region’s soil propitious to grape growing and the mild microclimate of the area, but also the means of transportation for the Bordeaux wine barrels to England and to Northern Europe where the “claret” was much appreciated. It was until the mid-twentieth century, that in the small ports of the estuary, barrels of wine were loaded into ships destined to take the Bordeaux wine all over the world.
Being as it is an outflow passage, the estuary was also during the history a gateway for external attacks, gateway that needed reinforcement. This was exactly the purpose of the military complex formed by the Blaye Citadel on the right bank, the Paté fort on the island of Paté in the middle of the estuary and the Médoc fort on the left bank all built by Marshall Vauban, the military “starchitect” of King Louis XIV.
But the most extraordinary construction of the estuary, its crown jewel, is probably the Cordouan Lighthouse.
Built with intermittence for several years and finished in 1611, it is together with the La Rochelle one, the oldest lighthouse of France and the only one in the world that has a chapel – a sign of the Catholic faith triumph after many years of religious wars!
The shores of Gironde estuary cannot be more different. While the left bank descends slowly towards the water, the right bank is a string of limestone cliffs punctuated by soft sand coves and water tunnels.
The high cliffs of the right bank made it a natural place not only for a 17th century fortification – Blaye Citadel – but also for WWII blockhouses, still visible, built for the protection of the estuary.
The calcareous bluffs are also ideally suited for rock carved dwellings which in time evolved from primitive habitats of the long time passed centuries to nowadays elegant “secondary residences” (and even a hotel!).
Gironde estuary is also subject to strong tidal activity and one of the few places of in the world where one can observe (or surf!) the bore, called here “mascaret”.