Markets, mills & wine: Libourne & Fronsac
Updated: Feb 22
In this series of blog entries, I want to talk about some suggestions for day trips from our Mill, to give you an idea of the wealth of possibilities we have in our region.
I guide tours in Libourne most weeks, but part of this first blog entry I also did in May a couple of years ago with Phil and my Dad, when he came over from the UK on one of his visits to us. Dad especially liked the art museum.
We are going to look at:
- Libourne, its history, market and the surprising art museum
- A nice place for lunch with all the family
- Afternoon wine tours in nearby Fronsac
- Or other visits near Libourne, eg to its Mills.
Suggested visit days: Tuesday, Friday or Sunday morning, when there is an open-air market in the main square.
Libourne is a 45 min drive away from our Mill, through the famous vineyards of St Emilion. It is a pretty bastide town built in 1270 under the leadership of English King Henry III. One of his knights, Sir Roger de Leyburn, was responsible for its construction on the site of the much earlier Gallo-Roman port of Condatis. Libourne was the main maritime navigation port on the Dordogne, almost 100 km inland! Its situation enabled the town's exchanges with the wider world and the development of a flourishing wine trade, making it one of the most prosperous towns in the Aquitaine region. In the English period of our local history, hundreds of ships sailed from the port of Libourne to England, loaded with barrels of wine. Much later in the 19th and early 20th centuries, traders from the Corrèze region gave a new boost to the wine trade. Due to the ease of loading and unloading barrels, they settled along the 'Priourat' quays which became and are still today the heart of the Libourne wine trade.
We suggest that you start with a stroll down the recently restored quayside up to the large gate (only one remaining from nine built in the 14th century). It’s called the Tour du Grand Port (Gate of the important port or sea gate, and yes, amazingly the Dordogne river is tidal up as far as Libourne and beyond). The gate was built in 1367 and is the last remaining part of the fortifications, that surrounded the town at that time. The walls would have been impressive at 15m or 45ft high. The two towers of the gate were called Tour Edouard, in homage to the Black Prince and Tour Richard, for his son, who became King Richard II (also a famous Shakespeare play).
Go through the gate and take the road leading up to the central point of the town, the Abel Surchamp square. Bastide towns were based on the Roman camp plan with a forum in the centre, two perpendicular axes (the cardo & the decumanus) and numerous secondary roads, forming a grid. The market has been held here for almost 800 years, since the late 1200s. Arcades surrounding the square date from the 13th-16th centuries and were built to protect merchants & buyers from the sun and rain. There is an impressive Town Hall, partly built in 1427 in Gothic style and then renovated in the early 1900s in the neo-gothic style, inspired by the work of Viollet le Duc, who is famous for the now lost spire of Notre Dame in Paris.
Visit Libourne’s open-air market (Tuesday, Friday & Sunday mornings) which is one of the largest in the region: in peak season there are hundreds of merchants. There is also a good indoor market every morning bar Monday in one of the streets (Rue Montesquieu) leading to the square, where you can buy fine produce from many specialty merchants.
If you visit on a Friday, go into the town hall: up two flights of stairs you will find a fine small art museum, which is really quite exceptional for this size of town. The Libourne Museum of Fine Arts presents a panorama of works by European artists from the 14th to the 20th centuries. From 1818, when the founder of the museum was appointed Minister of the Interior by Louis XVIII, he had major works sent to Libourne, which became the foundation of the museum’s collection. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the museum benefited considerably from donations, legacies, purchases etc. A short walk away from the town hall, the Carmelite Chapel is used for temporary collections.
The main museum, composed of two rooms, has retained its original 19th century décor, including a magnificent decorative stained-glass window bearing the emblem of the city. There is a chronology in the way the works are presented, allowing the visitor to travel through the centuries, following the evolution in styles from late medieval, through Renaissance to Impressionist.
The museum also has a comprehensive set of works by René Princeteau. Born into a wealthy Libourne family, the artist owed his success to an exceptional talent for painting racehorses. This passion linked him with Toulouse-Lautrec, for whom he was both friend and tutor, and always admired by his brilliant pupil.
Tip: it’s not uncommon in France that, if asked nicely, restaurants (and even Châteaux) will keep your shopping in a cool place for you while you eat (or visit). Food is central to life here!
Time for lunch!
We decided to go back to the quayside, where we’d parked our car, and drove across the bridge towards Fronsac, taking a sharp left to the Guingette restaurant on the banks of the Isle river, just before it flows into the Dordogne.
What is a Guinguette? Starting in the 18th but progressively through the 19th century these were popular drinking establishments located in the suburbs of Paris and other cities in France. Renoir painted their special atmosphere. Guinguettes would also serve as restaurants and, often, as dance venues (and you can still dance at the one in Castillon-la-Bataille close to our Mill). Today, the term 'guinguette' is used in France for a waterside refreshment place, particularly open-air!
Opposite Libourne is the Guinguette de la Vieille Tour and we sat by the river overlooking the sea gate mentioned above. Good cuisine, some nice wine and excellent company. Reserve ahead to avoid disappointment: www.guinguettedelavieilletour.fr
Wine tours or Mill visits
Suggested programme for the afternoon: Mills or Wine Tours or combine the two?
The Isle and the Dronne, two rivers having their source in the central mountain range of France, join at Coutras and then flow into the Dordogne at Libourne. Their powerful and inexhaustible hydraulic force allowed the development of different activities such as flour mills but also other types of industries.
After 1453 and the end of the Hundred Years War, the new lords decided to set up mills in order to restore value to their lordship through economic activity. The Laubardemont mill was founded in 1466, that of Abzac in 1471, that of Penot in 1481, that of Sablon des Peintures in 1482, etc. The early mills made flour and housed fisheries. From the end of the 18th century, thanks to the industrial revolution, hydraulic power knew new uses and these medieval mills were transformed into steelworks, oil mills, paper mills, flour mills etc. The Isle and Dronne valleys experienced an industrial boom which peaked before the First World War. After the Second World War, globalization brought a fatal stop to most of these facilities ... Only a few sites still retain industrial activity and for these, a new conversion is underway, through the production of hydroelectricity or the development of tourism.
Moulin de Porchères / Mill of Porchères
30mins drive from Libourne takes you to the Moulin de Porchères, built in 1850, on the Isle River. The Porchères mill is a magnificent stone building that transformed wheat into flour thanks to the hydraulic power of the river. Its machines are still in place today and are listed as an Historic Monument. The guided tour, which takes around 50 minutes, allows you to understand how flour is made, but also takes you back to the days of the boatmen on the Isle river. There’s a baker's workshop, mill shop and guinguette. In the holiday season, concerts are also organized every weekend. From the mill, set off on foot for a gentle 2.5km loop to discover the canals and locks of the Isle, as well as its fauna and flora. Book in advance on www.tourisme-libournais.com/preparer/patrimoine#!/moulin-de-porcheres-833158
Wine & Mill? Moulin d’Abzac and the Château d’Abzac
Combine a visit to this beautiful Château, with a wine tasting and trip to their still working Mill. Just 15mins drive from Libourne. Built in the early 17th century, the Château is classified as an Historic Monument. It has been in the d’Anglade family since 1796. Located in the heart of the vineyards, just north of Pomerol, it overlooks the valley of the river Isle. From the Château terrace you can see the large factory/mill built in the 18th century, which is now the headquarters of a family-owned industrial group : Abzac S.A. Contact for visits (which must be booked in advance): www.chateau-abzac.com/index_EN.php
For this afternoon's proposed wine visits, you need to book well in advance, for either one or both of these great Châteaux in the Fronsac region. It is one of Bordeaux’s most beautiful wine regions with its green valleys, fairytale castles and panoramic views of lovely rivers from its vine-covered hills.
You may not have heard of this area of Bordeaux but I think it is worth exploring for great value excellent wines. Just five minutes from the celebrated vineyards of St-Emilion. The same limestone terroir across much of the hillsides: parts are even a continuation of the same plateau, and share the same cavernous underground cellars – and yet these wines are now less recognised than their illustrious neighbour. It wasn’t always so. In 770, Charlemagne built a powerful fortress on the hill of Fronsac and the name "Fronciacus" appeared. Almost a millennium later, in 1634, Cardinal Richelieu acquired the lands of the Duchy of Fronsac for his family and in consequence the notoriety of Fronsac wines developed. In the 18th century, the qualitative revolution in wines from the Libourne region took its roots here and the boom in world maritime trade greatly contributed to establishing the Fronsac vineyard among the most noble in Bordeaux. At this time, Fronsac wines enjoyed the strongest reputation among Libournais wines, selling at the highest prices, ahead even of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. And then things changed, as the now more famous regions took hold and focused the merchants’ attentions. Nowadays there is renewed interest in this area, whose wines still sell largely in France but this will change as wine tourism, and other marketing efforts, spread the news.
I’ve picked a couple of Châteaux less than 15mins from Libourne that I particularly like taking my VIP Wine Tour clients too. I can't reiterate enough the importance of booking well in advance (this is standard practice in Bordeaux).
Château de La Dauphine - www.chateau-dauphine.com/fr/
An illustrious history: the château was built between 1744 and 1750. Shortly after its construction, Maria Josepha of Saxony, the Dauphine of France (the wife of Louis-Ferdinand of France, who, as the son of Louis XV, was the Dauphin), and mother of several of the last Kings of France (including Louis XVI) stayed at the château for a few days. This event contributed to the property's reputation, which was named in memory of the Princess’s visit. The wines are highly rated and the property is farmed organically. Steven Spurrier of Decanter magazine lists it as one of his 'Bordeaux heroes'.
Château de la Rivière - www.chateau-de-la-riviere.com/oenotourisme/
One of the oldest Châteaux in Bordeaux, this stunning property was created in 1577 by Gaston de l’Isle on the remains of a defensive camp built by Charlemagne. It’s hard to miss, as it stands proud over the countryside in extensive parkland and gardens, that are also worth a visit. Best of all are the limestone caves, still used for ageing the wine. They offer a great way to get close to the limestone terroir that dominates not only Fronsac but also St-Emilion, Castillon and beyond. A range of visits are geared to different audiences, including families. You can even order a picnic to eat in the beautiful courtyard. Although it’s a French-run estate, the owners are Chinese, so you might also want to try their tea ceremony and tasting.
Enjoy your day!