By Roger Allnutt
Have the French been keeping the Poitou-Charentes region on the west coast of France a secret? The French certainly know about and visit in large numbers this delightful and varied region that is virtually “off the map” for overseas visitors compared to the more famous Loire, Burgundy, Dordogne and Provence regions.
Which is a pity as, apart from lacking any high mountains, Poitou-Charentes (which has four departments: Charente-Maritime, Charente, Deux-Sevres and Vienne) encapsulates all that is great in France from historic towns to glorious churches and chateaux, vineyards, fascinating ports, river estuaries and islands, and even the mysterious marshland, the marais.
The most visited area is along the Atlantic coast stretching from the port of La Rochelle down past the historic towns of Rochefort and Brouage, the offshore ‘islands’ of Ile de Re and Ile d’Oleron and along the estuary of the River Gironde nearly as far as Bordeaux.
One of France’s foremost seaports from the 14th to 17th centuries (many of the early French settlers to Canada left from La Rochelle), the city was very caught up in the brutal Wars of Religion between the Catholics and Protestants (Hugenots). A German submarine base during World War II, it was the last French city to be liberated.
Two 14th century stone towers, Tour de la Chaine and Tour Nicolas, dominate the entrance to the bustling Vieux Port (old port) area (pictured, left) crammed with pleasure craft which is adjacent to the lovely old city. On a sunny summer day the cafes and restaurants along the waterfront were alive with patrons.
The old city is reached through an arch above which is the striking Tour de la Grosse Horloge. The main street Rue du Palais is one of many arcaded streets that are a feature of La Rochelle. The city offers a number of excellent museums as well as an unusual Temple Protestant
Nineteen miles south of La Rochelle is the town of Rochefort where a visit to the restored 17th century Corderie Royale (Royal ropemaking factory) is worthwhile; 1,214 feet long so that ropes could be braided without splicing.
Further south the ancient 15th century village of Brouage, fortified by Cardinal Richelieu as a Catholic bastion, was once a small port with a thriving salt industry. Over the centuries the harbor silted up and the walled village is now stranded a mile or so from the sea – but still a pretty village worth visiting for a stroll along the walls and a coffee at the many cafes.
Both Ile de Re and Ile d’Oleron are now connected to the mainland by bridges which make exploring the islands very easy. Both have sweeping sandy beaches which draw large numbers of holidaymakers in the summer months. The more southerly Ile d’Oleron is subjected to dramatic tides which leaves the many fishing and pleasure boats at the town of Le Chateau d’Oleron stranded on the vast muddy flats when the tide is out. You can walk along the walls of the Citadelle and shop for a souvenir in the tiny shops that are all painted in dazzling bright colors.
As you come off the bridge back from Ile d’Oleron, plan a stop at the village of Marennes famous for its delicious oysters. Then you are close to the beach resorts along the northern bank of the Gironde which leads down to Bordeaux. Royan is the main holiday town with long sweeps of beaches and busy marina, and a superb Eglise Notre Dame, built in 1958 of reinforced concrete and with a 213-foot spire. Along the promenade beside the beach are some beautiful stately homes and colorful, landscaped flower beds.
Further down the Gironde towards Bordeaux is a succession of small villages, many with beaches. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed village of Talmont is rated one of the most beautiful in France; the 1284 Church of Sainte Radegonde stands on a promontory overlooking the river while in summer hollyhocks provide a colorful backdrop among the tiny white-washed houses.
Inland from Royan is the elegant town of Saintes on the banks of the Charente River. The Germanium Arch dominates the south bank of the river. The Church of St Eutrope has a lovely deep crypt while nearby is the remains of a large Roman amphitheatre (pictured, right). Saintes lies on one of the routes of Le Chemin de St-Jacques de Compostella with 14 key stopping points in the region.
Around Saintes and east to Cognac the whole region is covered in vineyards, many of which provide the grapes that are used for the production of Cognac. The five major distillers of Cognac (Camus, Martell, Hennessey, Remy Martin and Otard) are all located in or close to the quaint old city and you can do tours or just inspect their showrooms to admire or purchase the famous product. There are many other smaller producers throughout the area.
We stayed at a small apartment situated surrounded by vineyards and it was pleasant to take our evening meal sampling the product while watching the hens of the owner parading on a large stretch of lawn; the fresh eggs from the owner were a bonus.
I never cease to be amazed at the number and scale of chateaux all over France. While those along the Loire are better known, there are wonderful examples throughout the rest of the country. Near Jarnac east of Cognac the imposing Chateau de Triac is home to the producers of the cognac brand Braastad. Jarnac is a pretty town on the Charente where Francois Mitterand, President of France from 1981-1995, was born. The peacefully flowing river was lined with fishermen, and many pleasure boats including the popular self-drive boats are a regular sight. The nearby town of Angouleme has an imposing cathedral.
Between Saintes and Rochefort near the town of St Porchaire is another superb Chateau de Roche Corbon set in immaculate formal gardens. The upkeep of the gardens and cost of heating must be astronomical.
At the very northern end of the region to the west of the town of Niort is a magical, moody, marshy region the Marais Poitevin centered around the village of Coulon which is sometimes called the Green Venice. Covering a sprawling 80,000 hectares the wetland is rich in bird life. Waterways spread throughout the wet and dry marshes and dense forests and tours by boat, often punts, are a great way to explore the region. Canoeing and bike trails are also very popular. At the village of Vanneau is a lovely church Notre Dame du Marais.