This is Poitou-Charentes’ window overlooking the Atlantic, a time-honoured holiday destination with beautiful sandy beaches at of Fouras, Châtelaillon, Saint-Palais-sur-Mer, Charron, Saint-Georges de Didonne, Royan, La Tremblade and La Palmyre. Add to that the islands of Ré, Aix, Oleron and Madame, a tiny island accessible by the Passe Aux Boeufs on the outskirts of Port-des-Barques. Some prefer the upmarket resort island of the Ile de Ré and the smart boutiques of nearby La Rochelle. Whilst others enjoy a traditional beach-based summer holiday, making the most of some fine sandy beaches and a seemingly endless parade of waterside fish restaurants.
Away from the tourist hotspots, however, the department - which is one of the sunniest parts of France -
still has plenty to offer.
The beautiful, wooded Saintonge area of the department around Saintes is full of history, and an important centre of Romanesque architecture. Scores of fine old churches can be found here, along the many walks and cycle trails that criss-cross the department. There are also has many farms, vineyards, water mills and wind mills and pigeon lofts.
On old pilgrimage route from northern Europe down to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain passes through the Charente Maritime. At the crossing point of the Gironde Estuary visitors can see the 11th century Saint Radegonde's church at Talmont sur Gironde.
Throughout the department, meanwhile, there are numerous nature reserves, bird watching sites and a Forest Museum which offers guided tours of the area’s wildlife attractions. Lucky visitors may just get a glimpse of the rare and elusive common genet, a cat-like mammal that has made a comeback in the area.
Meanwhile for those who like history, at the old naval port of Rochefort a major project is underway to build a replica of the frigate Hermione, the ship that took the French general La Fayette to the New World to fight alongside the Americans against the English in 1780.
Another slightly unusual attraction is Paleosite. This interactive museum site near Saintes is dedicated to the region’s prehistory and is sited at the spot where in 1979 archaeologists found the remains of a young Neanderthal female dating from 35,000 years ago. The discovery of her remains – she is known as Pierrette – caused a stir in scientific circles.
Just east of the Charente-Maritime is the famous town of Cognac in the Charente where a certain well-known alcoholic drink is made and where visitors can look round some of the old distilleries.
And just south of the department is the major city of Bordeaux which is well worth a visit – as are the surrounding vineyards that produce some of the world’s best and best-known wines.
This is one of the most attractive and unspoilt seaside towns in France. Thanks to the foresight of 1970’s mayor Michel Crépeau, its historic 17th – 18th century centre and waterfront were plucked from the clutches of the developers and its streets freed of traffic for the delectation of pedestrians.The Vieux Port is very much the focus of the town, dominating the inner harbour, the heavy Gothic gateway of the Porte de la Grosse Horloge straddles the entrance to the old town. The quays in front of it are too full of traffic to encourage loitering; for that, it's best to head out along the tree-lined Cours des Dames towards the fourteenth-century Tour de la Chaine), so called because of the heavy chain that was slung from here across to the opposite tower, Tour St-Nicolas, to close the harbour at night. Today the only night-time intruders are likely to be yachties from across the Channel, whose craft far outnumber the working boats – mainly brightly painted trawlers. Beyond the tower, steps climb up to rue Sur-les-Murs, which follows the top of the old sea wall to a third tower, the Tour de la Lanterne or Tour des Quatre Sergents, named after four sergeants imprisoned and executed for defying the Restoration monarchy in 1822. There's a way up onto what's left of the city walls, planted with unkempt greenery. Beyond is the beach, backed by casino, hot-dog stands and amusement booths, along with an extensive, truly beautiful belt of park that continues up the western edge of the town centre and along the avenue du Mail behind the beach, where the first seaside village was built by the Rochelais rich.
Leading north from the Porte de la Grosse Horloge, the Rue du Palais runs towards the cathedral and several of the museums on Rue Thiers. Between the harbour and the Port des Minimes, a new marina development 2km south of the town centre, there are several excellent museums for children and a large frigate (permanently moored) providing some insight into the town's seagoing past.
The real charm lies on the city's main shopping street, Rue du Palais, leading up from the Vieux Port to
Place de Verdun. Lining the street are eighteenth-century houses, some grey stone, some half-timbered, with distinctive Rochelais-style slates overlapped like fish scales, while the shop fronts are
set back beneath the ground-floor arcades. Among the finest are the Hôtel de la Bourse – actually the Chamber of Commerce – and the Palais de Justice with its colonnaded facade, both on the left-hand
side. A few metres further on, in Rue des Augustins, there is another grandiose affair built for a wealthy Rochelais in 1555, the so-called Maison Henri II, complete with loggia, gallery and slated
turrets, where the regional tourist board has its offices. Place de Verdun itself is dull and characterless, with an uninspiring, humpbacked, eighteenth-century classical cathedral on the corner. Its
only redeeming feature is the marvellously opulent Belle Époque Café de la Paix, all mirrors, gilt and plush, where La Rochelle's ladies of means come to sip lemon tea and nibble daintily at sticky
cakes – and there is a tempting charcuterie and seafood shop next door.
To the west of Rue du Palais, especially in Rue de l'Escale, paved with granite setts brought back from Canada as ballast in the Rochelais cargo vessels, you get the discreet residences of the eighteenth-century ship-owners and chandlers, veiling their wealth with high walls and classical restraint. A rather less modest gentleman once installed himself on the corner of Rue Fromentin: a seventeenth-century doctor who adorned his house front with the statues of famous medical men – Hippocrates, Galen and others. In rue St-Côme closer to the town walls is the Musée d'Orbigny-Bernon, with an extensive section on local history, important collections of local faïence, porcelain from China and Japan and some handsome furniture.
East of Rue du Palais, and starting out from place des Petits-Bancs, rue du Temple takes you up alongside
the Hôtel de Ville, protected by a decorative but seriously fortified wall. It was begun around 1600 in the reign of Henri IV, whose initials, intertwined with those of Marie de Médici, are carved on
the ground-floor gallery. It's a beautiful specimen of Frenchified Italian taste, adorned with niches and statues and coffered ceilings, all done in a stone the colour of ripe barley. And if you feel
like quiet contemplation of these seemingly more gracious times, there's no better place for it than the terrace of the Café de la Poste, right next to the post office, in the small, traffic-free
square outside. For more relaxed vernacular architecture nearly as ancient, carry on up rue des Merciers, the other main shopping area, to the cramped and noisy market square, close to which you'll
find the Musée du Nouveau Monde (Mon & Wed–Sat 10.30am–12.30pm & 1.30–6pm, Sun 3–6pm; €3.20), whose entrance is in Rue Fleuriau. Out of the ordinary, this museum occupies the former residence
of the Fleuriau family, rich ship-owners and traders who, like many of their fellow Rochelais, made fortunes out of the slave trade and Caribbean sugar, spices and coffee. There's a fine collection
of prints, paintings and photos of the old West Indian plantations; seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maps of America; photogravures of Native Americans from around 1900, with incredible names like
Piopio Maksmaks Wallawalla and Lawyer Nez Percé; and an interesting display of aquatint illustrations for Marmontel's novel Les Incas – an amazing mixture of sentimentality and coy salaciousness.
Nearby in Rue Gargoulleau is the Musée des Beaux-Arts whose works are centred around a few Rochelais artists and illustrate the history of art from the primitives to the present day.
To get back towards the port, from the maze of pedestrianized streets around the Hôtel de Ville, head down rue St-Sauveur, with its large gloomy church, across Quai Maubec and Quai Louis-Durand to Rue St-Nicolas and adjoining Place de la Fourche – with its huge shady tree and outdoor café – both pedestrianized and boasting several antiques dealers, second hand bookshops and a vintage clothes shop. The two streets share a Saturday flea/antiques market.
On the east side of the old harbour behind the Tour St-Nicolas is the Quartier du Gabut, the one-time fishermen's quarter of wooden cabins and sheds, now converted into bars, shops and eating places. Beyond it lies an extensive dock and the market and service buildings of the old fishing port. This is now the Musée Maritime, which includes an interesting collection of superannuated vessels as well as land-based exhibits. A further ten-minute walk brings you to the Musée des Automates on Rue de la Désirée, a fascinating collection of three hundred automated puppets, drawing you into an irresistible fantasy world. Some of the puppets are interesting from a historical angle; others, like one that writes the name "Pierrot", are interesting from a mechanical viewpoint. Further down the same street is the Musée des Modèles Réduits. The prices may be a bit prohibitive for families – especially considering the whole tour takes barely half an hour – but this does combine well with a visit to the neighbouring Musée des Automates. Scale models of every variety and era are on show, starting with cars and including models of a submerged shipwreck and La Rochelle train station.
The Port des Minimes is a large modern marina development with mooring for thousands of yachts, about 2km south of the old harbour. Bus #10 from place Verdun will get you there, as will the more entertaining bus de mer, a small boat which runs from the old port to Port des Minimes, stopping off at avenue Marillac en route, otherwise it's a thirty-minute walk along the waterfront. There are shops, restaurants, bars and apartments, and the young and beautiful flock out here at weekends and on summer evenings to parade on the beautiful plage des Minimes. Right next to the beach is the spectacular aquarium.
The town, known as “the town of Pierre Loti” dates from the seventeenth century, when it was created by Colbert, Louis XIII's navy minister, to protect the coast from English raids. It remained an important naval base until modern times with its shipyards, sail-makers, munitions factories and hospital.. Built on a grid plan with regular ranks of identical houses, the town is a monument to the tidiness of the military mind, but is not without charm for all that. The central Place Colbert is very pretty and the nearby Rue Courbet is exactly as the seventeenth century left it, complete with lime trees, and cobblestones brought from Canada as ships' ballast. There are some sights worth making a special effort for, including the Centre International de la Mer, located in the seventeenth-century royal arsenal and ropeworks.If you have a taste for the bizarre, then there's one good reason for visiting Rochefort – the house of the novelist Julien Viaud (1850–1923), alias Pierre Loti. Forty years a naval officer, he wrote numerous best-selling romances with exotic oriental settings and characters. The Maison Pierre Loti, at 141 Rue Pierre-Loti is part of a row of modestly proportioned grey-stone houses, outwardly a model of petit-bourgeois conformity and respectability, inside an outrageous and fantastical series of rooms decorated to exotic themes. There's a medieval banqueting hall complete with Gothic fireplace and Gobelin tapestries; a monastery refectory with windows pinched from a ruined abbey; a Damascus mosque; and a Turkish room, with kilim wall-hangings and a ceiling made from an Alhambra mould. To suit the mood of the place, Loti used to throw extravagant parties: a medieval banquet with swan's meat and hedgehog and a fête chinoise with the guests in costumes he had brought back from China, where he took part in the suppression of the Boxer rebellion.
Also worth a quick look is the Centre International de la Mer situated in the Corderie Royale, or the royal ropeworks, off Rue Toufaire. At 372m, the Corderie is the longest building in France and a rare and splendid example of 17th century industrial architecture, substantially restored after damage in World War II. From 1660 until the Revolution, it furnished the entire French navy with rope, and the building now houses an appropriate exhibition on ropes and rope-making, including machinery from the nineteenth century. If you don't fancy visiting the museum, it's definitely worth a wander around the extensive building and its lawns along the River Charente, whose reed-fringed banks support a garden made up of plants brought back from long-forgotten expeditions overseas. One such, financed by Michel Bégon, quartermaster of Rochefort in 1688, brought back the flower we know as the begonia.
The small harbour, the Bassin Laperouse, next to the Corderie, is also worth a stroll.
If you are interested in finding out more about the town's history and naval importance, head for the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, 63 Avenue Charles-de-Gaulle and the Musée de la Marine , in the 17th century Hôtel de Cheusses on Place de la Gallossinnière, which houses an excellent collection of model ships, figureheads, navigational instruments and other navalparaphernalia.
Fifteen minutes south is the Pont Transbordeur, France's only working transporter bridge, built in 1900 – a technological wonder in its time. One other attractive small museum is the Musée des Métiers de Mercure at 12 Rue Lessan, which displays lovingly and authentically reconstructed shop interiors from the beginning of the 20th century.Fifteen minutes south is the Pont Transbordeur, France's only working transporter bridge, built in 1900 – a technological wonder in its time. One other attractive small museum is the Musée des Métiers de Mercure at 12 Rue Lessan, which displays lovingly and authentically reconstructed shop interiors from the beginning of the 20th century.
Before World War II, this town at the mouth of the Gironde was a fashionable resort for the bourgeoisie. It's still popular – though no longer exclusive – and the modern town has lost its elegance to the dreary rationalism of 1950s town planning: broad boulevards, car parks, shopping centres, planned greenery. Ironically, the occasion for this planners' romp was provided by Allied bombing, an attempt to dislodge a large contingent of German troops who had withdrawn into the area after the D-Day landings. But the beaches – the most elegant and fashionable of which is in the suburb of Pontaillac to the northwest – are beautiful: fine pale sand, meticulously harrowed and raked near town, and wild, pine-backed and pounded by the Atlantic to the north
One sight worth seeing in the town is the 1950s Église de Notre-Dame, designed by Guillaume Gillet and Hébrard, in a tatty square behind the main waterfront. Though the concrete has weathered badly, the overall effect is dramatic and surprising. Tall V-sectioned columns give the outside the appearance of massive fluting and a stepped roof-line rises dramatically to culminate in a 65-metre bell tower, like the prow of a giant vessel. The interior is even more striking: using uncompromisingly modern materials and designs, the architects have succeeded in out-Gothicking Gothic. The stained-glass panels, in each of which a different tone predominates, borrow their colours from the local seascapes – oyster, sea, mist and murk – before a sudden explosion of colour in the Christ figure above the altar.
The most attractive area is around Boulevard Garnier, which leads southeast from Rond-Point-de-la-Poste along the beach and once housed Parisian high society in purpose-built, Belle Époque holiday villas. Some of these have survived, including Le Rêve, 58 Boulevard Garnier, where Émile Zola lived and wrote; Kosiki, 100 Avenue du Parc (running parallel to Boulevard Garnier), a nineteenth-century folly of Japanese inspiration; and Tanagra, 34 Avenue du Parc, whose facade is covered in sculptures and balconies.
Various cruises are organized from the town in season, including one to the Cordouan lighthouse, erected by Edward III's son, the Black Prince and commanding the mouth of the Gironde River. There's a twenty-minute ferry crossing to the headland on the other side of the Gironde, the Pointe de Grave, from where a bicycle trail and the D3 head down the coast through the pines and dunes to the bay of Arcachon.
This island, the largest of the Atlantic coast islands, stretches out over 30 km, from Sablanceaux to the lighthouse, Phare des Baleines and easily accessible from La Rochelle via the RN237/RD735 and the Pont de Ré, a toll bridge (Cars: 9€ return off-season, 16,50€ main season).. Take time to stop at the Café du Belvédère for a drink and a panoramic view of the bridge and the island.
Île de Ré
At Sablanceaux, just after the bridge, you have two options, either to take, on the left, the D201 towards Le Bois-Plage and La Couarde, or to the right, the D735 towards Rivedoux (a centre for oyster production), La Flotte (a lively port) and Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the island’s capital with its ramparts of the citadel.
These roads become one just west of La Couarde-sur-Mer, a large seaside resort with a south facing beach, and lead to Ars-en-Ré via the hundred metre wide Martray Channel. where you will find the Église Saint-Etienne and its famous bell tower painted in black and white to serve as a landmark for the boats. Beyond Ars is Saint Clément des Baleines and the lighthouse, Phare des Baleines.. Beyond the lighthouse is Les Portes peninsula and the woods of Trousse-Chemise.
This time take the ferry from Fouras having left your car in the secure car park at Pointe de la Fumée. The crossing is a fascinating experience, travellers with their suitcases on wheels, island residents with their small, two-wheeled trailers returning from shopping on the mainland, bicycles, and day-tourists all make for a a lively and picturesque experience to the world without cars, a journey that takes around 30 minutes
No doubt you will be just as disorientated as we were by the absence of traffic, a feeling that is heightened when passing
through the heavy door to the drawbridge and arriving in the square of Austerlitz, formerly a military exercise square, old Place d'Armes, a grassy, shaded space which gently inclines towards the centre of the village, a township, fortified by Vauban and surrounded by moats, filled with sea water, which empty and refill during the high tides.
The easiest way to see the beauty of this island, sandy beaches, cliffs, pine forests, tamarisks and marshes, is by horse-drawn carriage, a very relaxing experience and one not to be missed. The tour includes stops at various places, including the oyster beds and a vineyard and you have the services of a very knowledgeable Driver/Guide.
Having spent a relaxing ninety minutes meandering around the island, now take some time to wander around the village and see the hollyhocks and wild grasses growing. Then visit Fort de la Rade and Fort Liédot, the later of which held prisoners during the Crimean and First World wars. Then of course there is Napolean Bonaparte’s house, now a museum which houses extensive displays that fill ten rooms with the emperor's works of art, clothing, portraits and arms. The white dromedary from which he conducted his Egyptian campaign is lto be seen in the nearby Musée Africain, with its entire collection devoted to African wildlife.
This is without doubt the least well-known of the islands, around 75 hectaires and only accessible at low tide from Port-des-Barques by the “Passe aux Bœufs’ (Cow Pass), a natural causeway of sand and pebbles. The first thing that strikes you when you arrive is the silence, then, there is the lack of monuments and hardly any buildings.The only road that goes right round the island runs along a sheltered coast with a few creeks and pretty panoramic views over the Charentes estuary and the Fouras peninsula. The other side, composed entirely of pebbles, has a large number of carrelets, wooden pontoons on stilts used for fishing at high tide using a net. A little further South, a tiny sandy beach gives a unique viewpoint of this alignment of carrelets and the sea. At dusk, the sunsets here are stunning. A word of caution: Check the tide timetable otherwise you could find yourself stranded
This is the most southerly of the islands of the French Atlantic coast with a climate influenced by the Gulf Stream. It has been a holiday destination since the development of sea bathing, during the second half of the 19th Century. In days of yore this island was in the hands of the British, a gift from Eleanor of Aquitaine when she married Henry Plantagenet. The British connection is long gone and oysters and tourism are the mainstays of the islanders these days.
The summer months are particularly busy but it is worth spending at least a day of your holiday, if you are staying in the region, visiting and discovering Oléron. And above all, remember that you can visit there all the year round, in autumn or in the spring and at the end of winter when the mimosa is in flower.
Your route to the island is via Marennes where the D26 road leads to the Pont Viaduc. Crossing the bridge there are beautiful views of the coast, very different from high tide to low tide, at which time you will be able to see the oyster beds.
After crossing the bridge, you have three options: either take the westward direction towards Saint-Trojan-les-Bains, or take the eastward direction Le Château d'Oléron, or take the central D734 road and follow this for 30 km to the lighthouse of Chassiron at the extreme northern point of the island.
The west coast, facing the ocean, is the continuation of the west coast of the peninsula of Arvert, Côte Sauvage and Forêt de la Coubre. Saint-Trojan-les-Bains, a very old seaside resort with a beach and promenade that has magnificent views of the bridge to the island, the Seudre river bridge, the beaches and the forest of Ronce-les-Bains. At low tide, the sea goes out a very long way and uncovers a vast stretch of beach.
From the Grande Plage de Saint-Trojan the wild coastline to the west is only accessible through the national forest of Saint-Trojan, with its pines and holm oaks, and by a narrow-gauge tourist railway that takes you on a 12-km return trip to the wild coastline of the Pertuis de Maumusson Straits with magnificent landscapes of soft sand and pine forests.
After La Rémigeasse, the small coastal road continues on to La Cotinière, the most important fishing port of the island and one of the ‘big three’, with La Rochelle and Royan, of Charente-Maritime where the fishermen concentrate on the principal sorts of fish, sole, sea dace, and langoustine. Three kilometres further
Three kilometres further inland is Saint Pierre d' Oléron, the island’s capital, with its 18th century
church and Lantern des Morts. To reach the most northerly point of the island you pass through Saint-Denis d'Oléron, Chéray and Saint Georges d'Oléron before finally arriving at Phare de Chassiron,
46 metres in height and open to the public. Your reward for climbing the 224 steps to the top of this lighthouse is a magnificent panorama over the island of Oléron, the island of Aix, the island of
Ré, La Rochelle.
To the east of Saint Pierre d' Oléron is Boyardville with its marina and the beach from where you will get a good view of the famous Fort Boyard, a curious stone structure rising offshore from the Straits of Antioche, between Île d’Oléron and Île d’Aix.
Dating back over 2000 years, “Mediolanum Santonum”, capital of the Santons, a gaulish tribe, during the Roman domination of the Vendée. Founded in about 20 BC, some estimations show the town had about 15,000 inhabitants in those days, and that its borders were almost the same as today. Also the capital of the former province of Saintonge, it was the scene of the second phase of the Saintonge War, in 1242, when the army of Hugh X was besieged by that of Louis IX and Alphonse of Poitiers.
Having converted to Christianity very early, it became an important religious centre. From the Middle
Ages, Saintes was home to some large monasteries and convents, including the Prieuré Saint-Eutrope, one of the stops on the road to Santiago de Compostela, and the prestigious Abbaye aux
A frontier town during the Hundred Years War and liberated by Duguesclin, it experienced the ravages of the Wars of Religion before enjoying a more prosperous period during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Prior to the Revolution, modern urban design brought major changes, with the construction of wide thoroughfares and in the 19th century, the railway and its workshops, built on the outskirts, led to the regeneration of the east bank of the river.
Today, a centre of culture and tourism, the town has a rich heritage to offer visitors, who come to enjoy the incomparable atmosphere of the "Midi Atlantique".
The houses which border the streets of the historic centre contribute to the charm and very
special ambience of Saintes, with their high quality limestone construction and the care taken with their design and ornamentation.
The most prestigious houses, known as "Hôtels", date from the 17th and 18th centuries: the Hôtel "Présidial", built in 1605 (the Fine Arts Museum), the Governor's lodge (hospital belvedere), the Hôtel de Brémont d'Ars (Rue des Jacobins), the Hôtel de Monconseil (now the Dupuy-Mestreau Museum) built in 1738 on the banks of the Charente, the Hôtel Viaud (Rue des Jacobins).During the 19th century, wealthy merchants from Cognac built some beautiful private houses: the villa Musso (now the Tourist Office), the Hôtel Rouyer-Guillet which overlooks the Charente (Quai de l'Yser) and others.
Why not listen to the story of Saintes, Ville d'Art et d'Histoire (Town of Art and History), told by a guide accredited by the French Ministry of Culture.
Nobody knows all the many facets better, giving you the keys to appreciate how the town developed as you move from street to street.