Charente-Maritime: Raise a toast to the coast
With miles of beautiful beaches, delicious seafood and a rich history, Charente-Maritime is hard to beat, as Solange Hando discovers
With a character as sunny as its coastal climate, laid-back Charente-Maritime is second only to Var as the department most popular with French holidaymakers. No wonder it attracts visitors from home and beyond, drawn to its sweeping sands and scenic islands, authentic villages and a strong maritime heritage which feels almost familiar to Brits.
Charente-Maritime is long coastal strip halfway down France’s Atlantic coast, and stretches roughly from the River Sèvre Niortaise to the Gironde Estuary. The department’s capital La Rochelle nestles like a pearl in an oyster shell. Its history is rich; ruled in turn by England and France, yet largely autonomous as it flourished on the sea trade, it became the envy of Louis XIII who seized the chance to tighten his grip after the Wars of Religion, when the city offered safe haven to the Huguenots. Later besieged by Cardinal Richelieu, who kept the English Navy at bay, La Rochelle surrendered in 1628 yet soon regained its prosperity, although without its special status and fortifications, which were destroyed on the king’s orders.
Only the three towers were spared, and they guard the harbour to this day: the slender Tour de la Lanterne; the squat, circular Tour de la Chaîne with its pepper-pot roof; and Tour Saint-Nicolas, built on piles, leaning gently as it looks out from the vieux port to the strait, the Pertuis d’Antioche, and the protective barrier of the offshore islands.
With riggings tinkling in the breeze, and waterside restaurants bathed in southern light, the old harbour holds visitors spellbound. Beyond the medieval clock tower, the city reveals an enticing mix of Renaissance limestone mansions, slated half-timbered houses and a touch of Belle Époque in the form of Café de la Paix, once patronised by the author Georges Simenon, creator of the famous fictional French police detective Jules Maigret. Carved stone gargoyles peer down on the arcaded streets leading to a market with stallholders proferring seafood and a dazzling array of locally produced fromage de chèvre.
Hire a yellow bicycle (free for two hours from the tourist office) or sail across the old harbour on the solar-powered ferry, and you might spot the memorial to Michel Crépeau, mayor for 28 years, who negotiated the arrival of the TGV, and oversaw the establishment of a university as well as extensive restoration in the town, while the aquarium, hailed among the best in Europe, is just around the corner.
With its old harbour and marina, La Rochelle has little room for a beach, but the sand at Châtelaillon-Plage is a short drive south, and the pristine Île de Ré is easily reached via the toll bridge. Some 25kms long and only 60 metres at its narrowest point, this enchanting island has a generous share of fine beaches and golden dunes covered in tamarisk and pine trees. It’s also a wonderful place to ramble through vineyards and woods, while looking out for salt pans, oyster beds and great flocks of migrating birds. The fragrance of myrtle and rosemary lingers in the air, giving it an almost Mediterranean feel.
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Île de Ré’s glinting harbours, white cottages and hollyhocks feature strongly in this dream-like paradise, which boasts two of the Plus Beaux Villages de France: La Flotte and Ars-en-Ré. There’s also a Vauban citadel and the nostalgic ruins of a Cistercian abbey in a cornfield strewn with poppies.
To the south, tiny Île Madame and Île d’Aix, Napoleon’s last refuge, sit beyond the shores of Île d’Oléron; France’s second largest island after Corsica.
As you approach Île d’Oléron’s toll-free viaduct, the oyster beds of Marennes-Oléron appear in the Seudre Estuary, followed by many more along the island’s south-east coast. For four years, the oysters are carefully nurtured on mudflats, covered at high tide, before spending their final weeks in the claires: the marshes where they are cleaned and where a rare algae gives them a unique green tinge.
From the shimmering claires to the foaming ocean, this is indeed a luminous place where artists’ huts splash myriad colours along the waterways. Here, among the brightly painted oyster sheds, artisans set up their trades in woodwork, jewellery, knitwear, painting, and calligraphy.
The many beaches and forests, walking and cycling trails, mimosa, sunflowers and vineyards make Île d’Oléron an undeniable magnet for tourists, but the island’s real charm is its traditional character. Enjoy some scrumptious seafood in a rustic restaurant, watch the fishermen in La Cotinière mending nets or unloading the daily catch, or stop at Fort Royer to learn all you ever wanted to know about oysters, Oléron’s true icons.
Back on the mainland, the coast turns south towards the Gironde Estuary, fringed with beaches, both sheltered and wild, and the carrelets fishing huts on stilts that glow in the setting sun. Plus Beaux Villages here include Mornac-sur-Seudre and Talmont-sur-Gironde, while beyond are the family-friendly La Palmyre-Les Mathes and Forêt de la Coubre – ideal for rambles and picnics – and smaller resorts that beckon with tingling sands and wide sweeping ocean views.
Expats Gary and Marguerite Coleby explain what attracted them to the area:“We started coming here on holiday with our children, nearly 30 years ago. Then we bought an apartment in Saint-Palais-sur-Mer, near Royan, and downsized in the UK. We loved it; took retirement, downsized further in the UK and upsized in Saint-Palais. We share our time between the two, but plan to spend more time in France. We joined the Association Franco-Anglaise, which is a great way to meet people and join in activities. The biggest challenge has been learning the language, but it is an interesting one.”
Close to Saint-Palais, at the mouth of the Gironde, sits the somewhat surprising town of Royan. A modern resort unlike anywhere else in Charente-Maritime, it was almost entirely rebuilt after the Second World War. The architecture is brilliant white, Corbusier in style, with a hint of Brasilian colour and a few Belle Époque villas, this modernist yet slightly eclectic architecture has made Royan a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire. The lofty Église Notre-Dame dominates the townscape, as striking inside as it is out, while just steps away, the white roof of the central market undulates like ocean waves, above a light-studded hall and an irresistible array of fresh food.
Even in the 21st-century, Royan continues to remember its early days when the Parisian elite flocked to bathe in the ocean and conical tents protected their modesty on the golden sands. Striped blue and white, they still come out in summer when the population increases tenfold and holiday homes re-open their shutters. There are watersports galore, cruises up the Gironde and a beach for every day of the week, from secluded coves to open bays. Fishing boats and yachts bob in the harbour while boutiques, restaurants and art galleries jostle for space on the quay.
Festivities include the renowned Violon sur le Sable, a festival of classical music, while 2014 is hailed L’Année Picasso à Royan, with a special exhibition marking 75 years since the artist came to town and where he painted Café des Bains.
There is more to Charente-Maritime, however, than the seaside immortalised by artists. To the north is the edge of the Marais Poitevin and the Pôle Nature à Taugon, one of 14 nature centres in the department, that has been dedicated to these marshlands which were largely fashioned by man. Here, the River Sèvre Niortaise flows towards the nature reserve of the Baie de l’Aiguillon, a haven for migrating birds and the tasty bouchot mussels, which cling to wooden poles standing tall in the sand. It’s a wild sort of place, but head inland and you’ll find lively market towns, bucolic villages and a few unexpected gems. Discover Surgères, the dairy town, proud of its Romanesque church; Jonzac and its hot springs; Château de la Roche-Courbon, a sleeping beauty castle set in formal gardens; and Saint-Jean-d’Angély with its lake and cobbled streets.
Top of the list in these rural heartlands is the quaint town of Saintes, basking on the banks of the River Charente and greeting pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The town’s church, dedicated to the martyred Saint Eutropius, is listed by UNESCO, and rivals the impressive, though unfinished, cathedral, the Roman arch and atmospheric remains of the amphitheatre, as well as the Abbaye aux Dames, a former convent that hosts its own classical music festival. There are medieval lanes and passageways with panoramic views over the town, while on the nature front you can explore the river in a traditional flat-bottomed gabarre boat, or visit the gently rolling vineyards near the town of Cognac in neighbouring Charente.
The good news is that AOC Cognac is also produced this side of the border, alongside the sweet Pineau des Charentes, served for apéritif or dessert, and of course, wines from the islands, which complement seafood to perfection.
Wherever you are, the ocean is always within reach. Enjoy oysters in winter, mussels in summer – curried in La Rochelle, or cooked under flaming pine needles – lobster, king prawns and more than 90 species of fish, sold at reasonable prices and fresh from the sea, in every market and restaurant. Try new potatoes and salt from Île de Ré, herb pâté, fromage frais wrapped in a reed (jonchée) and the sweet galette charentaise, flavoured with Cognac and locally grown angelica.
One of the most popular markets is held in Rochefort, a relatively new town, born in the 17th century when the ambitious Sun King, Louis XIV, ordered the construction of Europe’s largest arsenal to protect the French Atlantic coast. In time the town grew as grand as its arsenal; showing off its elegant buildings and squares, and breezy boulevards.
The navy has long gone, but Rochefort cherishes its illustrious past. Rows of palm trees speak of exotic lands, while nearby Fort Boyard and Fort Brouage keep watch like timeless sentinels, and the last transporter bridge in France spans the River Charente as it has done for more than 100 years, while on the river bank the 370m-long Corderie Royale rope factory houses its own museum and the headquarters of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, the French equivalent of the RSPB. In town, the Bégonia d’Or workshop, created in 1666, upholds the gold thread embroidery tradition that once embellished military uniforms, and is now commissioned by some of Paris’s big-name fashion houses.
Away from the coast, Rochefort has fine beaches on the nearby Fouras peninsula, quality spas in the town and an unflinching enthusiasm for the maritime past. For well over a decade now, a major project has been underway to pay tribute to General La Fayette, who left on the frigate l’Hermione in 1780 to resume his role in the fight for American independence. Today, in the old dockyard, a replica ship is preparing to sail the Atlantic in 2015 – as a modern interpretation of Charente-Maritime’s historic roots, it’s a fitting emblem of the many charms of this sea-faring department. LF
FIND OUT MORE
Flights to La Rochelle from London and other UK airports.
WHERE TO STAY
30 Rue Rambaud
17000 La Rochelle
Tel: 00 33 (0)5 46 41 23 99
9 Rue de la Garenne
Tel: 00 33 (0)5 46 02 07 85
WHERE TO EAT
Les 4 Sergents
49 Rue Saint-Jean du Pérot
17000 La Rochelle
Tel: 00 33 (0)5 46 41 35 80
La Croix du Sud
Esplanade du Port
17480 Le Château d’Oléron
Tel: 00 33 (0)5 46 76 45 24