The unspoilt coast of the Charente-Maritime offers the visitor rich variety: an abundance of beaches, a superb climate, a fascinating history, islands and oysters. Of the 71 beaches, more than enough to exhaust the most frenetic family holiday, the quietest lie to the north, long stretches of pale yellow sand, skirted by pine forests. Châtelaillon, Fouras and Royan, which lies much further south, offer the most sophisticated facilities, with every conceivable water sport, plush restaurants and bars. But those wanting an added dimension to their day can take a fishing boat from Royan to the Phare de Cordouan, the oldest surviving lighthouse in France. Located on a sandbank and 68 metres in height, it casts its light more than 40 kilometres out to sea. The lighthouse only receives visitors at low tide because of treacherous currents. The staircase to the lighting chamber can be an exhausting experience because there are 311 steps to the top, but everyone who completes the climb is rewarded with a breathtaking panorama.
The villages of Hiers and Brouage came together in 1825, when Brouage was all but a ruin, its harbour silted up by changes in wind and tide. Before it was beached like a whale, Brouage had a long era of prosperity, the first European trading centre in salt and the home town of the French navigator Samuel de Champlain, who founded Québec. The formidable walls of Brouage, most of which survive, were built with money provided by Cardinal Richelieu, as a Catholic bastion to confront the neighbouring Huguenot fortress of La Rochelle. Brouage’s present revival comes from tourism, with expensive craft shops plying their trade in the cobbled streets.
Inland at Saintes, the remnants of the walls are much older, dating back to Roman times, with the striking triumphal Arc de Germanicus marking the boundary of the town. The 1st century amphitheatre of St-Eutrope is one of the largest in existence, nearly as big as the Coliseum in Rome, if with fewer seats and less sophisticated facilities for the gladiators below ground. In Saintes’ narrow lanes flanked by medieval dwellings, a hectic market is held daily from Tuesday to Sunday, with an even bigger market on the first Monday of each month. The restaurants take full advantage of local produce, and this is the place to try tantouillée, a pork and chicken stew cooked in red wine, or chaudrée, a local fish in muscatel wine. Oyster dishes abound, tinged in green with the faintest suspicion of hazelnut, washed down with pineau, a kind of sweet port. Three islands lie close to La Rochelle. The best known, as the site of sado-masochistic television adventure games, is Fort Boyard, a Napoleonic fort completed with impeccably poor timing, just after Napoleon himself had sailed into the lasting sunset of Saint Helena. The Ile d’Oléron is superb for surfing and has a considerable night life. During the day, its ancient windmills with shattered sails sit on the horizon, in sight of fine beach restaurants at Le-Grand-Village-Plage and Vert-Blois. Bridges link the Ile d’Oléron and the Ile de Ré to the mainland, making the purists regard them as peninsulas rather than islands. The Ile de Ré has a network of cycling and hiking routes, crisscrossing like a spider’s web. The Phare des Baleines, the 157-yearold Lighthouse of the Whales, offers the usual challenge for those game enough to reach the top, a mere 250 steps.
The port of La Rochelle has two tall towers marking the entrance from the sea. Nearby are a series of fascinating museums, including a vast aquarium with translucent linking tunnels that allow fierce creatures of the deep to swim within inches of the visitors. Bicycles are a popular means of transport in the inner streets from which cars are barred. The 15th century Tour de la Lanterne offers the best view of the city, and some rude messages carved by prisoners who wished to be elsewhere.
© CMT17-C. Triballier/M. Scatto
© CMT17 - C. Triballier
La Maison des Augustins
© CMT17- C. Triballier/A. Birard
© CMT17 - B. Desmier
Phare de la Coubre Les Mathes -
La Palmyre, Royan
© CMT17 - S. Morand