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Shore thing - visiting the coast out of season

Shore thing - visiting the coast out of season

The last summer visitors have departed, leaving a string of coastal havens at the mouth of the Charente for the rest of us to enjoy whenever we feel like it

There’s something strangely compelling about spending some time on or near the coast when the tourists have gone. Out of season things are calmer, people in shops, bars and cafés have more time for you, and wherever you decide to stop you can more or less guarantee to find plenty of parking spaces. Better still, if the sun is shining and you suddenly get the urge to stroll along a sandy shoreline then chances are you’ll have a whole beach (or even a whole island) virtually to yourself.

One of the best places we know for soaking up the hors-saison calm is Fouras-les-Bains, with no fewer than five beaches and an appealing retro charm, with echoes of its late-19th century transformation from fishing village to fashionable resort. Today the main focus is the sandy expanse of Grande Plage, set between a tree-screened casino and a prominent fortress. An important site since Roman times, the Fort de Fouras was constructed during the 15th century and strengthened 200 years later by military engineer Vauban to help defend the Royal Arsenal of Rochefort from sea-borne attack. Like the beach, it looks out towards the Ile d’Oléron, the Ile d’Aix and the unmistakable outline of Fort Boyard. Fouras itself is sited at the entry to a slender peninsula along which Napoléon I travelled en route for the Ile d’Aix and his subsequent enforced exile. Beyond Fouras the route passes productive oyster farms before terminating at the Port de la Fumée, a popular departure point for ferries serving the Ile d’Aix. Visible among the waves between the two is the enigmatic outline of Fort Énet, constructed by Napoléon and now privately owned. Low tides reveal a 1.66km causeway, so you can visit the fort on foot (until October 30, see factfile).
Meanwhile, down on the estuary’s southern tip is Port-des-Barques, possessor of another tidal causeway, this time to the diminutive Ile Madame. La Passe aux Bœufs serves a charming 75ha island which is perfect for away-from-it-all walks, bike rides or a spot of shore fishing. Its pebble-strewn beaches are overlooked only by a few slender carrelets extending from the headlands, on one of which stands the surprisingly formidable 17/18th century Fort de l’Ile Madame. The island’s ferme aquacole produces not only oysters but also sea bass (bar) and gilt-head bream (dorade royale) for local restaurants and the island’s own ferme auberge.

Retrace your steps across the 1km causeway to Port-des-Barques and you’ll still find an authentic working fishing village, and the very spot from which La Fayette boarded the original frigate Hermione for his celebrated voyage across the Atlantic to offer help to the struggle for American independence. Less obvious until you glance at a map is the fact that like Fouras, Port-des-Barques is sited on a small peninsula. Follow the road around the tip and you’ll pass more oyster beds, after which the road starts to climb gently through a landscape dotted with maritime pines up to a headland. From the Avenue de la Baie’s highest point you’ll not only have commanding views across vast oyster beds to the eastern shores of the Ile d’Oléron, but overviews of a collection of multi-coloured carrelets which brave the Atlantic breakers from the shoreline below.

At sunset the scene from this viewpoint is simply magical.

The same can be said of the Pont Transbordeur de Rochefort, the very last transporter bridge in all France, now lovingly restored to working order, with well-deserved Monument Historique status. Since the nearby high viaduct opened, its antique predecessor can take it easy. It carries pedestrians and two-wheeled traffic only. Crossing the Charente on a deck suspended by cables from a truck rolling on an upper gantry between skeletal ironwork towers is an unforgettable experience. Normally it operates every 10-15min, but if you arrive at a quiet period and find it on the opposite bank, simply wave to the operator – nacelier – and it will cross the river to pick you up. Here at least, personal service is alive and well.

Exactly why something of this complexity came to be needed here was demonstrated recently when the replica frigate Hermione passed beneath it during her preparatory sea trials, her departure on her epic transatlantic voyage and finally on the occasion of her triumphant return to her home port. No-one knows what voyages await Hermione in the years to come, but for now you can visit her in Rochefort, the historic naval port which built her. Before you do, though, it’s well worth putting things in an historical context by visiting the Musée National de la Marine, whose palatial setting in the early 17th century Hôtel de Cheusses was once the Naval Commandant’s residence. The museum is genuinely fascinating, with beautiful scale models of full sized naval vessels accurate in every detail, historic illustrations documenting the construction of the celebrated Fort Boyard and valuable insight into the town’s remarkable maritime history. It’s quite a story, and to tell it there are interactive displays plus free audio guides in English, making the whole visitor experience anything but dry and lifeless.

Today’s naval vessels are built elsewhere, but the proud legacy of Rochefort’s age d’or as France’s (and Europe’s) biggest military port remains clearly visible in the town’s elegant architecture, along with a street plan laid out with military precision. Paradoxically, years of having been upstaged by nearby La Rochelle enabled Rochefort to escape the kind of redevelopment which might have destroyed the visual harmony of the heart of the town, and turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It’s something to ponder as you see the many sights or make your own discoveries in this fascinating place.

FIND OUT MORE...

You’ll find more information about all the sites described (in a choice of languages) at: www.rochefort-ocean.com 

 

Photos & Words: Roger Moss

© Living Magazine. Originally published October 2015