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In profile: Royan

In profile: Royan

Discover Royan. A casual glance at the map shows an intriguing location at the mouth of the Gironde, the southernmost point before true coastline gives way to western Europe’s largest estuary...

Royan-harbour-france

On the ground, however, things are a lot more clear cut. The Atlantic makes its presence felt in the vast expanses of pale, golden sand, the colourful fishing boats moored alongside leisure craft in the port and, more subtly perhaps, in a seemingly endless succession of elegant villas overlooking the shoreline. It’s an appealing image.

Royan-beach

Things in Royan haven’t always been so relaxed. Prior to the 11th century the Atlantic coast and the Gironde suffered so many attacks from marauding Visigoths, Francs, Arabs and particularly Vikings, that the town became heavily fortified. For centuries, in fact, lawlessness and inland marshland meant that for coastal communities the sea was the only reliable means of communication. Royan offered a natural safe anchorage for small vessels entering or leaving the estuary. Through a curious twist of fate, when Eleanor of Aquitaine divorced King Louis VII and married Henri Plantagenet (who was soon to become King of England), her lands passed from French sovereignty to that of England. Royan then became strategically important for protecting the entrance to the Gironde between the newly powerful ports of La Rochelle and Bordeaux. As history relates, France was far from ready to accept the new balance of power, but economically at least, Royan’s destiny seemed assured. Not that the town would be consistent in its loyalties; during the 16th century the black flag of piracy was a familiar sight along what had by then become a hazardous stretch of coast.

Fortunately for all concerned, law and order eventually returned, but it would not be until the arrival of the first passenger steamships in 1820 that Royan found a wholly new role for itself as a pioneering coastal resort for city dwellers from Bordeaux in search of fresh, revitalising sea air. In 1875 the steamers were joined by a railway linked to the expanding national network, visitor numbers exploded and Royan rapidly became a stylish and highly desirable resort.

When WWII put Europe’s leisure plans on hold, the heart of Royan would eventually suffer the devastating indignity of extensive Allied bombardments during a bitter standoff with German troops, who finally surrendered just three weeks before the armistice was signed on 8th May, 1945.

A visionary campaign of post-war reconstruction, largely in full-on modernist style, produced the remarkable creation we see today. Not surprisingly, opinion is divided, and how you will react to it is something you’ll never know until you come and see it for yourself. But there’s no denying that this place has real style...

 

Royan-carrelets-france

 

SEE THE SIGHTS...

Front de Mer

Royan’s seafront is glorious, with a celebrated beach known as la Grande Conche stretching virtually to neighbouring Saint-Georges de Didonne and overlooked by a succession of extravagantly-styled villas. However, the main focus, where the heart of the town meets the sea, centres upon two sensational gently-curving four-storey creations known as ‘les ilôts’, extending for some 600m. At ground level are arcaded walkways offering a selection of boutiques and restaurants, above which are two storeys of apartments with full-width balconies, all topped off with duplex apartments offering the definitive sea views. The striking post-modernist Rotonde du Casino, built in 1960 between les ilôts and the beach, was demolished in 1985 and the site successfully redeveloped with landscaped gardens and a new Port de Plaisance (marina) beside the existing Port de Commerce (fishing port).

Eglise Notre-Dame, 1 Rue de Foncillon

Architects Guillaume Gillet and structural engineer Bernard Laffaille’s tour-de-force in rough-cast concrete and stained glass was intended not merely to replace one of the war-ravaged town’s most prominent features, but also to symbolise Royan’s audacious post-war recovery. The vast brutalist creation, constructed between 1955-58, soars to 60m and would have risen higher still had costs not also soared. Sadly, an economic decision to use beach sand in the concrete mix (coupled with frequent exposure to coastal gales) created numerous problems, as concrete decayed, rainwater entered the interior and began to corrode the reinforcing rods. Coating the exterior with waterproofing resin failed to halt the problems, and now urgent repairs are under way to safeguard one of the 20th century’s most important religious buildings, which received official Monument Historique status in 1988.

Royan-cathedral-france

The 35m-high mandorla-shaped nave is 45m long and 22m wide and can accommodate congregations of 2,000 people. Contrasting with the uncompromising brutality of the concrete structural elements are some 500 m2 of stained glass, plus a 3600-pipe organ completed in 1964 by Robert Boisseau of Poitiers. It became a Monument Historique in 2006 and is also being extensively restored to combat the ravages of time, during which damp and extreme seasonal variations in temperature have taken their toll.

Marché Central de Royan, Boulevard Aristide Briand

This striking circular shell-like creation in 8cm thick reinforced concrete, 52.40m in diameter and 10.50m at its centre point, rests on thirteen peripheral support points with no internal pillars. Built in 1955-6 by architects Louis Simon and André Morisseau and engineer René Sarger, it was a remarkable technical achievement which served as a model for the market of Nanterre and the Centre of New Industries and Technologies (CNIT) in Paris. It’s clearly visible from the beach, but somehow survived the damaging attentions of Hurricane Martin in 1999, was listed as a Monument Historique in 2002, and underwent extensive restoration the following year.

Royan-market-france


Corniche de Pontaillac

This worthwhile scenic drive begins just beyond the fishing port (Port de Commerce) on the Façade de Foncillon above the Conche de Foncillon. Immediately after this sheltered sandy beach, turn left and follow the twists and turns of the rocky headland which lies to the west of Royan. Along the way are three more coves: the Conche du Chay, Conche du Pigeonnier and finally the larger Conche de Pontaillac. Car parking is limited, so look for spaces in one of the side avenues or consider walking or cycling (you’ll be on the Euro Vélo 1 long distance cycle route, marked by ‘La Vélodyssée’ signs). Along the way is a monument to the Cockleshell Heroes of WWII’s Operation Frankton and a largely-subterranean German blockhouse built on the site of the 18th century Fort du Chay. The Conche de Pontaillac is home to the Casino de Royan and an altogether more appealing straggle of carrelets (net fishing huts mounted in tall timber piers), while tucked away discretely among the pines behind Avenue de Pontaillac are villas of all styles and aspirations.

 

Villa style...

The 1850s saw a new vogue (imported from England) for the health-giving benefits of bathing, spurring the development of stations balnéaires around the French coastline. Those with the means to indulge their new-found leisure time were soon commissioning fashionable architects to create romantically-styled retreats for their own enjoyment and to entertain and impress friends. The cult of the villa was born.

Royan-villa

For Royan’s wealthy aficionados the most desirable locations overlooked the shoreline or were tucked away discretely among the maritime pines behind Avenue de Pontaillac or in the area known as Le Parc, behind Boulevard Frédérick Garnier. Being outside the town, they mostly escaped wartime destruction, and today present a dazzling collection of styles ranging from country cottage to chateau, their proportions and detailing inspired by swirling art nouveau and Belle Epoque, harder-edged art deco and modernism... and now crisply contemporary additions are taking their place among them.

Royan-villa-france

Some of the classics (such as the baronial Villa Aigue-Marine, 9 av Emile Zola) are now listed Monument Historiques, although countless others are worthy contenders. Key features include: square or rounded towers or belvédères (often with steeply-pitched slate roofs), contrasting polychrome brickwork, sculpted art nouveau or art deco stonework, friezes or individual glazed ceramic tiles and complex decorative timber detailing for gables, barge-boards and balustrades. Other features they have in common are shamelessly romantic names, often an expression of the owners’ dreams and values. 

Poster_Royan.jpg


PRACTICALITIES...

TOURIST OFFICE

1 Boulevard de la Granderie www.royan-tourisme.com

CYCLING

Join the Vélodyssée www.lavelodyssee.com, the longest cycle route in France, enjoy some of the waymarked circuits or simply ride to your favourite beach, where you’ll find places to secure your bike.

Royan By Cycles, 1-2 Boulevard de la Granderie, www.royanbycycles.com

Phare de Cordouan, www.pharedecordouan.com

Croisieres La Sirène, Quai de Monastir. www.croisierelasirene.com

Entry to the Phare du Cordouan (France’s oldest lighthouse, in the Gironde estuary) is included on these memorable 4 hour boat trips. Landing involves paddling knee-deep to the shore so wear appropriate footwear! See the website for departure dates and times, and book in advance. 06 81 84 47 80. Adults fare 40€, child 30€. Other trips include estuary tours and sunset sailings. Groups of up to 14 people can hire a catamaran and skipper to go out on discovery trips, including the lighthouse.

SHOPPING

Royan town centre has a good range of independent boutiques, antiques shops, as well as the daily fresh food market.

Marché Central de Royan, Boulevard Aristide Briand. The market is open 7am-1pm Tue-Sun (daily 15 June-15 Sept)

Confiserie Lopez, 16 Front de Mer www.confiserielopez.com
Various bonbons and berlingots made before your eyes, crêpes made to order and an enormous, mouthwatering selection of ice creams and sorbets.

BEST BEACHES

All the town beaches have lifeguard cover.

> Pontaillac - hire your own chic, stripey tent on this friendly surf beach with nearby restaurants and shady parking. WiFi hotspots.

> Conche du Chay - sandy cove with beach-side restaurant and lounge bar Koud a Koud, where you can sip Champagne on the terrace. Nearby parking.

> La Grande Conche - the best area is in front of the Belle Epoque villas in the Parc area, where there are tents and loungers for rent, WiFi hotspot and a great view.

 

© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. Originally published in August 2013