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Charente-Maritime

With its Atlantic coastline, pretty seaside villages and unspoilt islands, the Charente-Maritime has been a long time favourite with those seeking sun, sea and sand. But travel inland and the Romanesque architecture, cognac producing vineyards and gallo-roman remains will capture your imagination. Find out more about the attractions in the Charente-Maritime here.

We have gathered a number of our favourite features on the Charente-Maritime below...

 

Turning The Tide - Part 1 of our Charente River trip

Turning The Tide - Part 1 of our Charente River trip

Like all great waterways, La Charente is a living being and makes an entertaining travelling companion as Roger Moss discovers...

If you really want to tap into the very soul of a region then following a great river from the ocean all the way to its source will not only take you on a fascinating journey through places you’d otherwise miss, but will also give you very different impressions of those you thought you already knew.

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Our journey begins on the Atlantic Coast, in the lee of two islands: the Ile d’Oléron (France’s second-largest offshore island after Corsica) and the diminutive Ile Madame (just 75 hectares, and accessible by a narrow, tidal causeway known as the Passe aux Bœufs). Extending some distance offshore is a navigable channel created by the river currents. Follow it inland and soon you’ll encounter the first of a series of pronounced meanders, the largest of which almost encircles the town of Rochefort in the protective embrace which made this an obvious place to settle. Today the approach to the town is heralded by a graceful road-bridge spanning the river, but what lies just beyond it is far more interesting, in the form of France’s sole surviving transporter bridge. The amazing Pont Transbordeur du Martrou, built in 1900 and now listed as a Monument Historique, still transports passengers and cyclists on a platform (or nacelle) suspended on cables slung from a trolley rolling across a slender upper deck poised some 50m above the river. Supporting it are vast skeletal ironwork towers erected on opposite banks, an ingenious response to the problem of allowing tall ships to pass upstream to and from Rochefort’s military dockyards.

Created during the 17th century, these dockyards were once the greatest in all of France, constructing over five hundred vessels for the mighty French Navy. There’s still plenty to see, including the vast, 374m long  rope-works known as the Corderie Royale, built near the quayside under the orders of Louis XIV. The unique, beautifully-restored building now houses the Centre International de la Mer, which currently presents ‘La Promesse d’Un Ile’ – a lively celebration of the great voyages by early Polynesian mariners long before the days of modern navigational aids. A voyage of a different sort is due to be re-enacted by a full-size replica of the 18th century frigate ‘Hermione’, currently nearing completion in a vast dry-dock nearby after fifteen years of painstaking construction. Her official launch ceremony is scheduled for 6 July and, once rigging, fitting-out and sea-trials are completed, she will set sail across the Atlantic to re-enact La Fayette’s 1780 voyage on the original Hermoine in support of American Independence forces under George Washington. The launch will be followed by a weekend of colourful special events. Meanwhile, the town itself, long eclipsed by its near-neighbour La Rochelle, escaped major redevelopment and so preserves a rare architectural unity which is finally being appreciated by visitors.

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Beyond it, among the flat, largely undeveloped coastal hinterland upstream lies a much more modest port. Tonnay-Charente’s activities began in the 13th century, and even today it still regularly ships grain, sand and coal, under the watchful eye of a sturdy château perched high upon a limestone promontory. Beside it is the skeletal outline of one of Europe’s earliest suspension bridges, constructed in 1842 and spanning a daring 204 metres. Touching down safely on the much lower opposite bank, though, required a vast embankment of stone piers, the arcades below the roadway evoking the spirit of the nave of a medieval Gothic cathedral. Tonnay’s Pont-Suspendu (another Monument Historique) enjoyed renewed celebrity as a WWII location in the TV film ‘Trois Jours en Juin’ (2005), but is no longer open to road traffic. However, you can walk or cycle across and, in the process, gain panoramic views of the river and its surroundings.

saint-savinien-charente-maritimeA meander or two upstream from Tonnay lies Port-la-Pierre, once a significant embarkation point for locally-cut stone, but which today retains little evidence of its past activities. In fact, most of the villages scattered around the hinterland feel blissfully immune to worldly pressures, largely thanks to the A10 and A837 autoroutes conducting through-traffic elsewhere, and the coastline inevitably attracting the main tourist attention. The tidal effects of the nearby coast are still real enough, though, and here and there you’ll chance upon a traditional ‘carrelet’ – a curious variation on the fishermen’s hut mounted on long timber piers (pilotis) to keep them safe from even the highest of spring tides. The same can’t be said of the riverbank footpaths, many of which get inundated (so keep an eye on tides before walking the lower sections).

Beyond Port-la-Pierre the local roads don’t exactly hug either riverbank, but a minor detour from the D128 south of the river will take you through the village of Geay, whose sun-bleached façades and cheerful gardens surround a huge 12th century Romanesque église, one of the most impressive in the Saintonge region and dedicated to Notre-Dame de l’Assomption. Not far away you’ll stumble upon an atmospheric village lavoir, while 3km or so to the north of the village lies the site of an ancient port and river crossing in a now-remote-feeling location known as l’Hopiteau. The name records a leprosy hospice founded by Aleinor d’Aquitaine in 1441, which also sheltered and cared (under the protection of the Knights Templars) for pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela. Nearby are the forlorn remains of a 12th century chapel, plus ‘la Ferme aux Oiseaux’, an eco-museum and starting-point for walks to observe the fauna of the Charente Valley.

Meanwhile, the river launches itself into a series of more wayward meanders, as if finally casting off its estuarine identity. The effect is particularly apparent around Saint-Savinien, the quintessential French riverside town. When glimpsed basking lazily in the warm evening sun the village looks and feels like every escapist’s dream of France, complete with an enticing, navigable river at the bottom of the garden.

The reverie continues beside the feudal château of Charles VII at Taillebourg. Among the lush flood-plains is a section of raised causeway, where a large, Classically-styled inscribed tablet records an historic confrontation between French and English forces in July, 1242 and immortalised in a stirring 18th century canvas by Delacroix. While recent research suggests that the battle actually took place nearer Saintes, the name of Taillebourg is nevertheless enshrined in the history of France. A less well-known fact is that limestone from the ancient quarries of nearby Crazannes was extracted by the Romans for the construction of their major works in Saintes, and was later transported downstream on barges to be shipped for such diverse uses as Fort Boyard (off Rochefort), the cathedral of Cologne and even, so the story goes, the base of the Statue of Liberty.

For centuries, the broader western reaches had just one reliable crossing point, a stone bridge created by the Romans at what is now Saintes, to carry a strategic Roman road linking Lyon to Bordeaux and the Atlantic. The bridge survived until being demolished in 1843 to make way for a more practical successor, but the monumental entry portal still survives, in the form of the Arc de Germanicus. Originally erected in AD19, it was reconstructed on the riverbank and is the most prominent and best preserved of the town’s wealth of Roman remains (which include a huge amphitheatre). Pilgrims on the Route de Santiago de Compostela continue to cross the River and pass through Saintes, joining for awhile the countless other visitors who come to simply soak up the relaxed atmosphere among the side streets. Still more are attracted by Les Académies Musicales, a long-established classical music festival, which has the good fortune of having as its principal performance space the hugely-atmospheric 11th century Abbaye aux Dames. Preceding the annual event are several days of rather more relaxed street entertainment entitled ‘les Musiques dans la Rue’.

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Saintes has long-since lost its monopoly on river crossings and, as new bridges opened elsewhere, most of the small ferries which for centuries transported travellers across at various points along the river saw their trade disappear. However, during summer months a couple of diminutive chain ferries still transport cars, passengers and livestock across the river at Rouffiac and nearby Chaniers. Elsewhere the old access roads now end abruptly at peaceful riverbanks, their abandoned slipways often overhung by willows and noticed only by occasional riverside footpath walkers.

Approach like this, rather than via the dramatically more-travelled trunk roads, and you’ll come upon Merpins and the town of Cognac quite unexpectedly. The latter, still largely contained within the armlock embrace of one of the river’s more angular meanders, is a place which takes some getting to know, despite its global celebrity. Devote some time to patient exploration away from tourist magnets like the big-name producers Hennessy, Martell, Otard and Rémy-Martin and you’ll be rewarded with very different impressions of this historic town. But don’t dismiss the classic attractions which provide an effective shop-window for their illustrious creations. The conducted tours offered by the great Cognac houses also provide visitors with a fascinating insight into the skilled distillation and blending processes, as well as the vine-growing area, whose underlying geology and climate play a key role in influencing the character of the world-famous spirits. Alternatively, you can take to the river itself aboard La Dame Jeanne, a 22-tonne replica ‘gabare’ recalling the sturdy timber sailing-barges which were used to transport cognac and other important cargoes along the Charente.

See Part 2 >>

© All rights reserved. Published in Living Magazine June 2012