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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...

 

Meet ‘les Cagouilles’ - discover the Haute Saintonge

Meet ‘les Cagouilles’ - discover the Haute Saintonge

Nestled discretely between illustrious neighbours like Bordeaux, Saintes, Cognac and the rolling vineyards of the Medoc just across the Gironde, the Haute Saintonge area is certainly well located. Here’s a small selection of what’s on offer to visitors.

We begin our journey on the landward side of Europe’s largest estuary in the small fishing and pleasure port of Vitrezay. Its nature reserve includes a 21 hectare lake, a restaurant and a 16km waterside path for cycling, guided walks or relaxed nature watching. There are canoes for hire and fishing equipment is available for both adults and children. In fact, you can even hire a traditional carrelet to try waterside net fishing. Not surprisingly, they’re very popular, and you’ll need to book in advance. The same goes for Le Saintongeais, a passenger cruiser which leaves from Vitrezay throughout the summer. You can choose from several different routes traversing the Gironde and passing the island of Patiras in the midstream just off the Medoc vineyards of Pauillac. 

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The watery theme continues further inland among numerous lakes and waterways. Essential visits include Les Antilles – a centre aquatique in Jonzac heated by natural thermal springs, and the dazzling Fontaines Bleues in the Parc de Beaulon whose XVth century chateau and formal gardens are well worth seeing. Soubran is a popular spot for anglers and nature-lovers, while the peat marshes of the Espace Naturel des Bénissons are home to butterflies, dragonflies, amphibians and even carnivorous plants such as the benign looking sundew.

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The region is understandably proud of its natural heritage. One of its highlights is the Maison de la Forêt near the village of Montlieu-la-Garde. The centre is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary and to help you get your bearings, you can climb a 35m forestry lookout tower which has been a prominent feature of the landscape since 1950. Spread before you is a landscaped park covering 15 hectares, a guided tour of which takes you past a series of wooden cabins, each representing a traditional forest activity. Rather more surprising are two buildings with walls of timber and clay which were saved from the nearby hamlet of Bonins and reassembled here by volunteers, to show examples of a once important local construction technique. There’s also a butterfly reserve with over 40 different species in their natural environment, a child-size wooden village plus outdoor games. Exhibitions and events are held regularly throughout the year.

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There are many other walkable routes in the region, from forest tracks to estuary paths. The voie verte, or ‘the green route’, is a designated path from Barbezieux in the Charente to Clérac in the Charente Maritime, and is accessible on foot, by bike or on horseback, and would make an easy stroll for families with a pushchair. Haute Saintonge is keen to preserve its biodiversity and natural heritage - rare orchids, butterflies, birds and animals can be seen on many of the nature trails. Details of where to look for particular species are available from tourist offices.

If, on the other hand, you’re really a petrolhead at heart, then just SW of Chalais you’ll find the Circuit de Haute Saintonge. This modern, state-of-the art facility offers track days, instruction and much more for cars, motorcycles and karting.

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Haute Saintonge is also home to over a hundred Romanesque churches, a good number of which have been lovingly restored. Many of them are featured on a series of nine discovery circuits, details of which are available from tourist offices. One of the features common to local churches of this period is the use of animal symbolism, including depictions of a wolf carrying a lamb to his mate, fierce demons and other monsters, while on waterside churches you might also find mermaids and fish. Worth a special detour is the church at Moings, which is renowned for its graffiti dating back to the 12th century, including war scenes which have been compared to those on the Bayeaux tapestry. Elsewhere several other churches have retained examples of ancient graffiti – keep an eye out for the caped pilgrims, early frescoes and much more in Marignac’s remarkable 12-14th century Romanesque église.

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To celebrate the region’s churches, the hugely popular Nuits Romanes take place throughout the summer – this year’s highlight will be a spectacular display outside the Donjon in Pons on 20 August. Many structures are beautifully illuminated, with open air markets selling local produce to eat at communal trestle tables. The programme also includes free concerts and fireworks, and with an aperitif offered by the village to round off the festivities, it’s a perfect way to spend a warm summer’s evening.

For many, Haute Saintonge has long been synonymous with the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. The town of Pons, which is dominated by a magnificent 12th century donjon, is home to the Hôpital des Pèlerins. Today the hospice founded by Geoffroy III in 1160 ‘to heal body and soul’ has UNESCO World Heritage status and has been meticulously restored. The original roof structure has survived intact, despite being held together entirely by joints, without the aid of screws or nails. The medieval medicinal gardens surrounding the hospice have also been restored and are open to visitors. Nearby a new hostel has been built to welcome modern day pilgrims, and there are other pilgrims’ hostels throughout the region.

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Pons also has a major family attraction on its doorstep, in the shape of the Château des Enigmes, an activity park in the grounds of a Renaissance-style chateau. There are themed treasure hunts (this year’s being The Three Musketeers) and you can even stay overnight in a treehouse.

No trip to Haute Saintonge is complete without a visit to a pineau producer, to see Pineau des Charentes being made by adding unfermented grape juice to cognac before the blend is aged in traditional oak barrels. Today the region has hundreds of small, artisanal pineau producers, and the most pleasurable way to try pineau is to spend some time visiting one, tasting different blends, and seeing how they are made.

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Another essential food and wine lover’s stopover in Haute Saintonge is La Maison de la Vigne et des Saveurs at Archiac. Set in the heart of the renowned Petite Champagne cognac vineyards, the Maison de la Vigne welcomes professionals and amateurs to visit and learn about local produce – how it is made or grown and the related industries. There are exhibitions on cognac, pineau, winegrowing and closely allied crafts such as barrel making. In addition the centre offers cookery courses, tastings, workshops and meetings with local producers, whose specialities include local forest honey, saffron, truffles and even caviar from the Gironde. Snails, another local delicacy, are known as cagouilles and are produced on small farms. Cooked in wine or pineau (of course), they are so popular that there’s even an annual festival named after them – entirely appropriate since ‘les cagouilles’ also happens to be the nickname of natives of Haute Saintonge!

With an eye to its long history, modern Haute Saintonge has not forgotten ancient methods of food production. Windmills are a common sight in the Charente Maritime, but it’s rare to find one that still functions. The medieval town of Jonzac has not one but two working mills. The Moulin à eau de Chez Bret repays its restorers’ efforts by producing oil from local walnut trees, and is powered by the waters of the river Seugne in a setting close to notable archaeological sites from prehistoric and Roman eras. Also nearby is the Moulin à vent du Cluzelet, a painstakingly reconstructed 18th century windmill producing flour from local grain. Both mills are open to visits (the local tourist office has details) and sell the flour and oil which they produce.

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As we’ve seen, Haute Saintonge is an area with a lot to offer visitors who decide to come and meet ‘les cagouilles’.

Find out more

Pôle Nature de Vitrezay

17150 Saint Sorlin de Conac; +33(0)5 46 49 89 89; www.haute-saintonge.com

La Maison de la Forêt

Tout vent, 17210 Montlieu-la-Garde; +33(0)5 46 04 43 67; www.haute-saintonge.net/foret 

Maison de la Vigne et des Saveurs

La Pierre Brune; 17520 Archiac; +33(0)5 46 49 57 11; www.maisondelavigneetdessaveurs.com

Circuit de Haute Saintonge

Le Petit Châtaignier; 17360 La-Genétouze; +33(0)5 46 04 08 10; www.circuitdehautesaintonge.com

Hôpital de Pèlerins

Rue Georges Clémenceau, 17800 Pons; +33(0)5 46 94 71 57; www.pons-tourisme.fr 

Le Château des Enigmes

Château d’Usson, Rue des Egreteaux,17800 Pons; +33(0)5 46 91 09 19 www.chateau-enigmes.com 

Les Antilles de Jonzac

Parc du Val de Seugne, 17500 Jonzac; +33(0)5 46 86 48 00; www.lesantillesdejonzac.com 

Moulin à vent du Cluzelet

17501 Jonzac

Moulin à eau de chez Bret

17501 Jonzac; +33(0)5 46 48 49 29; (Tourist Office) www.jonzac-tourisme.com 

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Words: Nola D'Enis

© Living Magazine, all rights reserved. First published in June 2014