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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...

 

Stress-free in Saujon

Stress-free in Saujon

Far enough from Royan to be unaffected by the summer surge of tourists, the little spa town of Saujon in the Charente-Maritime is blessed with tranquility. Yet under its peaceful air there is an agreeable buzz of activity, even in the middle of winter…

Photo-Ecluses-Ö-RibÇrou

Anyone suffering from stress, depression or insomnia would be well advised to spend a little time taking the waters in Saujon, where the thermal springs are clinically renowned for their restful properties. One of only five spa towns in France offering this remedy, Saujon is unique in proposing exclusively this specialisation – though perhaps it's not simply the water that's responsible for the feeling of relaxation which Saujon's hydrotherapy patients enjoy.

The heart of this town of 6600 inhabitants is a traditional square of bars and shops centred on the 17th century church, with a pedestrianized street leading past an eclectic mix of fascinating boutiques to the river Seudre, and from here a ten-minute walk along the shady banks of the river to a charming port. The riverbanks are the atmospheric backdrop for the popular brocantes that take place every weekend in the summer months, while the 200-year-old fair on the second Monday of each month fills the pedestrian street with colour. And you'll soon be able to lounge on a bench in the church square as it's due to be transformed into a pleasant leisure area.

At the Port de Ribérou fresh water meets the Seudre estuary tide at a sluice, giving two distinct landscapes to admire while you sit at one of the café terraces on the newly paved portside. The popular quayside bar Le Ribérou is the meeting place for a particularly active Franco-Anglaise club with over 250 members – half of each nationality – and enough activities to keep everyone occupied. If you're feeling energetic you can cycle from Ribérou to L'Eguille-sur-Seudre, a 30-minute ride along the flat banks of the river to the pretty estuary port reminiscent of Oléron island and its clusters of oyster shacks. Cycling is so favoured here that there's a scheme to extend the cycle track, or 'voie douce' as it is locally known, right to La Tremblade.
While the bustling part of town is concentrated in one district, there's a spacious leisure area just across the main road boasting two lakes – one for fishing and the other for sporting activities such as canoeing – as well as a popular swimming pool that transforms from indoor to open-air in the summer, sports pitches, the campsite with its brasserie, and the modern Salicorne theatre seating 640 people. The spot is open and airy with footpaths leading around the lakes and to the fishing village of Le Breuil, plus there's plenty of room for letting off steam – talking of which, Saujon also boasts something very special for train-lovers to discover…

Civilization in Saujon can be dated back to protohistoric times, with one of the rare Saintonge megaliths still visible at the nearby hamlet called La Graupe. Saujon's name probably comes from the earliest known occupant, Salvio, from the domaine de Salvius, in Gallo-Roman times. The barons and local population became Protestant very early, leading to much damage to the town's buildings during the Religious Wars including the destruction of the two churches. In 1638 the barons' medieval castle was chosen as the site for Richelieu to build a castle when he became lord of the seigneury and battled with the protestant population. This castle was reputed to be the most beautiful within a 20-league radius. Then, in 1682, the Catholics built the church we can see today, whereas Richelieu's castle – which resembles a grand town house rather than a fortress – is in the process of being restored and turned into an arts centre.

Saujon was strategically important because of its geographical position: A bridge – the closest to the river Seudre's mouth – was built here by the Gallo Romans, linking Saintes to the Gironde estuary. As for the port, it was very active with salt, coal, sardine and cod traders until 1876, when the railway arrived and spelt the beginning of its decline. Luckily for the town's economy, a doctor from a local family – Dr Louis Dubois – discovered that the thermal springs had healing properties. He created the forerunner to Saujon's spa centre – a shower and a bath to begin with – in 1860. This was followed in 1888 with a larger establishment built opposite the church in a neoclassical style with 8 Doric columns. Today, much bigger and forming one of the town's principle activities, the spa welcomes 3,000 hydrotherapy patients annually alongside its busy wellbeing centre, all now owned by the sixth generation of the Dubois family.

La-Seudre-et-Ribérou-Alain-ISNARD

The 'Thermes' are right in the centre of Saujon and occupy an extensive site of 20 hectares including the hydrotherapy facilities (known as the Philae Centre) and two large parks. These shady lawns criss-crossed with paths are open to the public and contain deckchairs for resting and mini-golf and tennis courts if you're feeling sporty. The Philae Centre includes a swimming pool at 32°C with water jets, a Jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish bath and individual treatment rooms. It's small but pleasant and private, and is used by the medical patients in the mornings and the public in the afternoons; two aqua-gym sessions are included in the afternoon entry price. What could be more satisfying than hiring a bike and cycling along the Seudre to L'Eguille in the morning, having lunch in Saujon and then spoiling yourself at the Philae centre all afternoon?

The current mayor, Pascal Ferchaud, is recognised as a local history expert; not only has he ordered the renovation of the streets, the port and the church square, he also gives annual public conferences on different aspects of the town's history. The mairie, at the Hotel de Ville, is where art lovers must take a few minutes to discover the collection of famous local painter Gaston Balande, who grew up in Saujon.

A five-minute walk from the Port de Ribérou lies Saujon's other attraction; you have to know about it to find it, as signposting isn't very clear, but the tourist office in the central square can give you directions to the fascinating 'Train des Mouettes' or Seagull Train.

This length of railway was created in 1875 to carry travellers to La Tremblade so they could catch the ferry to Marennes. However, the line was soon used to transport salt, resin, vinegar and then oysters until the 1980s, at which point it was abandoned. This is when an association of train lovers decided to use the steam engine – a listed Scheider 030 T, built in 1891 and the only one of the series of four to be still running – to carry tourists to La Tremblade. In 2008 the association Trains & Tractions took over the management, and teams of volunteers from all over the country run the train today.
There are two journeys per day, with stops at Mornac-sur-Seudre – one of France's most beautiful villages – and Chaillevette, where the steam engine is housed. This makes an ideal day trip for steam train enthusiasts or families, allowing them to step back in time and discover the Seudre and its estuary at the rhythms of the 19th century. The train has handicapped access as well as a special carriage for bikes, so cyclists can plan a real treat without getting too tired. If you leave on the morning train, you can get off in Mornac – for lunch and a visit of the village and its train museum – and then catch the afternoon train for the rest of your trip. Although you can't travel in the locomotive, the personnel are happy to show you the steam engine before the train leaves. But, to avoid disappointment, make sure you check the timetables carefully, because the steam engine doesn't pull the carriages all the time and make sure you arrive 20 minutes before the departure – you can't reserve in advance. Each journey takes one-and-a-quarter hours and, if you don't want to walk the 15 minutes to and from the station to Saujon centre, you can catch a taxi for just 2.

When you visit Saujon, make sure you stop at the tourist office to pick up a copy of the town guide in English. This gives a well-written history of the town and some detailed itineraries for cycle rides and walking circuits (also in English) in the surrounding countryside: you can hire bicycles if necessary.

One of these circuits takes you to the stunning Sablonceaux abbey dominating the rolling fields and woodlands of its 15-hectare park. Managed by the Christian association 'La Communauté du Chemin Neuf', the 12th-century abbey is used for spiritual retreats and can be visited from June to August. In a guided tour (French only) you can learn about how the English destroyed part of the abbey, including the bell tower, and see the gothic influences inside. A resident potter sells his work in the vaulted abbey shop, and you can admire a magnificent 100-year-old American walnut tree in the hidden courtyard opposite a beautiful 18th-century façade. If you're a music lover, you may like to visit the abbey for an outdoor concert, as it's one of the sites for the magical 'Nuits Romanes' musical events held throughout the region every summer.

From Sablonceaux abbey you can take a track to St.Romain-de-Benet, where a listed 12th-century church stands high above the village. There is a statue of a certain Mme Minal here, an important person in the village who, at the beginning of the 20th century, created the 'Fête des Rosières', a celebration in which two 18-year-old girls from the village are honoured for their contribution to village life. There are fewer than ten villages in France that still celebrate this tradition, St.Romain-de-Benet being one of them.

Saujon has succeeded in marrying the amenities of a working town – all the necessary facilities for daily life are available in a small area – with the gardens, café terraces, cycle tracks and footpaths that conjure up a relaxing holiday spirit. What's more, it makes a peaceful base from which you can explore the Charente-Maritime's plentiful activities without having to drive too far.

Photo-Marché-nocturne


PLANNING YOUR VISIT

FURTHER INFORMATION

SAUJON TOURIST OFFICE:
22 place du Général de Gaulle, 17600 Saujon. +33 (0)5 46 02 83 77, www.otsisaujon.com. Pick up your free guide to Saujon in English here.

Getting to Saujon is easy: by car, it’s at the end of the N150 dual carriageway stretch between Saintes and Royan. It’s also on the Royan-Saintes SNCF train line, which means that for the fireworks event in Royan and the ‘Violins sur le Sable’ evenings, a special train service is often put on.

Parking in the town centre is ‘Zone Bleu’, which means that in the blue-painted parking spaces you must present a special parking card inside your windscreen showing the time of arrival. Parking is limited to 1 hour. The parking cards are free and available at the Tourist Office and in the Hotel de Ville. There are also 2 free car parks within a minute’s walk of the centre, and a car park for motorhomes.

Bike hire: Cycles Bruno Lavidalle, Chemin Vert, ZI La Touzellère, 17600 Saujon. +33 (0)5 46 02 39 13. You need an identity card or a cheque for 150€. A bike costs 5€ for a half-day and 8€ for a day. The shop is open from Tuesday to Saturday.

Saujon Taxi: 05 46 02 96 96 / 06 87 10 71 68

Association Franco Anglaise’: a club to help Britons integrate and for the French to meet local Britons. Activities include quiz nights, fish&chip lunches, dinner dances, outings, a book club, history, theatre, photography and gardening groups etc. Contact them on www.afa17.com

Saujon mairie: place Gaston Balande. +33 (0)5 46 02 80 07, www.mairie-saujon.fr

Eguille-sur-Seudre Tourist Office: 1 rue du Port, 17600 L’Eguille. +33 (0)5 46 22 84 70, www.leguille.fr

Mornac-sur-Seudre Tourist Office: 46 Place du Port, 17113 Mornac-sur-Seudre. +33 (0)5 46 22 61 68, http://oftourmornac.over-blog.com

 

PLACES OF INTEREST

Swimming pool: Aire de La Lande. +33 (0)5 46 02 47 33

La Salicorne – salle de spectacles: Route de L’Ilatte, 17600 Saujon. +33 (0)5 46 02 66 34, www.mairie-saujon.fr (look under ‘salles et équipements’)

Philae Centre (les thermes de Saujon): Parc des Chalets, rue Eugène Mousnier. +33 (0)5 46 23 50 17, www.espace-philae.com. Open every day from 2:30-7pm. Over-17s only. You’ll need a swimsuit and swimming hat

Le Train des Mouettes: Gare Touristique, Chemin Vert, 17600 Saujon. +33 (0)5 46 05 37 64, www.traindesmouettes.fr. Be warned, there are no toilets on the train!

Musée Ferroviaire de la Gare: 1 rue du Grimaux, 17113 Mornac-sur-Seudre. +33 (0)5 46 05 54 08. Open from April to September

Abbaye de Sablonceaux: Communauté du Chemin Neuf, 17600 Sablonceaux. +33 (0)5 46 94 41 62, www.abbaye-sablonceaux.com

 

BARS AND RESTAURANTS

Bar Le Ribérou: to meet up with the Franco-Anglaise club. 2 rue de Peudrit, 17600 Saujon.+33 (0)5 46 05 46 14, www.le-riberou.fr

La Table: for a good quality meal at a reasonable price. 7 rue de l’Eglise, 17120 Meursac. +33 (0)5 46 91 84 20

Auberge des Monards: for nicely served, traditional French food at a reasonable price and in a pretty situation with a view over the port. 16 Le Port des Monards, 17120 Barzan. +33 (0)5 46 90 44 44

 

ACCOMMODATION

Camping du Lac***, Aire de la Lande. +33 (0)5 46 06 82 99, www.campingdulac.net

B&B Réné Minot: 1 rue Saintonge, 17600 St.Romain-de-Benet. +33 (0)5 46 06 83 32

Hotel Restaurant Le Moulin de Châlons: a charming, refined hotel renovated from a former tidal mill, a short distance north of Saujon. 2 rue du Bassin,17600Le Gua. +33 (0)5 46 22 82 72, www.moulin-de-chalons.com

 

WORDS: TERESA HARDY PHOTOS: C. MAYAU / COMMUNE DE SAUJON

Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes April 2012 © All rights reserved