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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...

 

Discover La Rochelle natural history museum

Discover La Rochelle natural history museum

La Rochelle's natural history museum has an amazing 10,000 exhibits in its 2500 square metres of halls spread over 5 levels. Mixing zoology and ethnology, the museum is full of intriguing delights – including a wealth of exotic mounted animals – and it makes a great day out for all the family as Teresa Hardy finds out....

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Winter holidays will soon be upon us and we'll be desperately searching for interesting places to visit with the family or friends on cold, wet days. So it's time to discover the indoor delights of the region, some of which, once you've found them, can rival Poitou-Charentes' summer attractions.

One such treasure is the huge natural history museum and its botanical garden, which dominate the area north of Place Verdun in the charming town of La Rochelle. Most people already know the town’s aquarium, but the natural history museum is just as popular with children, who can see stuffed animals from close up and study them in detail far more easily than when they're alive at the zoo, in fish-tanks or wild in the countryside.

It's a place for looking at and appreciating the displays and decor, rather than for poring over detailed explanatory panels. The themed rooms are light, airy and full of curiosities – sometimes enclosed in cabinets and other times displayed openly – with exhibits discreetly labelled in French. The layout is an intriguing maze of halls and staircases, with sitting areas for watching films, and an original open-beam loft conversion, dark and mysterious to create the perfect ambience for discovering the theme of masks and rituals from faraway continents. Modern technology is present in the form of films projected onto the front of the glass cabinets that become transparent once the film has finished; and despite the quantity of animals, birds and artefacts present, the overall impression is one of clean, contemporary spaciousness.

La Rochelle

La Rochelle is a popular destination for a winter stroll, partly because of its quaint streets in the town centre that are full of original little boutiques, and partly for the harbour ambience and the stunning architecture that includes the famous towers at the port entrance. But once you've shopped and then tasted the seafood specialities in the restaurants, it can be particularly interesting to satisfy your cultural curiosity in the warmth of a museum. That's the time to leave the buzzing harbour, turn under the arch of the clock tower into Rue du Palais and walk under the shelter of the ancient stone arcades, past the 18th century Palais de Justice into Rue Chaudrier and then past Place Verdun into rue Albert 1er. 

You can't miss the elegant 18th century building that houses the museum – although, as you enter the courtyard, you wouldn't know that beneath your feet lie hundreds of square metres of underground chambers containing the 100 000 wonders that aren't on permanent display. Entering the building on the far side of the courtyard, your journey among the local and exotic, and from historical to contemporary times, begins in a decor that reflects the age of the building with its original parquet floors and decorated wood panelling.

The Museum

dec-10-la-rochelle-natural-histroy-museum0007The ground floor is devoted to representations of life in the marshes around La Rochelle, and you'll find 700 specimens of local birds, mammals, reptiles and insects among the landscape models. There are bound to be some you recognise and others – such as the coypu (ragondin) – that you've heard about from your neighbours, but perhaps never seen. This is the ideal place to swot up on the birds you usually see through binoculars, as you can take your time to look closely and memorise them in preparation for future walks in the region’s nature parks.

One room is devoted to the naturalist Clément Lafaille – a son of La Rochelle, born in the early 18th century and who collected natural history specimens. This is the only example in France of an 18th century collection housed in the original, sculpted, glass-fronted cabinets – restored by specialised craftsmen – and the focus is more on the furniture and decor of the room than the objects themselves. There is a dominance of oranges and reds, and the paintings that were found on the walls when the cabinets were dismantled for restoring have been kept. In the other ground-floor rooms you'll find fossils, crystals and minerals from the region.

Access to the first floor is by a wide stone staircase, on which stands Zarafa, the symbol of the museum and arguably the most famous animal in France. This giraffe was given to Charles X by the Pasha of Egypt in 1826 and, after arriving by boat at Marseille, walked the 900km to Paris. She was the first giraffe to be seen in France, and was admired in each town she passed through on her way to being presented to the King and settling down in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where she lived for 18 years. Her corpse was stuffed and displayed at the national museum in Paris before arriving in La Rochelle.

The large hall on the first floor is where you'll find the zoology gallery, full of examples of birds, animals and insects, from bison to bats and from butterflies to eagles. Not only are there stuffed animals and skeletons, there is a wonderful collection of bottled reptiles, including a dissected grass snake that has swallowed another snake. It's not often you'll get such a close-up view of such shy creatures! Of particular interest is the great ape family cabinet, showing chimpanzees, a gorilla and an orangutang – and there is a human skeleton that makes interesting comparison with its 'cousins'. One chimpanzee was owned by the Empress Joséphine, Napoleon's wife, while the lion came from the Duke of Orlean’s famous collection. Among the cat family, you'll find a snow leopard that used to be at La Palmyre zoo, and whose skin was brought here when it died a natural death to be mounted by taxidermists.

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Once you leave the zoology gallery you take a step into a more modern decor, beginning with a room representing the ocean, sporting a blue ceiling and fish in tall cabinets mounted according to the depths at which they live. The marine theme continues across the corridor with a display of sea cone snails – conidae – from all over the world. You may be astonished to learn that certain are venomous and can kill a human by shooting out poisonous darts – a detailed diagram showing the physiology of this particular predator is accompanied by a film showing it in action.

After this, a ‘cabinet de dessins’ pays homage to the incredible artistic skills of 18th and 19th century naturalists on a three-month display rotation. You’ll marvel at the detail and colours of the drawings, which pre-dated cameras and were relied upon to record discoveries on faraway shores. Finally, on this floor, you enter a section dedicated to the discoveries of local Charentes naturalists, the unique wallpaper, specially made for the museum, featuring likenesses of these adventurers.

A staircase spirals up to the second floor, where the theme turns from zoology to ethnology and features artefacts dating from the beginning of the 19th century. From African pre-history through metallurgy, dress ornaments, decorative and musical arts, adults and children alike will be fascinated by the impressive displays. And as you pass the African arrowheads and other tiny objects, bear in mind that each support bracket in the museum was individually created for its specific specimen – it is hardly surprising that 15 people work here under curator Michèle Dunand.

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The highest level open to the public is the third floor attic, renovated in 2007 during the mammoth works to enlarge the museum, which also included excavating the land to create a series of huge underground galleries. Here, under the open, blackened roof beams, you have a dark, secretive chamber where objects from religious and sacred rituals in Oceania, Africa and America may be found, including a collection of American shaman artefacts and scary masks. Do you have the courage to enter?

dec-10-la-rochelle-natural-histroy-museum0005While the most obvious attraction in the museum is a tour of the permanent display, you’ll discover that lots of activities revolve around the exhibitions. The recently-opened underground area doubles as a concert hall and temporary exhibition area as well as holding a permanent mineralogy display. Meanwhile, biologists and ethnologists will be delighted to know that a scientific library holding 45000 volumes, including many texts in English, is open to the public during the week. This lies on the opposite side of the botanical gardens and has two pleasant reading rooms with a view over the grounds.

Opened in the 19th century for educational purposes, the botanical gardens contain original labelled collections from all over the world – tying in with the 18th and 19th century expeditions featured in the museum – and can be visited with a guide or alone. At the very least, it’s a lovely place to stroll through after spending hours indoors, and there’s a playground for the kids to let off steam.

The museum is an intriguing place to see, but if you’re seeking to increase your knowledge, bear in mind that there is an extensive choice of themed guided visits, regular conferences, debates and seminars in the library and first-floor auditorium. There’s even an educational laboratory on the ground floor where regular workshops are held for children and families – so don’t forget to check out the website for what's going on so the kids can learn about taxidermy, zoology and ethnology in a fun way during their Christmas holidays.

Whatever the weather, a visit to La Rochelle’s natural history museum is a surprisingly enriching experience, and one that will turn an ordinary day out in La Rochelle into an unforgettable experience.


Museum details

Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, 28 rue Albert 1er, 17000 La Rochelle. +33 (0)5 46 41 91 27, www.museum-larochelle.fr

Entry costs 4€ and is free for under-18s. It is also free for everyone on the first Sunday of each month. A series of guided visits are possible for an extra 2€ per person, and there are special tariffs for groups. Workshops for families or just the kids are on offer during the school holidays, and are free for children – ring to reserve first on +33 (0)5 46 41 18 25

The museum and botanical garden are open from Tuesday to Sunday. From October to May the opening hours are: Tuesday to Friday, 9am-6pm; Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays, 2-6pm. The 1st Saturday of each month it is open from 2-9pm (night opening) and the 1st Sunday of each month it's open from 9am-6pm (free entry)

The Scientific library is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 1:30-5pm

A free museum guide document in English is available, and there is a challenge for children


INSIDER TIP: A cosy place for lunch

A few steps from the museum lies a very reasonably priced crêperie and restaurant, ideal for lunch before or after a visit, called L'Epeautre. Run by young couple Charlotte and Thomas Bouillette, it is a big favourite with children and serves traditional 'galettes Bretonnes' made with organic buckwheat (sarrasin) flour produced locally. Thomas, whose father also owned a crêperie, buys fresh products daily from the market. The service is friendly and you can also buy crêpes to take away.

L'Epeautre Crêperie-Restaurant, 24 rue Albert 1er, La Rochelle. +33 (0)5 46 37 48 20

PHOTOS: Courtesy of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle

Published in Living Poitou-Charentes December 2010