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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...

 

Visit Saint-Savinien-sur-Charente

Visit Saint-Savinien-sur-Charente

From time to time even the most well-behaved waterways can become a little wayward, and the Charente is no exception. As if to prove a point, it divides abruptly beside the village of Saint-Savinien (17), one half following a graceful natural meander while the remainder takes a direct, canal-style shortcut, resulting in a semi-circular island known as l’Ile de la Grenouillette. As we’ll see, it has proved to be a useful asset in recent years.

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The village itself was founded upon a broad limestone plateau overlooking the river’s rive droite or right bank, an entry in the Gallia Christiania (an official record of French Catholic abbeys and parishes from earliest times) recording the presence of Castrum Sancti Savini – a Gallo-Roman walled settlement. According to legend the name derives from Sabianianus, an early Christian martyr who became Bishop of Sens and who died around 250. At some point his relics were transported mysteriously from the Ile de France to a small Augustinian monastery, which thereafter began to attract pilgrims. Through the centuries the site evolved into the Abbaye des Augustins, which still sits at the eastern edge of the village.

Today the peaceful riverside setting makes it an attractive place to visit, but Saint-Savinien was not always quite so relaxed. By the time of the Roman occupation, for example, the pale limestone escarpment was already being quarried on an impressive scale, the stone being transported down river from the quaysides of what would eventually become important enough to prompt the title of Saint-Savinien-le-Port. By the late-13th century the port’s commercial activity was being administered by both the local Prior and the powerful Seigneurs (Lords) of nearby Taillebourg. If the Château de Taillebourg is anything to go by, it proved to be very lucrative since it included duties levied on the shipping and landing of goods. Perhaps not surprisingly, their combined powers also extended to the judicial admini-stration of the community.

Not that all the stone was exported. For centuries the quarries also supplied materials for most of what was constructed in and around the village, their activity only declining around the dawn of the 20th century. From 1914 until 1930 the abandoned caves, like their counterparts up in the Loire Valley, were exploited for mushroom production, to take advantage of the darkness and more or less constant cool temperatures. Saint-Savinien has long been considered the capital of the Charente river fishing, an activity which (until 1750) included not only eels and elvers but also diving for patagaux, or freshwater pearl mussels. In fact, it’s said that pearls from the local mussels were presented to the Court of Louis XIV.

See the Sights in Saint-Savinien-sur-Charente...

Eglise de Saint-Savinien

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Most of the present transitional Gothic church was constructed during the 12/13th century on the site of an 11th century Romanesque priory, the exception being the handsome clocher (bell-tower) which was added a century or so later, and which remains the most salient feature on the village skyline. Above the upper-stage windows of the western facade is a decorative frieze featuring grotesquely carved corbel figures – and if the tower, constructed during the Plantagenet rule of the Saintonge, looks strangely familiar then perhaps it is. The design is said to have been inspired by that of the Cistercian Abbey of Buckfast in Devon, although it never received the spire which was originally planned. Inside the church is lower and more intimate than expected, and makes use of the tall Angevin-style rib vaulting which originated in and around Angers. Just inside the entrance you’ll discover a more local feature, in the form of a stoup sculpted with a large scallop shell, a decorative motif frequently seen along the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. The greater part of the church was given official Monument Historique status in 1910.

Troglodytic Homes

Quarrying wasn’t the only reason that the rock-faces around the plateau were excavated; troglodytic dwellings were also created to provide economical, secure dwellings. Originally purely cave-like, a need for more space soon resulted in many being extended outwards – using stone from the quarries, naturally.

lle de la Grenouillette

The island, much of whose surface area is given over to landscaped leisure area, has become hugely popular with family visitors, who come to relax in the parkland and enjoy a boating lake with a difference. The Charente’s traditional river traffic may have long since departed, but on the lake you can be sure of seeing a variety of craft from fishing boats, tugboats and car ferries to a Mississippi stern-wheel steamer. They’re actually scaled-down models, of course, but instead of twiddling with a remote control as you might expect, here you can actually climb aboard and pilot them yourself (as long as you’re a child or accompanied by one..) around the lake and along a 46m-long miniature canal. The remarkable facility and its 18-strong fleet have all been lovingly created by the resourceful Jean-Louis Foucaud in his Atelier du Martin-Pêcheur (Kingfisher). If you prefer dry land, you can simply watch the fun from the riverbanks, cross the canal via footbridges or relax in the nearby bar/restaurant.

Le Quai du Port & Quai des Fleurs

These days the old quaysides show few signs of the activity which was once centred upon them. At the height of their commercial importance, gabares (barges), allèges (lighters) and galliots (flat-bottomed galleys) were loaded with timber, wines and eaux-de-vie, plus the fine-grained local stone for shipping upstream to Angoulême or downstream to the seaports of Rochefort and La Rochelle. Saint-Savinien stone was widely renowned, and used for construction projects worldwide, including quaysides in the Port of London.

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Today the Quai du Port is perfect for a relaxed stroll, while keeping an eye on the pleasure craft moored on the opposite bank in the Port de Plaisance. Alternatively, opposite the southernmost tip of the island you’ll find the Quai des Fleurs, which as its name suggests offers a peaceful haven of leafy relaxation.

Place de l’Eglise Plateau Views

Saint-Savinien-sur-Charente-10.jpgThe area in front of the church has recently been sensitively re-landscaped, with tree-planting and amphitheatre-style stone seating, and in summer you can cool off in the mottled shade of a large Albizia tree. The backdrop is nothing if not dramatic, as you’ll see when you draw close to the edge of the escarpment and gaze across the cheerful stone and terracotta skyline to the river, the Ile de la Grenouillette and ultimately the agreeable landscape which lies beyond. From the plateau you can descend to the Quai du Port via some stone steps (Rue des Échelles de Pierre) or by following a narrow lane (Rue Albert Raoult).

 

 

Around Les Halles

On Saturday mornings (Tuesdays and Saturday mornings in summer) the beautifully restored covered market hall and market square offers fresh local produce in a traditional setting. You’ll find it where Rue du Centre meets Rue du Champéroux. Follow them through the heart of the village and eventually you’ll reach the Abbaye des Augustins, much altered since the French Revolution, but whose history dates back to the 13th century.

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Practicalities

Foire aux Vins 2-3 August 2014 

During this annual wine fair the narrow streets are packed with over 50 wine producers, offering
visitors a chance to taste and com-pare more than 135 French AOCs.
As well as wine, food-lovers will discover a wealth of gastronomic and regional specialities. With over 10,000 visitors over two days, there’s also plenty of entertainment, a convivial atmosphere (no doubt mellowed by wine dégustations...) and activities for all the family to enjoy.

Tel: 05 46 90 24 22 
www.foireauxvins17.fr

Miniature Port

Open Sunday afternoons and public holidays 1 May - mid-Sept, afternoons during July - Aug (weather permitting).
Tarif: 5.50€, under 9yrs 4.50€,
under 2yrs free (15 min sailing time).

Tel: 06 70 95 25 14;
www.port miniature-saintsavinien.fr

Pleasure Boats

The Port de Plaisance is equipped to welcome visiting boats, with essential services and moorings on pontoons provided on the banks of the Charente. Saint Savinien is 3½ hours from Cognac and 1½ hours from Saintes, making it a pleasant and quiet overnight stop for those exploring the Charente in a pleasure cruiser.
Tel: 05 46 90 20 03

Shopping

Visit the local shops bordering the river. Anne & Brian Bosset run the delightful Galerie de la Riviere on Rue du Centre featuring work by local artists including Anne herself.
Tel: 05 46 90 57 83.

Cycling and Walking

There’s a choice of 5 cycle routes from the Ile de la Grenouillette, plus a selection of circular walks. Details available on www.saint-savinien.fr or at the Tourist Office.

Tourist Office 

Office de Tourisme, 1 rue des Bateliers, 17350 Saint-Savinien-sur-Charente

Tel : 05 46 90 21 07;
www.saintongedoree-tourisme.com

Opening hours Sept - June:
Mon - Fri 9-30am - 12-30pm (except public holidays)
July & Aug: Mon - Sat 9.30am - 12.30pm & 2.30pm - 6.30pm,
Sun 9.30am - 12.30pm (except public holidays)

Words & Photos by Roger Moss

© All rights reserved. Originally published in Living Magazine in June 2014.