|The Independent Traveler's Newsletter PAGE FOUR|
The Poitou-Charentes has abundant sunshine, second only in France to that of the Mediterranean coast of Provence. Its mild climate adds to the appeal of the Atlantic coastline of the Charente-Maritime département (17), where tourists both French and foreign flock in the heat of summer while by no means ignoring it at other times of the year.
The Poitou-Charentes has an abundance, too, of attractions, many of which are unique in France. It is the home of Futuroscope, Europe's theme park focusing on robots and computer technology of the future. Photos of its Marais Poitevin, shared with the neighboring Vendée département of the Pays de la Loire, have been captured in many guidebooks ~ a maze of lazy waterways plied by simple rowboats passing by blue shuttered cottages at the water's edge. Seeking out a peaceful vacation? Then the Marais Poitevin may be just what you are looking for! Known by the locals as 'la Venise Verte', or the green Venice, the Marais has many wonderful villages with the fortified city of La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast standing out as the Charente-Maritime's star attraction.
The Poitou-Charentes landscape has valleys, the foothills of the Charente Range and the renowned vineyards from which Cognac is produced. Its largest meandering rivers are the Charente (prone to flooding) and the Vienne, but there are many smaller rivers winding through the peaceful countryside.
Cognac, both the town and the brandy, make this area familiar to people the world over. But there is another drink from the Poitou ~ Pineau ~ an apéritif. Pineau des Charentes is the blending of new grape juice with cognac. It has existed since 1589 and was caused by a winemaker's error of putting new grape juice into a barrel containing a small quantity of cognac. He forgot about it, and when his mistake was discovered he found he liked it very much. Its production is now tightly controlled to assure precise blending and aging. Light wines from the Haut-Poitou, Charente and Deux-Sèvres are also produced in the region. If cathedrals and churches interest you, the Poitou-Charentes offers a wide range of choices to visit: the cities of Niort, Poitiers, La Rochelle, Parthenay, Royan and Saintes, as well as some others, all have interesting religious architecture.
The Poitou is divided into four départements: Deux-Sèvres (79) is its northernmost and is inland just south of the Pays de la Loire region and blocked from the Bay of Biscay by the Vendée. The most important city of Deux-Sèvres is Niort, at one time a significant river port on the Sèvre Niortaise, close to the marshes of the Marais. It is a good place to set out on excursions into the Marais Poitevin. A distinction of Deux-Sèvres is the 'cheese road', a route of 18 producers, cheese makers and goat breeders along the road of Chabichou. You can follow the signs (a profile of a rather proud looking Billy goat) for an unusual experience discovering the delights of Chèvre cheese! We also thoroughly enjoyed the town of Parthenay, with its winding cobbled streets and prominent location above the valley below.
Poitiers is the principal city of the département of Vienne (86) and the capital of the Poitou-Charentes; it is rich in history and renowned as an early intellectual center. Clovis, the first King of the Franks, defeated the Huns here in 507. It was in Poitiers that Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, halted the Arab invasion in 732. Vikings destroyed most towns in this region in the ninth century followed by a period of frantic church building in the Romanesque style. (Read all about this in our May 2008 newsletter.) Later, the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion affected the area, which throughout history has been a part of the French kingdom.
architecture of Poitiers ranges from Romanesque to Moorish to Renaissance,
in sharp contrast to nearby Futuroscope, which appears as
a huge crystal sitting at an angle on the landscape with its cinema boasting
the biggest screen in Europe. To reach Futuroscope leave Poitiers
northbound on the N10. It is a short drive of about 8 kilometers.
Another wonderful side trip is to the village of Chauvigny
(this photo), high on a promontory overlooking the River Vienne.
It is a village with four ruined fortified medieval castles, and we were
unaware of its existence until encouraged by our hosts at a nearby château
bed and breakfast to visit there. The town's 11th and 12th century
Eglise St-Pierre has unusual decorative capitals of scenes from the Bible
as well as some really horrific monsters! The village is a little
gem, and we recommend a visit by driving east from Poitiers on the N151.
Once in Chauvigny, you can drive either north or south along the very scenic
D749 which traces the River Vienne.
Charente (16) is the département where you will find the town of Cognac, although its principal city is Angoulême. Cognac is the birthplace of King François I of France, as well as the home of all the famous cognac distilleries including Martell, Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Delamain, Ragnaud-Sabourin and Courvoisier. Tours of the distilleries along the riverside port will allow you to watch the blending and bottling of this double distilled brandy which comes from local white wine grapes. It is aged in Limousin oak casks anywhere from two to fifty years, and once bottled is always stored vertically so that it does not react with the cork. A distinction of the town's houses and other buildings is the blackening of their walls caused by a fungus which thrives on the evaporation of alcohol. Cognac's evaporation is called 'part des anges' or 'the angels' share'. Up to twenty million bottles a year can be lost to this process. But, the process creates the relationship great cognac has with time. Cognac usually takes at least twenty years to begin to develop the proper taste, which is of the utmost importance for a good return on investment. If you believe that the production of cognac is a minor industry in France, here is a statistic you might find interesting: Courvoisier, Martell, Rémy-Martin and Hennessy own about eighty percent of the world's cognac market.
Not far from Cognac, if you drive eastward on the N141, is the town of Jarnac, birthplace and final resting place of the late French President François Mitterand. This route toward the large city of Angoulême is tranquil and quite pleasant, especially if you leave the N141 just past Jarnac and take the more scenic D22 toward Châteauneuf-sur-Charente, which follows the course of the Charente River. Angoulême's 12th century Cathédrale St-Pierre, although partially destroyed by the architect Abadie in the 19th century in his zeal to restore it, is worth a visit. He also, unfortunately, had a hand in restoration of the old château to transform it into a neo-Gothic Hôtel de Ville. Should you find that some guide books discourage you from visiting Angoulême, please don't take them to heart. We feel every city has something to offer, and we encourage travelers to form their own opinions.
fourth département of the Poitou-Charentes is the Charente-Maritime
(17) offering much to see and do that one could spend their entire
vacation there. Begin with a visit to the its principal city, La
Rochelle, an ancient walled town whose Vieux Port is famous for
its two towers. Today's La
Rochelle, aside from its strong attraction for tourists, is also the
French capital for electric cars and TGV trains! Be sure to visit
de Ré, a 19-mile long resort island near La Rochelle.
The toll bridge will cost you approximately $25 to reach the island, but
we believe the visit is worth it. A highlight of the island is the
town of Saint-Martin de Ré where the port is brimming over with
pleasure and fishing boats.
La Rochelle is a very important Atlantic port and has been throughout history. Eleanor of Aquitaine decided to widen and dredge the harbor at La Rochelle in the early 12th century. Her foresight brought great wealth to France. She knew there was a need for a major port large enough to handle the export of the much sought after French wines, salt and seafood ~ the primary and important products of her domain.
The tranquil and historic Vieux Port at La Rochelle with its two famous towers
In later years La Rochelle became even more important. It was from La Rochelle that French ships sailed to the West Indies and the French colonies in Brazil and Canada. The Huguenots, first settlers of Nova Scotia, sailed from La Rochelle and returned there years later when they were driven out of Canada by the English. And, the Général Marquis de Lafayette sailed from La Rochelle in the 1780s on his frigate Hermione to assist the Colonists against the English in America's War of Independence. The frigate has recently been reconstructed in La Rochelle in conjunction with the celebration of the Général's 250th birthday. Further south along the coast toward the Gironde estuary is a crescent beach opening out toward the ocean from the wonderful town of Royan.
You won't regret a visit to the Poitou-Charentes. The islands off the shore offer salt air and sunny days. The coastline of the mainland with its marsh grasses and peaceful towns presents a relaxed resort atmosphere even off season. The cities of the Poitou surrounded by green forests and under blue skies offer a taste of the real France. Each discovery will tell you of a strong French heritage reaching back almost 1500 years. This spot, nestled between the Loire Valley to the north and Aquitaine to the south and between the Atlantic in the west and Limousin in the east, is perhaps a France unlike any other you will discover in your travels.
this feature are copyrighted property of Cold Spring Press 2008. All rights
Where to stay in the Poitou-Charentes:
You won't go wrong if you stay in a château bed and breakfast. We have several that we can highly recommend in the various départements, and we have personally visited each of them. For reservations or to see more about each one, visit http://www.au-chateau.com by clicking on their names or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
de la Motte. A delightful fairytale château that
hosts weddings, welcomes bed and breakfast guests and has lovely accommodations
for those who would like an apartment for a week or more. Fabulous
d'Alogny. High on a hill with views of the beautiful countryside,
this lovely château with a swimming pool and much-loved gardens can
be rented by the week for that perfect tranquil vacation getaway.
de Bournand. This lavishly furnished château offers
comfort and style for bed and breakfast guests, while those wanting a self-catering
vacation can rent the renovated Carriage House by the week. Don't
miss the lovely Celtic gardens!
de Saint-Loup. Located near the birthplace of Voltaire
and oozing with elegance, charm and history, this fine château sits
surrounded by historic gardens and a moat! An incredible experience
and a welcoming and friendly host.
de Crazannes. This is the château that inspired
the story 'Puss in Boots' by Charles Perrault, and it will inspire
you as well. Guests can rent a gîte by the week, stay as bed
and breakfast guests in the château or keep, or rent the entire château
[Photos courtesy of their respective owners. All rights reserved.]