La Rochelle, Island of Ré, Poitiers, Royan and Cognac

landscape of the Poitou-CharentesLand of passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the mountains of the Massif Central, between the North and the South, between the Paris and Aquitania basins, between the "langue d'oc" and the "langue d'oil", Poitou-Charentes is a region of subtle balances and diversity

("langue d'oc" and "langue d'oil" are the two main linguistic roots of modern French). Its coastline is dotted with famous beaches and resorts and boasts two magnificent islands, Oleron and Rhe, as well as the ports of la Rochelle and Rochefort, legendary names that evoke the open sea.
These are generous lands, where you will find market garden production and vineyards, lush pastures and marshlands, with flat-bottomed barges sliding peacefully by.

At the heart of some of France's greatest historical milestones, with a valuable artistic legacy, Poitou-Charentes is a region where the temperate Atlantic climate fosters a relaxed, leisurely lifestyle. It is common knowledge that it was in Poitiers in 732 that Charles Martel, the Carolingian king, stopped the Arabic invasion. It was a repeat of history since, two centuries earlier, the Franc king Clovis stopped the Visigoths nearby. The Poitou region found itself once again at the heart of the struggle for power under the Capetians when, during the 12th century, Eleanor, the daughter of the Duke of Aquitania and Poitou, married to King Louis VII, divorced and subsequently married Henry Plantagenet, the Duke of Normandy. He became King of England and this wedlock brought him half of Western France in dowry, from Normandy to Gascony, a territory that was larger than that ruled over by the Capetian king ! This sparked an interminable series of wars between France and England. The destiny of Eleanor of Aquitania, the mother of Richard the Lionheart, saw a number of highs and lows until, having separated from her second husband, she moved to Poitiers and set up a court whose influence spread widely.Another famous woman deeply marked the history of France several centuries later: Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II. Her destiny is linked to a tragic period, the Wars of Religion that ravaged France throughout the 16th century. The Reform preached by Calvin, who spent some time in the region, generated a large following there. La Rochelle remained a Protestant bastion for many years. Religious persecution was the cause of the strong current of emigration from the region to Northern Europe and to America at the time, mostly to Acadia, in Canada.

Enthusiasts of Roman art know that the Poitou region harbours large numbers of churches dating from the time of the Crusades as well as shrines that pepper the routes of the major pilgrimages, in particular the Way of Saint James. Religious fervour and the harsh living conditions prevalent in the early 11th century explain the enthusiasm for artistic creation. The beautiful limestone found in the region allowed the “Compagnons du Devoir” (France’s leading Guild of Master craftsmen) to create sculptures of astonishing refinement. The art of the Fresco also flourished, the culmination of which were the famous biblical murals of St-Savin abbey, classified as a World Heritage site by Unesco. The capital of the region, Poitiers, also harbours architectural treasures including the church of Notre-Dame-La-Grande with its extraordinarily expressive sculptural façade.

The region’s landscapes are soothing to the senses. Rivers wind lazily and interminably along the coastal plain. The largest of them, the Charente, was used for centuries to transport goods both downstream (cognac, cut stone, Angoulême paper) and upstream (sea salt and wood). Nowadays, agriculture still plays a dominant role in the local economy. The dairy produce of Charentes is renowned, as is its Cognac and Pineau production. Cognac is obtained by distillation of white wines grown within a strictly delimited area, where the soil and the climate play a major role, enhanced by the expertise of the winemaker, the distiller and the “assembler”. The great cognacs, matured in wooden casks for years, are exported throughout the world and enjoy an excellent reputation.

One of the region’s characteristics is the presence, in the coastal areas, of salt marshes where soil and water are so intimately associated, offering landscapes imbued with bewitching poetry. Most have become oyster beds or nature sanctuaries favoured by migrating birds from Nordic countries, a paradise for all sorts of bird life that can be observed from specially- equipped facilities. Other marshes, formed further inland by alluvia deposits over the centuries, have been reclaimed using the same technique as in the Dutch polders : dredged and drained to create meadows and fields.

The region’s shoreline is particularly attractive. The landscapes and skies are bathed in a beautiful light that changes with the tides. It is hardly surprising that tourism has prospered on these shores, especially near the mouth of the Gironde. This aptly-named “coast of beauty”boasts Royan, the queen of seaside resorts. There are many pleasing sites to visit : the Cordouan lighthouse, the forest of La Coubre, the site of Talmond-sur-Gironde, the interesting La Palmyre zoo, etc…Just off the coast, the islands of Oléron and Ré captivate even the most jaded visitors with their wild beauty, the fishing villages with their low houses, their little ports with colourful boats and Mediterranean flora. They are havens to spend a few peaceful days, go for walks far away from the bustle and noise of the city, admire the scenery and the skies…

La Rochelle holds a special place with its legendary old port, guarded by two watchtowers, which has inspired painters and writers, and its picturesque old quarter where the town’s seagoing past is etched. La Rochelle also boasts a modern port, shipyards and is one of the main international sites for the sailing sports. The other large town with an exceptional sea-going past is Rochefort, on the Charente river, located just a few miles from the coast. Colbert chose this port to defend the Atlantic coast of France. In its famous shipyards, hundreds of warships were built, its rope factory supplied the entire sailing industry until it was replaced by steam-driven shipping. Rochefort, the native town of the writer and traveller Pierre Loti, is imbued with legend : it’s from this port that La Fayette embarked for America ; it is from this same port that the frigate “La Meduse” set out on its tragic journey in the early 19th century and inspired the famous painting by Géricault.

In Poitou-Charentes the visitor has plenty of options. He may choose modernity and visit the Futuroscope in Poitiers, the European theme park illustrating multimedia, cinematographic and audio-visual techniques, at the cutting edge of communication technology, or attend the comic Festival in Angoulême or the Francofolies Festival in La Rochelle. If he chooses tradition, he may follow the route of Roman churches and abbeys in Haute-Poitou, the treasures of Saintonge or the English Kings (Plantagenets), or alternatively, those of the Way of Saint James. He can also attend festivals celebrating local traditions, such as the rosaries, the old crafts, the distilleries, the Poitou donkey, or those devoted to local produce, such as chabichou and other cheeses, melons, la cagouille (snails), the grape harvests, etc..the themes available are astonishingly varied.

Local gastronomy is based on two complimentary sources : the sea and the soil. Local recipes make the best of livestock production (lamb and pork), spring vegetables and fish and shellfish from the coast. The basin of Marennes-Oléron, the birth-place of oyster farming, is world famous, in particular regarding the “fines de Claire” oysters. Charentes and Poitou cuisine reserves many pleasant surprises – it is one of the most varied and inventive in France.
The Charentes or Poitou tables are perfectly in harmony with the beauty of the region’s landscapes and its rich heritage.

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