SWEET AND SIM­PLE

Sea, sand and seafood are just some of the things that se­duce peo­ple to the shores of Char­ente-Mar­itime. Ca­tri­ona Burns dis­cov­ers its sim­ple de­lights

Living France - - Contents -

Ca­tri­ona Burns gives the low-down on sunny Char­ente-Mar­itime

It’s no se­cret that we Bri­tish do ‘like to be be­side the sea­side’, with many of us dream­ing of be­ing some­where boast­ing blue skies, fine sandy beaches and aqua­ma­rine wa­ters for the sum­mer and be­yond. With such idyl­lic as­pi­ra­tions, it’s no sur­prise that Char­ente-Mar­itime on the western coast of France is a favourite des­ti­na­tion when it comes to seek­ing out shore­side set­tings, with its stretch of ruggedly beau­ti­ful coast­line that fringes the wild At­lantic Coast, a mild sunny cli­mate and his­toric har­bour towns liv­ing up to our pic­ture-post­card ideal.

The area’s cli­mate is one of the mildest in France, with the coastal ar­eas en­joy­ing the same hours of sun­shine as the siz­zling south. Although the sum­mer sea­son is the area’s busiest pe­riod, when it at­tracts holidaymakers and day trip­pers, the depart­ment’s string of coastal vil­lages and old port towns qui­etly bus­tle all year round with lo­cals en­joy­ing the area’s world-class restau­rants, lively mar­kets and sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, mean­ing the jovial at­mos­phere can be en­joyed in the off-peak months. So whether you’re a water wor­ship­per, look­ing to in­dulge in a spot of sail­ing or swim­ming, want to take a hike along one of the many walk­ing routes or want to re­lax and in­dulge in the area’s seafood spe­cial­i­ties with a glass of lo­cal wine or their cel­e­brated cognac, you’ll soon find that in Char­ente-Mar­itime, life’s a beach.

ÎLE DE RÉ

As the sum­mer­time des­ti­na­tion of choice for many pros­per­ous Parisians, the At­lantic Coast is­land of Île de Ré is said to be the Hamp­tons of France. But while its state­side equiv­a­lent is a mag­net for bil­lion­aires who have beach­front man­sions there, Île de Ré prides it­self on be­ing the place to in­dulge in the sweet­est of life’s sim­ple plea­sures.

Although a toll bridge links the is­land to the main­land, cost­ing €16 for a car cross­ing in the sum­mer sea­son and €8 in win­ter, the tourist of­fice sug­ges­tion to ‘for­get the car’ in favour of the bike is sound ad­vice, as trav­el­ling on two wheels is un­doubt­edly the best way to ex­plore this is­land that, at 19 miles long and three miles wide, is com­pact enough to cy­cle round. Pedal along some of the 100km of cy­cle paths that criss-cross its many vine­yards, salt marshes, har­bours and white-washed vil­lages, and you will see a pic­turesque tableau of is­land life.

There are many routes to choose from, in­clud­ing one lac­ing La Courade to Loix that rolls past the ocean and marsh­land be­fore con­tin­u­ing onto Les Portes-en-Ré, tak­ing you through the na­ture re­serve, Lil­leau des Niges. The land­scape is com­pletely flat, mean­ing you’ll have enough breath to take in the views with­out slow­ing down, although you may want to stop off at the na­ture re­serve to say hello to the hun­dreds of bird species in­clud­ing grey curlew, wigeon and teal.

If all that cy­cling makes you peck­ish, stop en route for some seafood at La Ca­bane du Fe­neau, one of the area’s ca­banes that are dot­ted across the is­land where fam­i­lies cul­ti­vate oys­ters and serve them at pic­nic ta­bles out­side wooden shacks. Knock­ing back this is­land spe­cial­ity com­plete with a sea­side view, a squeeze of lemon and a glass of crisp white wine is as good as it gets.

If you want to buy some of the thou­sands of tons of shell­fish pro­duced each year on the is­land, daily morn­ing mar­kets at La Flotte, Rive-doux-Plage and Sainte-Marie sell them fresh, along with other shell­fish, lo­cal wines, the is­land’s trea­sured salt dubbed ‘white gold’ and an as­sort­ment of in-sea­son fruit and veg­eta­bles.

An­other back-to-ba­sics thrill of is­land life is be­ing able to en­joy the wind-whipped set­ting of the At­lantic Coast by tak­ing to the water. From June through to Au­gust, sail­ing re­gat­tas with cruis­ing and race boats take to the seas at La Flotte, St-Martin and Ars-en-Ré with the Blue Wind Cup prov­ing to be a sea­sonal high­light.

If you’d pre­fer to sit back and set sail, then hir­ing a cata­ma­ran to sail around the is­land is an ad­ven­tur­ous way to do it, or, if you’d pre­fer to stay on dry land, be swept away by the kitesurf­ing craze and sign up to a ses­sion along the is­land’s sandy beaches at kitesurf­ing schools at Rive-doux-Plage and Les Portes-en-Ré.

The is­land is dot­ted with quaintly charm­ing towns and vil­lages in­clud­ing is­land cap­i­tal, St-Martin-de-Ré, a fish­ing town sur­rounded by 17th-cen­tury for­ti­fi­ca­tions and a ci­tadel built by Vauban.

The town’s nar­row cob­ble­stone streets, hous­ing tra­di­tional white-washed build­ings with cheer­ful green shut­ters and flower boxes rest­ing on win­dowsills, epit­o­mise the is­land’s idyl­lic charm and are caught on cam­era by many snap-happy vis­i­tors.

Take a trip to the Parc de la Bar­bette that looks down on the south­ern coast of the Vendée and stroll past holm oaks, aca­cias and lo­cust trees that lend this French town a lit­tle taste of the Med.

LA ROCHELLE

It’s lit­tle won­der that lay­ing claim to the cap­i­tal of the for­mer prov­ince of Au­nis, La Rochelle was such a bone of con­tention be­tween English and French forces dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages, as it is ar­guably one of France’s most pic­turesque sea­side towns. Still pop­u­lar with painters and writ­ers, it is a source of in­spi­ra­tion for many mod­ern cre­atives as it fa­mously was to writ­ers of the Enlightenment Age such as Voltaire and La­c­los, plus many Im­pres­sion­ist painters in­clud­ing Signac who painted the city’s port.

Still the fo­cal point of the town, the en­trance to Le Vieux Port is flanked by soar­ing stone tow­ers, cre­at­ing a grand gate­way to the busy quay­side filled with lively cafes, restau­rants and bars that loop around the his­toric har­bour. It was shipown­ers from this fa­mous French sea­port that were among the first to set sail for the New World, a hum­bling thought while you en­joy a drink out­side and ap­pre­ci­ate the charms re­tained from this old one.

The city’s lu­mi­nous lime­stone façades may have earned it the ti­tle of La Ville Blanche, but its eco-friendly trans­port sys­tem has se­cured a green rep­u­ta­tion with elec­tric cars, bikes, buses and boats all fea­tur­ing in the city’s in­no­va­tive trans­port net­work. If you want to be both en­vi­ron­men­tally and eco­nom­i­cally con­scious, hire one of the Yélo bikes avail­able at 25 por­tal points in­clud­ing Quai Valin and Place de Ver­dun that are free to use for the first two hours and €1 there­after.

An­other bar­gain is to be had when visit­ing some of the city’s his­tor­i­cal sites, in­clud­ing the trio of me­dieval tow­ers. Climb­ing the Tour de la Chaîne, Tour St-Ni­co­las and Tour de la Lan­terne will of­fer sweep­ing views of the city and his­tor­i­cal snip­pets of La Rochelle’s sto­ried past, such as the graf­fiti scratched by sol­diers in Tour St-Ni­co­las, for a com­bined ticket price of €6.90.

If you like your cul­ture with cake and cof­fee, stop off at Café de la Paix, and marvel at the op­u­lent ar­chi­tec­ture and flam­boy­ant dé­cor as you join the lo­cals’ rou­tine of read­ing the pa­per or play­ing a game of chess be­neath its vaulted arches and gold-gilded ceil­ings. Carry on the well-heeled path to the Rue du Palais where cov­ered ar­cades means you can stroll through the string of bou­tique shops what­ever the weather. If you still don’t fancy find­ing your way by foot, take one of the boats that depart from Cours des Dames and ex­plore the is­lands that stretch be­yond the port in­clud­ing Île d ’Aix and the fa­mous Fort Bo­yard.

When you’re back on dry land, dip out of the bustling streets and into the aquar­ium where you can walk be­neath trans­par­ent glass tun­nels swim­ming with colour­ful seal­ife. One of Europe’s big­gest aquar­i­ums, it pro­vides a vast sweep of life un­der the sea with its 65 tanks hous­ing 12,000 marine an­i­mals and rooms de­voted to spe­cific oceans or species. End the trip in the se­cond-floor restau­rant over­look­ing the trop­i­cal gar­den, with panoramic views of La Rochelle from its din­ing room and ter­race.

GIRONDE ES­TU­ARY

Formed from the con­flu­ence of the Dor­dogne and Garonne rivers, just down­stream from Bordeaux, the Gironde Es­tu­ary is the largest es­tu­ary in western Europe, mea­sur­ing ap­prox­i­mately 50 miles wide and seven miles long, and is bor­dered by a se­lec­tion of quaint sea­side vil­lages and holiday re­sorts.

Nes­tled on the east­ern shore of the es­tu­ary, Royan is a busy fam­ily re­sort with sandy beaches and lively bars be­hind the town’s port mak­ing for a cheer­ful holiday at­mos­phere. Ex­cur­sions to sur­round­ing at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing boat trips to France’s old­est light­house, the Phare de Cor­douan are ideal op­por­tu­ni­ties to find your sea legs, while walk­ing the Cor­niche de Pon­tail­lac lets you stretch your legs, with a back­drop of views of the Gironde and the Côte de Beauté. Bring your swim­ming gear and a pic­nic and reap the awards of your hard work when the walk ends rather bliss­fully on a small sandy beach said to be one of Royan’s best.

The smaller re­sort of St-Palais-sur-Mer ex­udes a stylish elegance, with its quiet bay dot­ted with Belle Époque vil­las and tree-cov­ered head­lands while the pine-cov­ered La Coubre for­est is an idyl­lic spot for walk­ers and cy­clists.

On the north­ern side of the es­tu­ary, Tal­montsur-Gironde is a sweet town mod­elled on the bastides of Aquitaine with nar­row streets lined with cute craft shops. Ven­ture up to the Ro­manesque church of Ste-Rade­gonde sit­ting on the tip of a cliff drop­ping down to the Gironde to watch the sun­set in style.

ROCHEFORT

With its wide boule­vards and grid-pat­terned streets, the 18th-cen­tury sea­side town of Rochefort has a ‘new town’ feel about it. Not sur­pris­ing since its very cre­ation only came about to de­fend and sup­ply the French Navy, with Louis XIV in­struct­ing the town ar­chi­tect, “Make it big. Make it beau­ti­ful and make it fast.”

Its mil­i­tary be­gin­nings can still be felt, al­beit with a few tweaks, in­clud­ing the re­stored 17th-cen­tury rope fac­tory, Corderie Royale, now sur­rounded by el­e­gant gar­dens and home to the museum, Cen­tre In­ter­na­tional de la Mer, show­cas­ing a col­lec­tion of mem­o­ra­bilia ded­i­cated to the town’s sea­far­ing past. If you want to delve in fur­ther to the mar­itime mon­u­ments, hop on board the L’Hermione out­side the museum, the replica of the ship with the same name used by a French mil­i­tary of­fi­cer to re­sume his role in the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion against Bri­tish rule.

If you’re look­ing for a rainy-day ac­tiv­ity, a trip to the Musée d’Art et d’His­toire housed in L’Hô­tel Hèbre de Saint-Clé­ment is an ideal way to while away an after­noon. Wan­der around its large pic­ture gallery and ex­hibit room to see 17th-cen­tury flower paint­ings and series of land­scapes be­fore en­ter­ing the Camille Me­riot Room, re­served for the sweet­est sea­side sou­venir, the museum’s shell col­lec­tion.

The lo­ca­tion for many scenes from the French film, Les De­moi­selles de Rochefort, Place Col­bert is a large square bor­dered by el­e­gant fa­cades in­clud­ing Hô­tel d’Am­blimont, and is an ideal meet­ing place to soak up some café cul­ture be­fore head­ing off to the shops in the sur­round­ing streets, or the daily mar­ket on Av­enue Charles de Gaulle.

Place Col­bert is bor­dered by el­e­gant fa­cades and is an ideal place to soak up café cul­ture

Fac­ing page: Char­ente-Mar­itime is home to many sun-soaked sandy beaches like this one on Île-d’Aix This page: Cy­cling across the scenic coun­try­side tracks is an idyl­lic way to ex­plore the area; green-shut­tered win­dows are a com­mon fea­ture on Île de Ré

From above: The his­toric har­bour at La Rochelle; the town is known for its eco-friendly trans­port sys­tem; sun­set over the town’s port

This page: The Phare de Cor­douan is France’s old­est light­house; tra­di­tional fish­er­man huts on the Gironde Es­tu­ary

Above: Place Col­bert in the18th­cen­tury sea­side town of Rochefort

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