Design Hotspot, Royan, ‘Fifties Seaside Town
Full of vibrant, summer charm and some of the finest examples of fifties architecture in Europe, the historic commune of Royan in Nouvelle-aquitaine, offers a host of holiday delights to tempt seasoned travellers and tourists alike
located at the entrance to the gironde estuary on the atlantic
Coast, the historic city of Royan became renowned during the 19th century for its exceptional beaches and balmy weather, when sea bathing first became fashionable across Europe due to its health benefits. Sea bathing enthusiasts traveled across Europe in search of the best beaches, tides and salt waters, drawing many to Royan. Fast forward a hundred and fifty years and Royan has proudly taken on other prestigious titles. Among them ‘‘France’s most ‘fifties city”, thanks to its gloriously well-preserved examples of post-war design. Indeed today, Royan is seen as an international attraction for fans of ‘fifties architecture and style, but offers a great deal more to the discerning visitor eager to explore.
Life’s a beach
When one thinks of the seaside holidays of post-war Europe one thinks of striped deck chairs, dripping ice creams, and hazy summer days spent swimming in the turquoise surf. And it is this enduring and nostalgic vision of summer-bythe-sea that has helped Royan become one of the most unique and unspoilt tourist hotspots in Nouvelle Aquitaine. Today visitors to Royan are truly spoilt by the choice of several long, sandy beaches to enjoy as well as a marina which regularly accommodates upwards of a thousand boats. The city sits at the right bank of the single largest estuary in Europe, the Gironde, and enjoys shelter from heavy winds and has
a Mediterranean micro-climate making the beaches ideal for home-grown tourists and foreign travellers eager to relax. La Grande Conche is the largest of the Royan beaches, running for more than 2000 metres, south facing and with fine, golden sand. Child-friendly and considered among the finest Atlantic beaches anywhere, it is here you will spot the unmistakeable bright-coloured tents and umbrellas synonymous with Royan during the post-war period. But there is also Conche du Chay, the most intimate and relaxed of the beaches which can be found to the north at nearby Pontaillac. Or you can consider Bonne Anse, which is not only a delightful beach spot but also great for watching the wildlife, and Conche de Pigeonnier, another beautiful and unspoilt beach worth exploring.
Though Royan experienced several major periods of invasion, destruction and reconstruction it was not until the second world war that a move was consciously made to embark on a new and innovative architectural journey within the city. By the end of World War II approximately 95% of Royan was damaged by allied bombing. This resulted in Royan being free to reimagine itself for the new post-war period in any way it desired. The result? Modernist architecture was allowed to thrive in the region resulting in some of the most celebrated contemporary architects of the ‘fifties creating a legacy of modernist heritage unparalleled anywhere in France.
Over the subsequent decades, the town took on a new reputation as a centre of architectural heritage thanks to exquisite ‘fifties landmarks that catapulted the city into the architectural lime light. In fact it is now impossible to visit Royan and not be swept away by the uniqueness of these remarkable buildings which dot the city. Royan now enjoys a cultural heritage married to its architectural legacy, so that as you walk the streets, you are not experiencing a pastiche of ‘fifties life, but something genuine. Royan invited a generation of architects to put their unique stamp on the cultural identity of the city and the results, even today some sixty years later, are still staggering to see. The influence of artists like Nadu Marsaudon can be recognised all over the city in the shapes, vibrant colours and styles of the private houses and public offices that make up the urban panorama.
Thanks to its fifties-inspired vista Royan now welcomes upwards of 90,000 french and foreign tourists every summer who come to enjoy the surf and see the perfectly preserved ‘fifties architecture for themselves. Royan has been described as a ‘Laboratory for Urban Architecture’, thanks to new techniques and greater use of concrete in the design process after the war and though the entire town is worth exploring, a few must-see examples of this innovation are worthy of special attention. Don’t miss the Church Notre-dame, designed and constructed between 1955 and 1958 to resemble a mighty boat or ship facing out to sea. The Central Market shaped like a shell and designed by architects Louis Simon and André
Morisseau in 1955 with the engineer René Sarger is worth a visit too. The Boomerang Villa is unmistakable in its influences and designed by Pierre Marmouget. And if you have time, do explore the Congress Palace building, designed by Claude Ferret in 1957 and still full of sumptuously preserved design and architectural highlights.
The Lighthouse of Kings
Besides beautiful beaches and remarkable fifties architecture, the Royan coast is also home to the Phare de Cordouan. The tenth largest traditional lighthouse in the world, if not the most extravagant in design, this remarkable construction even has its own chapel. Records indicate that as far back as 1360 a beacon tower was erected on the site of the lighthouse on the orders of the Black Prince, Edward of Wales. This first tower was known as the Tour aux Anglais and though primitive was a functioning warning light for mariners sailing the treacherous coastal waters for many years.
Some 25 years after work on a new and extravagant lighthouse was begun under Henry III, the ambitious project was completed in 1611. At the time it was considered to be the most beautiful lighthouse in the world and the 8th Wonder of the World, such was the scale and engineering ambition of the project.
Today, as tourists did in the ‘fifties, you can still take a boat out to visit the lighthouse in summer. As the last remaining off-shore lighthouse still open to the public, it offers tourists today a unique chance to explore the engineering innovation, architectural ambition and historically inspiring design that has made the Phare de Cordouan, the Lighthouse of Kings.
Tasty Treats & ‘Fifties Delights
But Royan has more to offer today in terms of ‘fifties-inspired style and holiday fun than just architecture. There is also the fabulous Flea Market ‘Le Garage du Chineur’ full of ‘fifties and ‘sixties-inspired memorabilia on Rue Font de Cherves, and the Confiserie Lopez, now celebrating forty years of providing Royan with the finest in gourmet treats. An ice-cream institution in the town, the Confiserie Lopez perfectly complements the ‘fifties sea-side vibe of this colourful, coastal area. It now boasts two locations where you can buy delicious ice-cream to enjoy on the boardwalk. In terms of places to stay with a uniquely ‘fifties vibe, try Hôtel Le Trident Thyrsé, furnished in the post-war style or in summer discover the le Ciel de Royan on Avenue des Congrès.
If you are eager to explore a little further afield, it is possible to take some fun day trips to surrounding towns such as La Rochelle, Ile de Ré, Ile d’oléron and Bordeaux.
trails, perfect for pony trekking. The forest is also the location of one of the biggest Naturist Resorts in France, Hélio-marin. If you’re feeling adventurous, why not give it a go? Please note - Naturism is not as strict as nudism, clothed, or partially clothed - guests are warmly welcomed!
The Great Lakes
Lacanau, another paradise surfers boasts beaches backed by Hopper-esque dunes. But surf isn’t all that’s on offer. The town is also positioned on a huge lake offering every kind of water-sport known to man, from kitesurfing and windsurfing to water-skiing, wake-boarding and excursions in catamarans. Perhaps the recent craze for Sup’ing or Stand Up Paddle Boarding is more your style? It’s said to be one of the best abdominal work-outs going.
The lake at Carcans-hourtin is France’s largest freshwater lake. Fringed by dense pine forest, much of which falls within a national park, and measuring 57 kilometres squared, this is Europe’s answer to Lake Tahoe. Come here to fish, sail or spend a whole day idly hugging the shoreline in a kayak. If water-sports are not your idea of personal nirvana, then maybe fishing is? Local anglers brag about the giant specimens of carp, perch and other freshwater fish lurking in the lake’s depths. In the village of Hourtin is a campsite with a difference. Perhaps more of a ‘Glampsite’, it’s entirely Wild-west themed. Stay in either a tee-pee, a clapboard bungalow, or a mobile home in one of the ‘villages’ - ‘One Horse Town’, ‘Little Louisiana’ or ‘Prairie Band Reservation’, then saddle up and ride off into the sunset. Western has its own equestrian centre, and long treks along the lakeside or into the forest are par for the course. The campsite is done up to look like something straight out of the gold rush, and offers a range of activities in keeping with the theme - like Native American-style drumming, archery, totem-carving, and you guessed it - panning for gold.
Phare de Cordouan.
‘Boulevard Garnier’ Villa.
‘Toaster’ (‘grille-pain’) Villa.
Grande Conche Beach.
Top right: Classic VW Campervan. Alongside: Cycle paths through the forest. Left page: Stand-up Paddle Boarding on lake Carcans-hourtin.
Top left: Lifeguard Station at Vendays-montalivet.