The history of La Rochelle, one of the best natural harbours along the Atlantic Coast, has always been linked to the sea.
Absorb the maritime culture and architectural heritage of this splendid walled town around the quays of the old harbour guarded by the fourteenth century towers of St Nicholas - has wonderful panoramic views - and the Chain Tower - the chain at its foot was used to close off the harbour at night.
A third tower, the Lantern or ‘Four Sergeants’ Tower, was originally built as a lighthouse in the fifteenth century and later used to house prisoners.
Many of La Rochelle’s Renaissance and eighteenth century houses were originally owned by wealthy merchants dealing in wine and salt and the arcaded shopping streets - now housing stylish boutiques - were once the venue for traders dealing in goods unloaded from around the world.
Today, Port des Minimes has moorings for 3,500 boats, making it Europe’s largest marina on the Atlantic and host to its largest floating annual boat show each September - the ‘Grand Pavois’. This major sailing centre also has a sailing and windsurfing school, boat and jet-ski hire.
The waterfront is vibrant with seafood restaurants, serving everything from oysters and clams to turbot and sea bass and the town’s parks and gardens invite you to stroll along river banks and avenues amongst superb trees and brightly coloured flowers. Children will love La Rochelle’s hi-tech Aquarium with over 10,000 marine animals and the town’s museums of automated puppets and models.
The market town of Saintes, developed by the Romans in the first century as a cultural and administrative centre, still retains imposing remains of ancient monuments. The town’s Architecture and Heritage Interpretation Centre on place de l’Echevinage is a good introduction.
Les Arenas amphitheatre, built into the sides of the valley in 40AD could hold 15,000 spectators and is one of the oldest surviving in France. Germanicus Arch originally stood on the river bridge serving as a gate for the town on the great Roman road from Lyon and bears inscriptions to the Emperor Tiberius and his nephews Germanicus and Drusus. Part of the ‘calderium’ (hot bath) is still visible at the remains of the St-Saloine Thermal Baths. Entrance to these last 2 monuments is free.
Notice the changing shape of the rare eleventh century tower which is part of Abbey aux Dames, a convent founded in 1047 and now a cultural centre which hosts a variety of exhibitions and performances including a prestigious music festival. Another medieval building, Eglise Saint-Eutrope, now listed as part of the World Heritage Site ‘Routes of Santiago de Compostela’, is definitely worth a visit for its beautiful carving and special atmosphere in its crypt.
Amongst the narrow streets and medieval houses you can also find museums of art, architecture and archaeology. There is a market somewhere in Saintes every day except Monday and the first Monday of the month a huge Grand Fair takes place. Relax on a river cruise along the Charente from Saintes’s port in the town centre or hire a ‘santon’ - electric houseboat - to cruise at your own pace.
Built in the seventeenth century at the mouth of the River Charente as a naval base and arsenal, Rochefort’s history is bound up with ship building and naval expeditions. Find out more at the National Naval Museum, housing scale models of ships and figureheads, and the Naval Medical School with collections of instruments, travel books and naval documents.
The Royal Rope Walk at 373m is one of the longest buildings in France, and supplied ropes and rigging to the entire French navy. The ‘Garden of Returns’ around the Ropewalk beside the river displays rare and unknown plants brought back from overseas. Rochefort’s Begonia Conservatory has greenhouses containing the world’s largest collection (more than 1,500 species) of the plant brought back from Central America in the seventeenth century and named after the town’s then quartermaster - Michel Begon.
Don’t be deterred by the respectably modest exterior of Pierre Loti’s house or you will miss the guided tour of his “drawing rooms of marvels from overseas”. The naval officer and writer born in 1850 was a larger than life character reflected in his exotic and fantastical home décor.
Rochefort is home to a transporter bridge, one of the few still operational in Europe. Rochefort is also one of the best known spa towns in France treating rheumatology and phlebology. Contact the local tourist office for details of special interest walks around Rochefort - April to November - and oyster park and marsh tours. Evening sightseeing tours with a guide and musician available each Tuesday at 9.30pm during July and August. Or head down to Port-des-Barques at the mouth of the Charente with its little island, Ile Madame which links to the mainland via a tidal causeway.
Located on the banks of the River Boutonne, Saint-Jean-d’Angely was built on the site of a Roman villa and became a major stopover on the route to Santiago de Compostela. The town is an artist’s dream with cobbled streets and charming medieval timbered houses around the Royal Abbey.
The original ninth century Abbey was constructed to house the sacred relic of a skull said to belong to John the Baptist. The present Royal Abbey is now a listed building and European Culture Centre welcoming adults and young people from all over Europe and offering a venue for concerts and drama in the summer.
Notable too are the medieval clock tower and Fontaine (fountain) du Pilori. Musee des Cordeliers has sections on the town’s history and pre-history as well as ceramics, furniture and souvenirs from car manufacturer Citroen’s African and Asian expeditions demonstrating their cars’ potentials in the 1920s and 30s. Visit St Jean’s colourful market on Saturday mornings and stop for coffee in one of the lively cafes in its little squares. Stroll along the canal banks and canoe on the River Boutonne.
Royan was ‘the’ stylish resort in the nineteenth century and is credited with launching the fashion for sunbathing on its 5 sheltered sandy beaches. Safe bathing has made Royan attractive to families and its excellent restaurants, large marina and 2 casinos ensure there is plenty too for just adults to enjoy.
Extensive bombing destroyed much of the town in WWII but elegant ‘turn of the century’ houses still survive around boulevard Garnier and the church of Notre Dame, part of the 1950s rebuilding, has a striking interior with modern stained glass to compliment its towering exterior.
Take a cruise between April and September to France’s oldest functioning lighthouse, the Phare de Cordouan at the mouth of the Gironde River which was built in 1584. Cyclists can load their bikes on a ferry across to Pointe de Graves and explore the pine-fringed coastal trails in neighbouring Gironde.