Newsstands selling Sud-Ouest remind you where you are: this is not the Mediterranean, certainly, but in summer the quality of the light, the warm air, the fields of sunflowers and the shuttered siesta-silence of the farmhouses give you the first exciting promises of the south. While foreign tourists flock to Paris or the Riviera when summer arrives, the discerning French head for the west coast. Straddling the regions of Poitou-Charentes, Aquitaine and Pays-de-la-Loire, it’s an area of great variety, with Roman cities, rustling marshes, a beautiful wine region and miles of sandy coast, dotted with small islands and slumbering coastal villages.
The coastline is rich in beaches, which are especially lovely on the pine-covered, sandy Côte d’Argent, south of Bordeaux. The historic port La Rochelle is a pleasing mix of Renaissance mansions and ice-cream stalls, and the islands are delightful: Noirmoutier, small and idyllic; Ré, with long beaches, windswept plains and flashy Parisian guests; Oléron, unaffected and blue-collar; and romantic Île d’Aix, tiny and windswept. The islands are popular in July and August, but best in late spring or early autumn when the crowds slip away.
Inland, the cities make ideal weekend breaks: elegant Bordeaux, with unrivalled dining, nightlife and shopping; young and lively Poitiers; and cool, creative Angoulême, home to the comic strip.For walkers and cyclists there is the Marais Poitevin, a lace-like mass of intertwined canals, and for lovers of Romanesque piety, a long stretch of the church-lined route to Santiago de Compostela, the medieval pilgrim path to the shrine of St Jacques (also known as St James and Santiago) in Spain. The finest of the churches, among the best in all of France, are in the countryside around Saintes and Poitiers.
It is a region of seafood – fresh and cheap in markets, restaurants and oyster bars for miles inland. Around Bordeaux are some of the world’s top vineyards, producing robust reds (claret) and sweet whites like Sauternes. Baked specialities include macarons, invented in Saint-Émilion, and canelé (sweet pastries made from custard-like batter, and flavoured with rum and vanilla) from Bordeaux.
Accommodation in Royan is overpriced and scarce in high season, when you’re best making a day visit from Saintes or Rochefort.
Perched on a plateau above a meander in the river Charente, hilly Angoulême is the capital of its department. The town’s splendid architectural muddle attests to a history of conquest and re-conquest stretching back to the sixth century, when the Franks took it from the Visigoths. An industrial powerhouse, Angoulême once manufactured paper for the whole of France, but only a few mills struggled into the twenty-first century. Today, it’s better known for its comic strips, illustration and animation, and some 20,000 enthusiasts descend on Angoulême each January for the International Comics Festival.
The old town is a natural hilltop fortress. On the southern edge stands the cathedral, whose west front offers a dense exposition on twelfth-century theology, culminating in a Risen Christ surrounded by angels. A lively frieze beneath the tympanum commemorates the recapture of Spanish Zaragoza from the Moors; a bishop transfixes a Moorish giant with his lance, while legendary military commander Roland (Charles the Great’s nephew) kills the Moorish king.
Touring the local vineyards and sampling a few home-grown wines is one of the great pleasures of Bordeaux. The wine regions lie in a great semicircle around the city, starting with the Médoc in the north, then skirting east through St-Émilion, before finishing south of the city among the vineyards of the Sauternes. In between, the less prestigious districts are also worth investigating, especially Blaye, to the north of Bordeaux, and Entre-Deux-Mers, to the east.
You will quickly see that there’s more to the region than wine. Many of the Médoc’s eighteenth-century châteaux are architectural treasures, while a vast fortress dominates the town of Blaye, and there’s an older, ruined castle at Villandraut on the edge of the Sauternes. St-Émilion, loved by tourists, is the prettiest of the wine towns, and has the unexpected bonus of a cavernous underground church. For scenic views you can’t beat the green, gentle hills of Entre-Deux-Mers and its ruined abbey, La Sauve-Majeur.
According to legend, the great Frankish hero Roland was buried in Blaye, which was a port of the Gaul Santones in pre-Roman times. The town played a crucial role in the wars against the English, and the French Wars of Religion. The citadelle was built by the great military engineer Vauban, but has never seen action.
Blaye has a long history of viniculture, as the area was originally planted by the Romans, and is also known for the messy-looking sweet confectionery, pralines, made here since the seventeenth century. Another speciality is caviar; legend has it that it was introduced to residents by noble Russians who fled to France during the Russian Revolution.
The green slopes north of the Garonne were planted long before the Médoc. Wine here is powerful, richly coloured, fruity, and cheaper than on the opposite riverbank. The Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Blaye are quintessential pleasant, inexpensive reds. Visit the Maison du Vin des Premières Côtes de Blaye on cours Vauban to stock up. You can get a good bottle for around €5.
Entre-Deux-Mers (“between two seas”) lies between the tidal waters of the Dordogne and Garonne. It’s the most attractive area in the wine region, with gentle hills and medieval villages. Its wines, including the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, are mainly dry whites, produced by over forty caves coopératives. They’re considered good, albeit not up to the level of Médocs or dry Graves produced to the south.
Around 25km east of Bordeaux is the ruined eleventh-century abbey La Sauve Majeure, an important stop for pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Thick woods once surrounded the abbey – in fact its name is from the Latin silva major (large forest). All that remains today are the Romanesque apse and apsidal chapels, and outstanding sculpted capitals in the chancel. The best illustrate stories from the Old and New Testaments; a pensive Daniel in the lions’ den is particularly winning. There’s a small museum at the entrance, with some keystones from the fallen roofs.
Sauternes is a slumbering village surrounded by vines and dominated by the Maison du Sauternes at one end of the village, and a pretty church at the other. The maison looks like a treasure-trove, with its rows of golden bottles with white labels, and it’s a non-profit organization, offering tastings, expert advice and competitive prices.
The Sauternes region, which extends southeast from Bordeaux for 40km along the left bank of the Garonne, is an ancient winemaking area, first planted during the Roman occupation. The distinctive golden wine of the area is sweet, round, full-bodied and spicy, with a long aftertaste. It’s not necessarily a dessert wine, either; try it with Roquefort cheese. Gravelly terraces with a limestone subsoil help create the delicious taste, but mostly it’s due to a peculiar microclimate of morning autumn mists and afternoons of sun and heat which causes Botrytis cinerea fungus, or “noble rot”, to flourish on the grapes, letting the sugar concentrate and introducing some intense flavours. When the grapes are picked they’re not a pretty sight: carefully selected by hand, only the most shrivelled, rotting bunches are taken. The wines of Sauternes are some of the most sought-after in the world, with bottles of Château d’Yquem, in particular, fetching thousands of euros. Sadly that particular château does not offer tastings, but you can wander around the buildings and grounds, two minutes’ drive north of Sauternes.
St-Émilion, 35km east of Bordeaux, and a short train trip, is an essential visit. The old grey houses of this fortified medieval town straggle down the steep south-hanging slope of a low hill, with the green froth of the summer’s vines crawling over its walls. Many of the growers still keep up the old tradition of planting roses at the ends of the rows, which in pre-pesticide days served as an early-warning system against infection, the idea being that the most common bug, oidium, went for the roses first, giving three days’ notice of its intentions.
The best way to see St Émilion is on a guided tour. Tours begin at the grotte de l’Ermitage, where it’s said that St Émilion lived as a hermit in the eighth century, sleeping on a stone ledge. The tour continues in the half-ruined Trinity Chapel, which was converted into a cooperage (barrel-makers’) during the Revolution. Striking frescoes are still visible. Across the yard is a passage beneath the belfry leading to the catacombs, where three chambers dug out of the soft limestone were used as an ossuary between the eighth and eleventh centuries.
Below is the church itself. Simple and huge, the entire structure – barrel vaulting, great square piers and all – was hacked out of the rock. The interior was once painted, but only faint traces survived the Revolution, when it was used as a gunpowder factory. Every June the wine council – La Jurade – assembles here in red robes to judge last year’s wine and decide whether each viticulteur’s produce deserves the appellation contrôlée rating.
The landscape of the Médoc, a patch of land between the Atlantic coast forests and the Gironde, is monotonous: gravel plains, the brown water of the estuary, and gravelly soil. The D2 wine road, heading off the N15 from Bordeaux, passes through Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe, where many of the famous châteaux reside.
The Bordeaux wine region circles the city, enjoying near-perfect climatic conditions and soils ranging from limestone to sand and pebbles. It’s the largest quality wine district in the world, producing around 500 million bottles a year – over half of France’s quality wine output and ten percent, by value, of the world’s wine trade.
The Gironde estuary, fed by the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers, determines the lie of the land. The Médoc lies northwest of Bordeaux, between the Atlantic coast and the River Gironde, where the vines, deeply rooted in poor, gravelly soil, produce good, full-bodied red wines. The region’s eight appellations are Médoc, Haut Médoc, St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Moulis en Médoc, Listrac-Médoc and Margaux. Southwest of Bordeaux, the vast vineyards of Graves produce the best of the region’s dry white wines, along with punchy reds, from some of the most prestigious communes in France, like Pessac, Talence, Martillac and Villenave d’Ornon. They spread down to Langon and envelop the areas of Sauternes and Barsac, where the sweet white dessert wines are considered among the best in the world.
East of the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne, the Côtes de Blaye produce some good-quality white table wines, mostly dry, and a smaller quantity of reds. The Côtes de Bourg, an area that spreads down to the renowned St-Émilion region specializes in solid whites and reds. Here, there are a dozen producers who have earned the Premiers Grands Crus Classés classification, and their wines are full, rich reds that don’t have to mature as long as the Médoc wines. Lesser-known neighbouring areas include the vineyards of Pomerol, Lalande and Côtes de Francs, all producing reds similar to St-Émilion but at more affordable prices.
Between the Garonne and the Dordogne is Entre-Deux-Mers, which yields large quantities of inexpensive, drinkable table whites, mainly from the Sauvignon grape. Stretching along the north bank of the Garonne, the vineyards of the Côtes de Bordeaux feature fruity reds and a smaller number of dry, sweet whites.
The classification of Bordeaux wines is a complex business. Apart from the usual appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC ) labelling, the wines of the Médoc châteaux are graded into five crus, or growths. These were established as early as 1855, based on the prices the wines had fetched over the last few hundred years. Four were voted the best or Premier Grand Cru Classé: Margaux, Lafitte, Latour and Haut-Brion. With the exception of Château Mouton-Rothschild, which moved up a class in 1973 to become the fifth Premier Grand Cru Classé, there have been no official changes, so divisions between the crus should not be taken too seriously.
If you’re interested in buying wine, head for the châteaux, where you’ll get the best price and the opportunity to sample and receive expert advice before purchasing. To visit the châteaux, ask at the Maison du Vin or tourist office in each wine-producing village.
Anyone who does not already know what Cognac is about will quickly nose its quintessential air as they stroll about the medieval lanes of the town’s riverside quarter. For here is the greatest concentration of chais (warehouses), where the high-quality brandy is matured, its fumes blackening the walls with tiny fungi. Cognac is cognac, from the tractor driver and pruning-knife wielder to the manufacturer of corks, bottles and cartons. Untouched by recession (eighty percent of production is exported), it is likely to thrive as long as the world has sorrows to drown – a sunny, prosperous, self-satisfied little place.
Cognac has a number of medieval stone and half-timbered buildings in the narrow streets of the old town, of which rue Saulnier and rue de l’Îsle-d’Or make atmospheric backdrops for a stroll, while picturesque Grande-Rue winds through the heart of the old quarter to the chais, down by the river. The attractive hôtel de ville is set in pleasant gardens just to the east.
No trip to Cognac is complete without investigating the drink behind the town. All the major houses open their doors, and bottles, to visitors, so you can pick the one that appeals to your interests: Otard (127 bd Denfert-Rochereau) is historical – the birthplace of François I in 1494, and a prison for British prisoners after the Seven Years War; vast Rémy Martin (20 rue de la Société Vinicole) ferries visitors round on a little train; Camus is still a family-run outfit; at Hennessy you can cross the river on a boat to visit the storehouses; Meukow is run by a family of Franco-Russian entrepreneurs; and at Martell you can visit the founder’s home, and a replica of a traditional cognac barge. You will find more historical information at Écomusée du Cognac, an 18km drive northwest of Cognac, which shows the evolution of the distillation process and includes tasting of cognacs and liqueurs.
There are various cruises from Royan in season – ask at the tourist office – including one to the Cordouan lighthouse, built by the Black Prince. There’s also a frequent 30min ferry (one-way: pedestrians €3.10, bicycles €1.60, motorbikes €10.40, cars €22.80) that crosses to the headland on the other side of the Gironde, Pointe de Grave. From there, a bicycle trail and the GR8 walking trail head down the coast through the pines and dunes to the bay of Arcachon.
An ideal bicycle or picnic excursion just over an hour’s ride from Royan is to TALMONT, 16km up the Gironde on the GR360. Apart from a few ups and downs through the woods outside Royan, it’s all level terrain. The low-lying village clusters around the beautiful twelfth-century church of Ste-Radegonde, which stands on a cliff above the Gironde.
Known as “La Ville Blanche” (the White City), La Rochelle is a delicate concoction of pale limestone, warm light and sea air. The city was one of the most important ports in France during the Renaissance, and its rich past is visible in the city’s grand arcades, turrets and timber-framed houses. Due to the foresight of mayor Michel Crépeau, the city’s historic centre and waterfront were wrested from developers, and its streets freed of traffic in the 1970s. Controversial at the time, the policy has since been adopted across the country – even surpassing Crépeau’s successful yellow bicycle plan, imitated in Paris and London.
The Vieux Port, where pleasure boats are moored, is the heart of the town. You can stroll very pleasantly for an hour or more along the seafront in either direction from the harbour: down to the Port des Minimes, a vast marina development 2km south of the centre, or west, along a promenade and strip of parkland, towards Port Neuf. Away from the centre, the area around La Rochelle is ideal for young families, with miles of safe, sandy beaches.
La Rochelle is home to three famous towers. On the east side of the mouth of the harbour, Tour St-Nicolas is the most architecturally interesting, with two spiral staircases that intertwine but never meet. On the opposite bank is Tour de la Chaine, which houses an exhibition on seventeenth-century emigration to French Canada. You can climb along the old city walls to the third tower, just behind Tour de la Chaine, known as the Tour de la Lanterne, or Tour des Quatre Sergents – after four sergeants imprisoned and executed for defying the Restoration monarchy in 1822. All three towers have fine views back to the port, and the entry ticket includes a trip on the electric ferry (passeur), which tirelessly crosses the water all day.
An endless maze of green pools and streams, wild irises, ruined churches, hidden marshes and golden orioles, the Marais Poitevin is a beautiful part of the world. Known as “La Venise Verte” (Green Venice), it was created when seventeenth-century Dutch engineers drained a wet marsh by constructing a network of rigoles – tiny canals banked with poplars. You can explore by boat, bike or by foot. The marshes lie across three départements, so getting information on the whole area, which is the size of the Isle of Wight, is difficult. Tourist offices stock an invaluable free map and guide called Marais Poitevin: Carte Découverte. When walking or cycling stick to the marked paths, as shortcuts invariably end in wet socks.
You can access the eastern part of the marsh from pretty Coulon (the “capital” of the Marais) 11km from Niort. Ten kilometres west is the quaint village of Arçais, which is dominated by a nineteenth-century chôteau, and is another place to hire canoes and punts, or find accommodation.
Roadside signs throughout the Charente advertise Pineau des Charentes, a sweet liqueur made by blending lightly fermented grape must and cognac. It’s drunk chilled as an aperitif, or with oysters. Pineau is also used to make local specialities like moules au Pineau (mussels cooked with Pineau, tomatoes, garlic and parsley) and lapin à la saintongeaise (rabbit casseroled with Pineau rosé, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, thyme and bay leaves).
Poitiers, sitting on a hilltop overlooking two rivers, is a charming country town whose long and sometimes influential history – as the seat of the dukes of Aquitaine, for instance – is discernible in the winding lines of the streets and the breadth of architectural fashions represented in its buildings. Its pedestrian precincts and wonderful central gardens make for comfortable sightseeing, while the large student population ensures a lively atmosphere in the restaurants and pavement cafés.
The town is home to one of the most famous churches in France, Notre-Dame-la-Grande, built in the twelfth-century during the reign of Eleanor. The most exceptional thing about the church is the west front. The facade is not conventionally beautiful, squat and loaded as it is with detail to a degree that the modern eye could regard as fussy. And yet it’s this detail which is enthralling, ranging from the domestic to the disturbingly anarchic. Such elaborate sculpted facades – and domes like pine cones on turret and belfry – are the hallmarks of the Poitou brand of Romanesque. Inside the church, the original Romanesque frescoes are gone, except in the apse vault above the choir, and the crypt. The columns and vaults were repainted by Joly-Leterme in 1851.
Since it opened in 1987, the enormous film theme park Futuroscope, 8km north of Poitiers, is France’s second-biggest theme park after Disneyland Paris, drawing more than 46 million visitors since it opened in 1987. With ambitious virtual-reality rides, dazzling multimedia and audiovisual exhibitions, and mind-boggling robotic displays, it’s a thrilling journey into the future for all ages and you’ll need at least a full day to take it all in. Don’t miss the award-winning 4-D cinema show The Time Machine; the new Fun Xperiences Arena, where participants can test their strength, agility and mind skills; and the spectacular live shows.
Colbert, Louis XIV’s navy minister, built Rochefort in the seventeenth century to repel the English and watch over Protestant-leaning La Rochelle. It remained an important naval base for centuries, with its shipyards, sail-makers, munition factories and a hospital. Built on a strict grid plan, the town is a monument to the tidiness of the military mind. Place Colbert is just as the seventeenth century left it, complete with lime trees, and cobblestones brought from Canada as ships’ ballast. The banks of the Charente river are beautiful, dominated by the eighteenth-century Royal Ropeworks and the stark, majestic Transporter Bridge, built in 1900.
Eighteen kilometres southwest of Rochefort is Brouage, a seventeenth-century military base. The way into the town is through the Porte Royale in the north wall of the original fortifications. Locked inside, Brouage seems abandoned and somnolent; even the sea has retreated, and all that’s left of the harbour is a series of pools (claires), where oysters are reared.
Half a dozen kilometres south of Brouages is the oyster village of Marennes, whose speciality is fattening creuses oysters, a species bred in France since the 1970s. It’s a lucrative but precarious business, vulnerable to storm damage, temperature changes, salinity in the water, the ravages of starfish and umpteen other natural disasters. Oysters begin life as minuscule larvae, which are “born” about three times a year. When a birth happens, the oystermen are alerted by a special radio service, and they all rush out to place their “collectors” – usually arrangements of roofing tiles – for the larvae to cling to. They mature there for eight or nine months, and are then scraped off and moved to parcs in the tidal waters of the sea. Finally, they’re taken to claires – shallow rectangular pools where they are kept permanently covered by water that’s less salty than sea water. Here they fatten up and acquire the greenish colour the market expects. With “improved” modern oysters, the whole cycle, which used to take five years, now takes about two.
Lying in the Bay of Biscay like a forgotten croissant, Île d’Aix (pronounced “eel dex”), just 2km long, has a population of only 200. It’s a romantic place – frequented by abdicating emperors, wild birds and hollyhocks. It’s also well-defended, with forts and ramparts. Over the course of history the island, particularly Fort Liédot, has often served as a prison, notably during the Crimean war and World War 1. The best time to visit is in spring or autumn, avoiding the midsummer crowds; hire a bicycle, cycle round the perimeter of the island in an hour or two, paddle in the sea, and enjoy lunch at Hôtel Napoléon.
Napoleon lived on Île d’Aix for three days in July 1815, planning his escape to America, only to find himself on the way to St Helena and exile. Now his former home, the Musée Napoléon, exhibits his clothing, art and arms. Napoleon’s white dromedary camel, from whose back he conducted his Egyptian campaign, is lodged nearby at the Musée Africain.
The explorers Pierre Loti – alias novelist Julien Viaud (1850–1923) – and the Lesson brothers haunt Rochefort’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire at 63 rue de Gaulle, which houses exotic objects brought back from expeditions, and nautical artworks. The Maison Pierre Loti at 141 rue Pierre-Loti is closed for renovations at the time of writing, but once it’s open a visit is essential. It’s part of a row of modestly proportioned grey-stone houses, outwardly a model of petit bourgeois conformity, inside an outrageous and fantastical series of rooms decorated to exotic themes, from medieval gothic to an Arabian room complete with minaret. You can see how the house suited Loti’s private life: he threw extravagant fancy dress parties and, rather more scandalously, fathered more children with his Basque mistress, kept in a separate part of the house, than with his French wife.
Saintes was once more important than its modest size suggests; it was the capital of the province of Saintonge and a little cog in the Roman machine.
Its abbey church, the Abbaye aux Dames, is as unique as Notre-Dame in Poitiers. A sculpted doorway conceals the plain, domed interior, but its most unusual feature is the eleventh-century tower, by turns square, octagonal and lantern-shaped. A classical music festival takes place in the abbey in mid-July.
The town’s Roman heritage is best seen at Les Arènes, one of the finest amphitheatres in France. The remains are perhaps all the more extraordinary for their location: this monumental vestige from an ancient past, now a little grassy in parts, sits embedded in a valley almost completely surrounded by bland suburbia; a forgotten, sleeping relic dating from 40 AD, also the oldest surviving Roman ruins in France. To find it take the small footpath beginning by 54 cours Reverseaux.
The Impressionist painter, Renoir, loved Île de Noirmoutier, an island of sandy inlets, pine forests and salt marshes. At 20km-long, and 60km north of Les Sables-d’Olonne, Noirmoutier enjoys a warm microclimate, responsible for the figs and early-flowering mimosa. Tourism is the island’s main economy, but it also produces salt, fine spring potatoes, and an abundance of cod, oysters, eels and squid.
The little village of Noirmoutier-En-l’Île, the busiest of the island’s six villages, has a twelfth-century castle once owned by the Black Prince (now containing a little museum), a church with a Romanesque crypt, an aquarium, a good market (Tues, Fri & Sun) on place de la République, and many of the island’s restaurants, port-front bars and cafés.
Inland, the saltwater dykes are the only reminder that you’re out to sea, while the pretty whitewashed and ochre-tiled houses in the villages are typical of La Vendée and southern Brittany. Spring weather is often stormy and the summer heat entices mosquitoes, so come prepared.
The most famous beach, Plage des Dames, with its painted bathing huts, is a ten-minute cycle east of Noirmoutier-en-l’Île. The beaches on the west and south coasts are the quietest in summertime.
With misty beaches, green-shuttered cottages and lonely coves, Île de Ré is one of the loveliest places in western France. Out of season the economy rests on oysters and mussels, while in high season 400,000 visitors pass through, many of them rich Parisians, and the island is a little less tranquil. The Île de Ré is a rung higher on the French resort prestige ladder than Noirmoutier, and three rungs above Oléron, so designer boutiques, high-class restaurants and luxury hotels are the norm.
The island’s capital, St-Martin, is the centre of tourist life. At its heart is a harbour, filled with a democratic mix of flat-bottomed oyster boats and gleaming yachts. Around the water are less democratic shops, bars and cafés. This is the main tourist drag, to be avoided at all cost on hot August afternoons. To the east of the harbour you can walk along the fortifications – redesigned by Vauban in the seventeenth century – to the citadelle. From 1860 to 1938, this was the departure point for bagnards – prisoners sentenced to hard labour in French Guiana and New Caledonia.
Joined to the mainland by a bridge just north of Marennes, the Île d’Oléron is France’s largest island after Corsica, a laidback, unaffected fishing island and coastal resort. Outside the tourist season, the island is a peaceful retreat: a patchwork of little villages, pine forests and gleaming muddy tributaries lined with fishing boats. Taken over by holiday-makers in July and August, it loses much of its tranquillity.
The main town in the south of the island, Le Château, is named after the citadelle that still stands, along with some seventeenth-century fortifications. The town thrives on its traditional oyster farming and boat building, and there’s a lively market in place de la République every morning. The chief town in the north – and most picturesque of the island’s settlements – is St-Pierre, whose market square has an unusual thirteenth-century monument, La Lanterne des Morts. The best beach is at La Brée les Bains, in the northeast. Activities abound, from cycling to surfing, and a great aqua park opens between June and September in the village of Dolus d’Oléron in the centre of the island.