The regions of Poitou, Charentes and Vendée lie in western France, between the Atlantic on the west, the Loire on the north, the Gironde on the south and the Limousin on the east.
They have a total population of around 2.05 million living in an area of 22,190 sq. km/8565 sq. mi with a coastline of 550km/340mi.Poitou, lying between the Loire, the Massif Central and the Atlantic, is a fertile plateau at an average altitude of around 150 m/500ft, across the middle of which runs a sill of ancient rocks, the Hauteurs de la Gâtine, rising to 285 m/935ft. The western part of the plateau, near the coast, is the Vendée, which consists of the Bocage Vendéen, a gently undulating area of pastureland crisscrossed by hedges, and an extensive plain, on the northern and southern borders of which are expanses of former marshland (marais), now traversed by countless drainage canals, with large oyster-beds along the coast. The largest area of marais is the Marais Poitevin, a network of watercourses on both sides of the Sèvre Niortaise. Poitou now takes in the départements of Vienne (chief town Poitiers), Deux-Sèvres (Niort), Vendée (La Roche-sur- Yon) and the southern part of Maine-et-Loire (Angers).South of Poitou, in the coastal area round La Rochelle, much of it still marshy, is Aunis, which was the smallest of the old French provinces and is now the northwestern part of the département of Charente-Maritime (chief town La Rochelle).South of this again, extending to the Gironde, the funnel- shaped estuary of the Garonne, is Saintonge, which has some areas of marshland but is mostly fertile agricultural land. It takes in most of the département of Charente-Maritime and the northeastern part of Gironde (chief town Bordeaux).Between Aunis and Saintonge and the Massif Central, around Angoulême, is the Angoumois, a former county which takes in the present-day département of Charente (chief town Angoulême) and parts of four neighboring départements.From the fifth century onwards the area between the Loire and the Garonne, originally the Roman province of Aquitania (Aquitaine, Guyenne), broke up into a variety of more or less independent territories and lordships. After periods of Visigothic and Frankish rule there were established within the kingdom of France a series of counties, some of which were later raised to the status of duchies or became appanages of members of the royal family. In 732 Charles Martel defeated the Arabs at Tours and Poitiers. Later the region was harried by the Norsemen (Normans), and many keeps and defensive towers still bear witness to this troubled time. Then, with the foundation of numerous monasteries and other religious houses on the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela, prosperity began to return. The marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry Plantagenet, later Henry II of England, was followed by centuries of conflict between England and France for possession of Poitou, during which, down to the 16th century, the various individual territories gradually returned to France. The region was ravaged by the 16th century wars of religion and by the war in the Vendée between 1793 and 1795.
The little town of St Savin (pop. 1,020), on the left bank of the Gartempe, has an 11th C. abbey church with what are surely the finest 12th C. Romanesque wall paintings in France. The most remarkable are those on the vaulting of the nave, covering an area of 412 sq. m/4435 sq. ft at a height of 15 m/50ft above the ground and illustrating the Biblical story from the Creation onwards, and those in the crypt. There is a fine view of the church from the Pont-Vieux, the old bridge over the Gartempe.
The island of Oléron, which is connected with the mainland by France's longest viaduct (3027 m/3310yd; 45 piers), is the largest French island after Corsica, with an area of 180 sq. km/70 sq. mi (30km/19mi long, 6km/4mi across) and a population of 15,000. In summer it is a very popular holiday resort, offering the attractions of its beautiful beaches and pleasant walking in its woods. The chief place on the island is the little port of Le Château- d'Oléron, with a 17th C. citadel.The economic center of the island, however, is the little town of St-Pierre-d'Oléron, farther north. In Place Camille- Memain, on the site of the old churchyard, is a 30 m/100ft high lanterne des morts ("dead man's lantern"), erected in the 13th C., when the island was in English hands.The Musée Oléronais is devoted to the history and folk art of the island. Around the island, particularly on the east side, are extensive oyster-beds. At its north end stands the Phare de Chassiron, a lighthouse built in 1836 (fine views). On the west side of the island are long sandy beaches and the fishing port of La Cotinière.
La Rochefoucauld, France
La Rochefoucauld (pop. 3,226), near Angoulême, has a fine Château (12th-16th C.) reminiscent of the Châteaux of the Loire. It was the ancestral home of François de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), author of the famous "Maxims". The keep of the Château dates from the 11th C. The magnificent Cour d'Honneur (Grand Courtyard), which shows Italian influence, is one of the finest in France.
East of Poitiers, on the Vienne, is Chauvigny (pop. 7,012) dominated by its five castles. In the upper town is the Romanesque church of St- Pierre (11th-13th C), with a magnificent series of capitals, mostly on New Testament themes. Nearby is an Archeological Museum.
Chauvigny Medieval Fair
This annual fair and festival takes place in August.
Melle, between Poitiers and La Rochelle, lay on the old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. It has three fine Romanesque churches, St-Hilaire (dome over crossing, beautifully carved capitals), St-Savinien (music festival in summer) and St- Pierre.1km/0.75mi south, at Le Loubeau, are the old royal silver-mines.
The island of Noirmoutier (pop. 5,001), to the south of the Loire estuary, is 19km/12mi long and up to 7km/4.5mi across. At low tide it can be reached by car on the Passage du Gois, a causeway which is under water at high tide; there is a ferry service from Pornic; and at the south end of the island there is a bridge connecting it with the mainland. An important contribution to the island's economy is made by its extensive salt-pans, in which salt is obtained from seawater by evaporation. There are also oyster-beds in its shallow coastal waters.At the north end of the island is its chief town, Noirmoutier- en-l'Ile, which has a small harbor. There is a small well- preserved castle, part of which dates from the 12th C. It is possible to walk around the wall-walk, from which there are fine views of the harbor and the salt-pans. In the keep is a small museum (minerals, stuffed birds, naval history, English faience, etc.). The Romanesque and Gothic church of St- Philibert originally belonged to a Benedictine abbey; under the choir is a 12th C. crypt.On the harbor is an aquarium, with fish and other marine fauna from local waters.Popular with holidaymakers are the Bois de la Chaize, a 60 hectare/150 acre area of woodland, and the Plage des Dames, a beach of fine sand with the Promenade des Souzaux, from which there are views of the "Jade Coast". On the southwest coast there are other beaches of fine sand.
From the 11th C. onwards the sea withdrew from an area of some 15,000 hectares/37,500 acres, now covered by a patchwork of arable fields and pastureland, through which countless little streams and waterways wind their way, lined by trees (poplar, ash, alder) and meadows. The whole area - Marais Poitevin - is now a nature reserve. It can be visited by car, but to see it properly you must travel by boat - from Coulon (11th C. church), Arçais, La Garette, Magné or St-Hilaire- la-Palud. A distinction is made between the sparsely populated Marais Mouillé ("wet marsh"), known as Venise Verte ("Green Venice"), and the drained area near the coast. Also worth seeing are the villages on the Sèvre in the area round Niort and the Aquarium at Coulon.
Niort (pop. 56,661), chief town of the département of Deux-Sèvres, lies on the Sèvre Niortaise. All that remains of a castle built by Henry II of England and Richard Coeur-de- Lion is the keep, consisting of two massive square towers, which now houses a museum of folk art and traditions. Other features of interest are the old half- timbered houses in and around Rue St-Jean; the former Town Hall (16th C.), on a triangular plan, now containing the Musée du Pilori, an archeological museum; the church of Notre-Dame, in the west of the town, with an elegant tower and Aubusson tapestries; the Natural History Museum; and the Musée des Beaux-Arts (tapestries, French, Italian, Flemish and Dutch paintings, etc.).
The magnificent Château of Dampierre was begun in 1550 by the Duc de Luynes and rebuilt between 1675 and 1683 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart.Two gardens are to be found at this 17th C. house. The first is a design of the famous Andre Le Notre, and provides a central vista from the chateau that features wonderfully laid pools, parterres and lime alleys. The second garden is a very recent one, having been built in 1978, and is an attractive woodland garden.
Chateau d'Orion, Oiron, France
At Oiron (pop. 945) is an elegant Renaissance château, once the residence of the Comte de Caravaz, who appears as the Marquis of Carabas in Charles Perrault's fairytale, "Puss in Boots". Its most notable features are the Salle des Gardes, with 14 to 16th C. frescoes of scenes from the "Aeneid", and a fine Renaissance church (16th C.).Construction of this château began near the end of the 15th C. and continued on into the 17th C. under the commissioning of various owners. Of particular note are the paintings in the Grande Galerie, which are excellent examples of French Renaissance artwork.
Parthenay (pop. 10,473), west of Poitiers, lies on the old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and is now an important market town. Legend has it that the town, with its double ring of walls, was built by the magic arts of the fairy Mélusine. The Rue de la Vaux-St-Jacques has preserved its attractive old-world aspect, as have the Pont St-Jacques and Porte St-Jacques (13th C.) by which the town is entered from the north.Fascinating, too, is the 13th C. Citadel, with its massive walls and clock-tower of 1454. Above the nearby Parthenay-le-Vieux is the Romanesque church of St-Pierre, with an octagonal tower (well restored) bearing a figure of the fairy Mélusine.
Ile d'Aix, France
Off the Pointe de la Fumée lies the little island of Aix (pop. 180), which is closed to motor traffic. Parts of the 17th C. fortifications built by Vauban have been preserved. Napoleon stayed in the Maison de l'Empereur (July 9-15, 1815) before sailing into exile on St Helena; the house now contains a museum. A short distance away is an African Museum. The little church of St-Martin, originally belonging to a Benedictine abbey, has an 11th C. crypt.
On the west side of Aix is Fort Boyard, built between 1804 and 1859 to defend the Charente estuary. In 1871 it was used as a prison for the defeated Communards. It is now being converted into television studios.
Montmorillon (pop. 6,895) lies above the river Gartempe. The church of Notre-Dame is partly built over the crypt of Ste-Catherine, which has Romanesque wall paintings of the 12th and 13th centuries. The old Maison-Dieu (a 12th C. hospital) now houses an archeological museum. It has a 12th C. chapel of St- Laurent (with later alterations) and an octagonal bell-tower. In the courtyard is the Octogone, originally a funeral chapel.
Confolens (pop. 2,856), famed for its annual folk festival, is picturesquely situated at the junction of the Vienne and the Goire. The Romanesque church of St-Barthélemy, on the left bank of the Vienne, dates from the 11th C., the old bridge over the Vienne from the 15th. The narrow streets are lined with high half-timbered houses of the 15th-18th C. The keep is all that remains of the town's old castle.
International Folklore Festival
Ligugé - Abbaye Saint Martin de Ligugé
8km/5mi south of Poitiers is the abbey of Ligugé, whose origins go back to the 4th C. It was reoccupied by Benedictine monks in 1853. Excavations round the abbey from 1953 onwards brought to light the remains of sixth C. buildings, and the present monastery also incorporates older work. The church of St-Martin was rebuilt in Flamboyant style in the 16th C.
Loudun (pop. 7,707) is a little town of charming old streets with an 11th C. Tour Carrée (Square Tower) from which there are fine views. The church of St-Hilaire dates from the 14th C., its beautiful doorway from the 16th. The church of Ste-Croix (11th C.) is now a market hall, and farther north stands the church of St-Pierre-du- Marché, built in 1215 and enlarged in the 15th C.
Lusignan (pop. 2,676) is picturesquely situated on a hill. Legend has it that the castle, of which only ruins remain, was built by the fairy Mélusine in a single night. From the terrace there is a fine view of the Vonne valley. The Romanesque church (11th C.) has a 15th C. Gothic porch.6km/4mi northwest is Jazeneuil, with a Romanesque church (11th-12th C.).
Site Archéologique gallo-romain de Sanxay
The site was an important Gallo-Roman city destroyed by fire at the end of the first century. A theater could hold an audience of 10,000. Also found on the site are a Gallo-Roman gate and a menhir with a Celtic inscription.
Abbaye, Charroux, France
This Bénédictine abbey was founded at the end of the 8th C. Abbaye de Charroux features an octagonal tower and was considered a very powerful Benedictine abbey during the Middle Ages.One tower of the Charroux rotunda remains and a 15th century chapter house, which houses sculptures from the Gothic portal and the treasury.
Fenioux, north of Saintes, has a small country church with walls dating from the Carolingian period; the richly ornamented facade and the octagonal tower are Romanesque. In the old churchyard is an interesting lanterne des morts ("dead man's lantern").
Chateau de Mirambau
Chateau de Mirambeau acts as both a spectacularly maintained château hotel and health resort, visitors can discover the renowned Cognac and Bordeaux or run the circuit of tennis courts, swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna and jogging in the park.
The village of Lichères lies north of Angoulême. Its little Romanesque church, standing by itself in the fields, has a doorway with fine carved decoration and an apse surrounded by arcades.
Princay - Château de la Roche du Maine
This is one of France's finest examples of First Renaissance, with a notable equestrian statue of Charles Tiercelin, the distinguished soldier who built the chateau.
International Children's Folk Festival, Saint Maixent-L'Ecole, France
This annual week-long festival takes place in mid-July and brings together folk dancers, singers and musicians for dozens of performances suited for the whole family. Expositions are also organized as part of the festival.
Martha - Mondial Folk Festival
Folk Festival, Montguyon, France
This annual music and dance festival takes place in late July. Thousands of dancers and musicians from over 20 countries take part in the festival.