Poitou-Charentes Attractions

Notre-Dame-la-Grande in PoitiersNotre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers

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.

Poitiers, France

La Rochelle, France

Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, France

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.

Oléron

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.

Cognac, France

120km/75mi north of Bordeaux is Cognac (pop. 19,525), in which Jean Martell, a native of Jersey, settled in 1715. He was followed by an Irish soldier named Hennessy, Baron Otard and others. The main features of interest in Cognac itself are the picturesque old town, which preserves a number of 17th and 18th C. mansions, the Château des Valois (13th-14th and 16th C.) and the Romanesque/Gothic church of St-Léger. Another attractive possibility is a drive around for example to Merpins, with remains of the Roman town of Condate, Châteauneuf sur Charente with its beautiful Romanesque church or the former river port of Port-Hublé.
Information on visits can be obtained from the Office de Tourisme, Place J.-Monnet in the town of Cognac.

Aulnay, France

Aulnay (pop. 1,500) lies on the old pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela. The magnificent Romanesque church of St-Pierre has a handsome tower and steeple, a richly sculptured west doorway and fine capitals. In the churchyard is a 15th C. cross.

Brouage, France

The little town of Brouage (pop. 500), situated in an area of marshland, was built between 1630 and 1640. It is a fine example of a fortified town of the pre-Vauban period, with seven bastions and 13 m/40ft high walls pierced by two gates.

Saintes, France

Saintes (pop. 25,628), in antiquity the capital (Mediolanum) of a Celtic tribe, the Santoni, and later chief town of the French province of Saintonge, is attractively situated on the left bank of the Charente. It was the birthplace of Dr J.I. Guillotin (1738-1814), inventor of the guillotine.
In the old town is the former cathedral of St-Pierre, built between 1117 and the 15th C., which was destroyed by the Calvinists in 1568 and soon afterwards rebuilt. Its most notable features are the richly decorated Gothic doorway and the 72 m/236ft high tower.
To the southwest is the church of St-Eutrope, consecrated in 1096, with a tower of 1496. In the crypt under the church is the tomb of St Eutrope (Eutropius), first bishop of Saintes.

Abbaye Ste Marie aux Dames

The Abbaye Ste Marie aux Dames, founded in 1047, was for a time converted to other uses but was restored in 1938. The Romanesque doorways have rich sculptural decoration. The nearby church of St-Palais dates from the 12th- 13th C.
The old part of the town of Saintes has many 17th and 18th C. buildings.

Roman Remains

On the right bank of the Charente is the Arch of Germanicus, a triumphal arch erected in A.D. 19. Originally spanning the main bridge over the river, it was moved to its present site in 1842. There are also remains of an amphitheater of the A.D. first century, one of the oldest structures of its kind. It was of medium size, with seating for 20,000 spectators.

Museums

Saintes has numerous museums. The Archeological Museum, housed in an old faience works near the Arch of Germanics, has a large Gallo-Roman collection. The Musée Dupuy-Mestreu is a folk museum (local costumes, headgear and jewelry). The collections of the Musée des Beaux- Arts are divided between the Ancien Echevinage (pictures, Sèvres porcelain) and a building north of the church of St-Pierre (works of the French, Flemish and Dutch schools).

Jeux Santons

This annual 10-day festival takes place in mid to late July and includes folk dancing, music and singing. Conferences and expositions are also held as part of the fair.
Address: St Quentin-les-Troo, F-41800 Montoire-sur-le-Loire, France

La Rochecourbon

The 15th C. Château de la Rochecourbon, set in a beautiful park northwest of Saintes, was discovered by the writer Pierre Loti in a dilapidated condition, and as a result of his efforts was restored from 1920 onwards.

Rochefort-sur-Mer, France

Rochefort (pop. 32,700), 15km/9mi above the mouth of the Charente, was founded by Colbert in 1666 as a naval port and is now recognized as a spa town. The writer Pierre Loti (1850- 1923), a former naval officer, was born in the town, and his birthplace is now a museum displaying the "splendors of foreign lands". The imposing Arsenal, built in 1690, has a monumental entrance, the Porte du Soleil, which dates only from 1830. In Place Colbert are a handsome fountain of 1750, the Town Hall and the church of St- Louis (1672). In the west of the town is the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de la Ville, in the Hôtel des Cheusses the Musée de la Marine (17th and 18th C. ship models,charts, etc.).

Royan, France

The seaside resort of Royan (pop. 17,210) was almost completely destroyed during World War II but was rebuilt in modern style. It is one of the many popular resorts with beautiful beaches on the "Côte de Beauté", which extends from the Gironde estuary to the Avert peninsula; among the others are St-Georges-de-Didonne, Meschers, St-Palais, Vaux-sur-Mer, La Palmyre and Ronce-les-Bains.
The reinforced concrete Cathedral was designed by the architects Gilles and Hébrard and built in 1955-1958. Only the Pontaillac quarter in the west of the town preserves something of the tranquil atmosphere of old Royan.

Charente River

The river Charente winds its way for 360km/225mi through the old provinces of Angoumois and Saintonge before flowing into the Atlantic. Between Angoulême and Saintes it forms a valley just under 100km/60mi long, lined with interesting towns and churches like Bassac Abbey, the churches of Chaniers, Châteauneuf-sur-Charente and Châtres (all charming Romanesque buildings), the town of Cognac, the Château and dolmen of Garde-Epée, Jarnac and the fine Romanesque church of Trois-Palis.

Angouleme, France

Angoulême (pop. 43,171), once capital of the Angoumois and now chief town of the département of Charente and the see of a bishop, is beautifully situated on a hill above the Charente. Originally a Roman settlement (Encolisma), it suffered severely from fighting and plundering during the wars of religion. It was the birthplace (1492) of Marguerite de Valois, queen of Navarre.

Town Hall

In the Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville, in the center of the town, is the imposing Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), built in 1858-1866 on the site of a castle of the Dukes of Angoulême, from which there survive the Tour Polygone (13th C.) and the Tour de Valois (15th C.). North of the Town Hall by way of Rue de la Cloche-Verte, passing the Hôtel St-Simon (1535-1540), is the Gothic church of St-André, which has fine stalls of 1692.

Cathedral of St Pierre

Angoulême's finest building is the Cathedral of St-Pierre (1105-1128, restored about 1650, altered by Abadie around 1875), which, like St-Front in Périgueux and Notre-Dame in Poitiers, shows a mingling of Romanesque and Byzantine styles. The west front has rich sculptural decoration, with more than 70 figures in representations of the Ascension and the Last Judgment. The cruciform interior has four domes.

Musée des Beaux-Arts

The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Angoulême, housed in the former Bishop's Palace, has collections of prehistoric, Romanesque and overseas art. The Archeological Museum displays finds from the surrounding area.
Address: 1 rue de Friedland, F-16000 Angouleme, France

Old Walls

A walk (or a drive) around the old walls of Angoulême with their towers offers fine views of the surrounding countryside. The town preserves a number of 17th and 18th century aristocratic mansions.

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.

Chauvigny, 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.

Melle

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.

Noirmoutier

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.

Marais Poitevin

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, France

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.).

Dampierre Château

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, France

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.

Fort Boyard

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, France

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, France

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

This week-long festival was the first CIOFF event ever organized. The festival takes place in mid-August and brings together folk dancers, musicians and singers from all over the world.
Address: St Quentin-les-Troo, F-41800 Montoire-sur-le-Loire, France

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.
Address: 2 place A. Lambert, F-86240 Ligugé, France

Loudun, France

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, France

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, France

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.

Cordouan

The Cordouan lighthouse, which can be reached from Royan at low tide, was built in stages between the 14th and the 18th centuries, and now stands 66m/215ft high. From the top there are magnificent views.

Licheres, France

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

This annual week-long festival includes folk dance, music and singing, as well as expositions. The events take place in early to mid-July.
Address: St Quentin-les-Troo, F-41800 Montoire-sur-le-Loire, France

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.

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