Poitou-Charentes is one of France's best kept secrets: a sunny and serene land of green meadowlands, sandy beaches, pine forests, romantic marshlands and Romanesque churches overlooking a luminous landscape of cognac vineyards. Poitou-Charentes is a region whose unspoiled treasures and timeless rhythm welcome its visitors with Old World charm. (see map)
Cognac: The world's best-known brandy comes from the peaceful countryside surrounding the Charente River one hundred miles north of Bordeaux. This slow moving river, which King François I called the loveliest river in his kingdom, passes through a placid landscape of vineyards bathed by a clear and radiant light. A twenty-mile area called the 'golden circle" of cognac production encompasses Cognac and the second distilling town of Jarnac.
Cognac, the medieval town which bears the name of the region, is attractive with its narrow medieval cobbled streets and elegant Renaissance facades. It is here that the fabled nectar has been created since the 17" century and that the very air one breathes is permeated by the heavy scent of spirits evaporating from oak casks held in storage: this aroma is referred to as the "angels's share'. World famous firms such as Camus, Hennessy, Niartell, Otard, Prince Hubert de Polignac, Rémy-Martin, Courvoisier, and Renault-Bisquit are located here; each distillery has its own secret and unique process for mixing the various blends of its eaux-de-vie. Join a guided tour to learn about the double-distilling process that goes on in copper stills before the ageing in oak barrels where the precious liquor will improve, taking on its final bouquet and famous golden glow. Take a barge or a small train and discover the history of cognac, its vineyards, distilleries and museums which show you not only how it is made but proudly display the oldest reserve of cognacs dating back to 1830. Then how about a taste!
Angouleme: (pictured) Crowning a hill with a superb view of the valley between the Charente and Anguienne rivers, the city is surrounded by medieval ramparts. The Cathedral of St-Pierre is a fine example of Romanesque architecture.
La Rochelle: (harbor pictured above) La Rochelle is most famous for its old harbor and its three outstanding medieval towers. For the locals, that familiar, inviting sight doesn't just symbolize the port's rich history: it's also a haven of style, good times and lively quayside cafes. The vibrant lifestyle attracts an international set and there are trendy bars and excellent restaurants aplenty. The town is full of fascinating details: look out for the huge chain on the restaurant-filled Cours des Dames, under the Tour de la Chaine. It used to be slung across the mouth of the harbor, between la Tour de la Chaine and its felloe sentinel, the Tour Saint-Nicolas. Third of la Rochelle's seafront towers is la Tour de la Lnaterne, in which a huge candle was lit nightly as a beacon for incoming craft. Another impressive piece of architecture on the harbor is the porte de la Grosse Horloge. Behind this portal, the town center is easily reached, and on the bustling arcaded streets, you'll see plenty of fine architecture. With its café and clubs, this is an exuberant town at any time of the year, but it excels during the summer with an international film festival and in mid-July, the nation's top musical happening, les Francofolies, in which French-speaking musicians and music-lovers from all over the world congregate. The songs may be French, but the ambiance is universal!
Marais Poitevin: The waterways of the "Marais Poitevin" are sometimes likened to the bayous of Cajun country, for man hardly appears to have made an impact on the landscape. But unlike the bayous, this is not uninviting, alligator-rich swampland! In fact, the maze of canals is all man-made. They date from the middle ages, when monks started a huge project to drain the Golfe du Poitou (a huge bay that nearly reached Niort. The contours of its cliffs can still be traced on a map). The avenues are regularlt tended by local authorities as though they were roads, which to all intents and purposes they areThe more picturesque name given to the area, "La Venise Verte" or "Green Venice" is a hint that getting around by car in the area might be easier said than done. Roads are so scarce around these parts that city-dwellers may be disoriented: imagine people living without one-way systems, parking meters and all the pressures we lump together as the "hassle" of modern life!
The surface of the water gives the impression that you could walk over it. Of course you can't-even if you set foot in the pastures, you'll notice that the "terra" is not as "firma" as you'd expect! The land is waterlogged to such an extend that if you jump up and down on it, it moves! One of the best ways of exploring the network of waterways is to hire a boat, which you can do with or without a guide. Once you know a little of the marshland's history, you might wish to hire a boat alone. Coulon, an irrestible photogenic little town about 5 miles from Niort, is the home base for most aquatic tours, although other ideal starting points incude Arcais, La Garette and St-Hilaire-La-Palud. An alternative: take to the winding back roads on bicycle, in a horsedrawn caravan or by pony.
Ile de Re: Linked to the mainland by a toll bridge, the island is surprisingly flat. Whitewashed houses with green shutters, narrow little streets bordered with bright hollyhocks, long fine sandy beaches, colored church spires rising from villages and harbors, salt pans that form as patchwork of watery fields, make the island a paradise for holidaymakers and a haven for cyclists.
Poitiers: Set on a majestic hilltop above the river Clain, this is one of France's oldest cities, filled with history and tales of antiquity &SHY; whether it be Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionhearted or Eleanor of Aquitaine. The visitor will discover a trove of Romanesque art and architecture, museums, a 4th century Baptistery (one of the oldest Christian edifices in France [pictured]) as well as the entirely renovated Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-La-Grande.
Futuroscope: Located just 5 miles from Poitiers, this science amusement park is a voyage into a wonderland of new technology devoted to the moving image. With the most advanced film projection techniques, the world's largest \screens and a multitude of mind boggling activities to choose from, it is no wonder that Futuroscope draws nearly 3 million visitors annually.
Saintes: Located on the banks of the Charente river, this 2000 year old town was once the Roman capital of southwestern France. The presence of one of the oldest remaining amphitheaters as well as Roman baths, which may be visited, attests to this. Between visits to the cathedral of St-Pierre and the church of St-Eutrope, be sure to stroll through the wonderful medieval city of narrow streets and markets.
For additional information, visit the Cognac Country website.
Interactive Poitou-Charentes Map:
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