Poitou-Charentes? I live in France, but had never been to this region on the country’s mid-Atlantic coast. When invited to join a press trip there last April, I quickly said yes.
The pièce de résistance of the trip was the frigate Hermione, the replica of a French warship that ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic in 1780 to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence. Our group joined festivities celebrating the ship’s April departure for the US, duplicating that voyage of 235 years ago. (See previous post, “Hail Hermione”).
That was exciting, but so too was discovering this part of France which is not on most visitors’ travel agenda. Islands, beaches, canals, pleasant cities, incredible seafood – and Cognac. Poitou-Charentes offers all, and the price is right – less than in those tourist havens such as the Riviera. Following are highlights of my trip.
The miniscule island of Aix was the trip favorite. It is so special it deserves its own blog post. I’ll be writing all about this petite paradise in the future, so be sure you are a Tales and Travel subscriber so you don’t miss it. (Sign up – upper right hand corner)
Marais Poitevin. It was like being lost on a jungle river, even though the trees on shore are poplars and ash, not tropical varieties. We were on a flat bottomed boat gliding through this marshland known as Green Venice. “People do get lost. Even boat drivers get lost,” said our boat pilot as he maneuvered our craft through the confusing maze of canals. There are 40 kilometers of navigable waters in the Marais, and there are signs along the canals, nonetheless it is daunting. In April, it was a green haven of tranquility with the only sounds those of birds or the splash of a frog jumping into the water. The canals were built by monks in the 12th century to drain the marshes for agriculture. Today they are popular for tourist excursions. You can row your own boat and test your navigation skills. Or, try to punt. The boats can be propelled by a long wooden pole – not easy. Boats with guides who do the work are also available.
La Rochelle. I could not stop taking photos of this seaside city whose Vieux Port or Old Port is perfect subject matter with two ancient towers guarding the entrance. The Saint Nicolas Tower and the Chain Tower were built in the 14th century and served as key defensive bastions to the city for centuries. A third tower, the Lantern Tower, is the oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. There are splendid photo opps from the rooftops of the towers which can be visited, as well as along the broad walkway around the harbor where everyone likes to stroll and where outdoor tables at restaurants and cafes are popular.
La Rochelle was known as a rebel city. It was Protestant in the 16th century when the rest of the country was mainly Catholic. The historic old town’s medieval houses, private mansions from the 17th and 18th century and vaulted stone arcades are also worthy of photos. And, all those fish in the city’s Aquarium, rated France’s best aquarium by Trip Advisor.
Jarnac and Cognac. We sank into oversized soft leather chairs in the dimly lit room whose décor spoke of ancient wealth. We were given blindfolds, told to cover our eyes, relax and concentrate on the scent being sprayed around us.
Then, take a sip of cognac and identify the flavor that matched the aroma. Three sprays. Three aromas: vanilla, candied orange and Iris flower. They were all pleasant, but my taste buds failed. However, I loved the cognac, Courvoisier XO which sells for 135 euro per bottle.
The sensory tasting experience at the Courvoisier Chateau in Jarnac, home of the eponymous cognac, was a treat. We learned all about cognac production, from the grapes and soil, to barrels and aging to the double distillation process that results in this potent elixir. We toured the cellars whose treasures include a bottle from 1789, and one valued at 6,900 euro.
Three major cognac houses (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin) are located in the nearby town of Cognac. Courvoisier, a smaller company whose major market is the United States, is known as the brand of Napoleon. The emperor visited a wine and spirit company in Paris owned by Emmanuel Courvoisier and an associate in 1811 and is said to have taken several barrels of cognac with him to exile on the island of St. Helena. The English officers on board the ship transporting him to the island enjoyed imbibing the brew and named it “the cognac of Napoleon.” Much later, in 1869, Napoleon III granted Courvoisier the title “Official supplier to the Imperial Court.”
The Napoleon museum at the chateau has a hat of Napoleon’s, as well as a strand of his hair in a frame.
Rochefort is a pleasant city on the Charente river 20 miles from the Atlantic whose 17th century shipyard is where the ship Hermione was reconstructed and where she will reside when she returns from the US voyage in August. Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, wanted supremacy on both land and sea. His adviser and prime minister, Colbert, chose Rochefort as the site of a shipyard. Through the years, some 550 ships were built there. We visited the Corderie Royale, the royal rope factory, an astonishing structure, 374 meters in length, where we learned how rope was made. The super long building was purpose built to manufacture the vast quantities of rope needed for the rigging of sailing vessels. Its length enabled it to produce rigging for the length of the frigate’s anchor cable. Because it was constructed during the same time as the Palace of Versailles, it is called “Versailles of the Sea.”
In addition to the Corderie and naval dockyards, Rochefort has a bizarre bridge, the Transporter. The aerial structure, a metallic platform on pillars high above the river, was built in 1900 and designed to be raised so ships could pass underneath. Only two dozen transporter bridges were ever made, with eight remaining. This is the only one in France still functioning.
Poitiers. Our visit to the regional capital of Poitou-Charentes was brief, but we did get a look at its outstanding church, Notre Dame la Grande and its elaborately sculpted façade. And, the Baptistery of Saint Jean which dates back to the beginning of Christianity and is one of 80 town buildings classified as historical monuments. The wall paintings from the 12th an 13th centuries are remarkable.
Poitou-Charentes has miles of golden sand beaches as well as miles of bike routes. More on the region at www.visit-poitou-charentes.com
Many excellent hotels in the region, with some offering double rooms for less than 100 euro per night. Hotels I can recommend:
Hotel Le Ligaro in Jarnac whose owner is Irish: http://www.hotel-ligaro.com/
Hotel des bains, Fouras (adjacent to Rochefort): http://www.grandhotel-desbains.fr
Hotel Champlain, La Rochelle, (lots of old world flavor, beautiful gardens): http://www.hotelchamplain.com
Hotel Mercure Poitiers Centre (church converted into ultra modern, trendy hotel): See web site for Accor hotels, http://www.accorhotels.com
Poitou-Charentes seafood is sensational —especially the oysters.
Courvoisier offers a variety of tours and tastings, www.courvoisier.com
Try my raspberry tart — the recipe featured in Today’s Taste in column at right.
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