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Pays d'Aunis and the Coastline, La Rochelle, Rochefort and Marennes

The Aunis is a region of flat limestone and marl landscapes. In the north are the Marais Poitevin, known as the Green Venice. It is a continuous series of waterways, mainly man-made, and greenery, with unrivalled flora and fauna. To the west is the coastline and its capital, La Rochelle.

The Pays d’Aunis has Romanesque churches which take pride of place in the towns and villages. Along the coast there is Rochefort, an old naval town, and the seaside resorts of Châteilallon-Plage and Fouras (which has an old castle). Inland there is Marans which is the gateway to the Marais Poitevin (a large area of marshland) and Surgères. The estuary of the Seudre, which stretches south, has Marennes, the birthplace of the oyster. This coastline is steeped in history.

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LA ROCHELLE, A MARITIME TRADITION

La Rochelle began as a fishing village, then became a merchant port trading in salt and wine. This protestant Huguenot town was greatly envied by Richelieu and Louis XIII because of its prosperity. The town was put under siege in 1627 by Louis XIII. The people were starving. Its mayor, Jean Guiton (1585 –1654), appealed to the English who tried unsuccessfully to beak the siege and the city surrendered in 1628 loosing 4/5th of its population. 

During the 18th century, the town became one of the main slave trading ports. This economic prosperity stopped during the 19th century. The tower of Saint-Nicolas and the Chain Tower are at the entrance to the old harbour and are the emblem of the town. 

Today the town has a fishing port with an ultra-modern auction at 'La Pallice' and a marina, 'Les Minimes', which is the largest in Europe. La Rochelle is also famous for its Francofolies Festival, created by Jean-Louis Foulquier (performer, singer, writer, actor 1943-2013), and which became an important platform for French songs. Each year it attracts hundreds of artists who attend the many concerts which are supported by thousands of visitors. 

Another important Festival is the Grand Pavois. This is a boat show which attracts sailing enthusiasts. There is also an international Film Festival in La Rochelle. 

La Rochelle is a vibrant town. It was one of the first towns to create cycling paths and self service bicycle rental. It is a great town to walk or cycle round.

Special feature:  the water bus can be used to travel from one bank to the other, and to go from the old harbour to the Port des Minimes. There are also boat tours which visit the islands and Fort Boyard.

It is really pleasant to stroll in the old town, walk under the famous arches, admire the beautiful houses and residences from the 18th and 19th centuries, and to visit the old market. 

There are many museums in La Rochelle: Musée Maritime (Maritime Museum), Musée du Nouveau Monde (New World Museum), Musée des Beaux Arts (Arts Museum), Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum), Musée d’Orbigny-Bernon and Musée des Automates et des modèles réduits (Automatons and reduced models museum)

The aquarium reconstructs a deep sea exploration of the local coastlines as well as showing sea life from other continents. There are over 12,000 species of fish and marine animals to see.

Practical La Rochelle: 

During summer, travel smart! La Rochelle can be difficult to drive round in the summer. It is best to park in one of the many free car parks of the Minimes district, or in one of the paying car parks in the main town. There are seven to choose from. La Rochelle also has five car parks for campervans.

To get around in La Rochelle you can use the water bus or the electrically powered ferry service “Le Passeur”. You can also use the 'Yelo bikes' which are for hire. Cycling path maps can be collected at the Tourist Office.

Note: a 'Pass' can be purchased which includes transportation and entry into places of interest. This works out cheaper than paying for everything individually. 

Make a point of going to the Cafe de la Paix in the Place Verdun, near the cathedral of St Louis of La Rochelle. The cafe is classed as a historic monument. The interiors are decorated in the Empire style and date back to the beginning of the 20th century.

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SURGÈRES AND ITS BUTTER

In the heart of the Aunis region, Surgères takes its name from the Gères River. It was a fortified village, built with towers and a feudal castle. It was an ideal place to oversee the marshes and the surrounding lands. The fortress experienced much damage during the One Hundred Years War and the Religious wars.  

François de la Rochefoucaud, marquis of Surgères, built a seigneurial residence during the 18th century. Surgères was prosperous during the 19th century thanks to viticulture (grape and wine production). After the phylloxéra destroyed most of the vines in 1876, the town concentrated on milk production and Eugène Biraud created the first milk cooperative which made the butter which has since made the town its reputation.  

Take a stroll in the historic centre, visit Notre Dame Church which is a fine example of Romanesque art. Nearby is an octagonal bell tower which has one of the most beautiful facades in the Pays d’Aunis and Saintonge. It is 23 metres high and has 116 characters sculpted on it.  Also visit the old fortress, the park which houses a renaissance door, Hélène's Tower and the remains of the castle dungeons. Hélène's Tower is named after Hélène de Fonsèque, Lady of Surgères and muse of the poet Ronsard.

MARANS

Marans is at the gateway to the Marais Poitevin. Marans is a former fortified town whose purpose was to defend the Sèvre estuary. Marans is naturally protected by large marshlands stopping any invaders from approaching. Its harbour, situated a few kilometres from Aiguillon bay and the Atlantic Ocean, was once a thriving port before it went into decline. It is now a marina. 

Take time to stroll along its pleasant streets and alleyways. Enjoy the tranquility due to its small size. Discover its architectural heritage by visiting the church of Saint-Etienne built during the 12th century. This church is a little jewel in Charente's religious heritage. 

The castle, which is in ruins now, experienced many upheavals during the centuries. The ruins, listed as a French Heritage Historic Monument, are the legacy of a history full of tumult.

There are historic documents, archaeological and local, exhibited at the Cappon Museum which details the history of Marans. The most curious can learn a little bit more about this small Charente village. 

Marans is also famous for its local products such as their famous chicken which lay ginger eggs. Marans is also known for its fruit and vegetables - the famous red bean of Marans, and its seafood products and spices.

Marans is located on an important arterial road network not far from La Rochelle. The port is an ideal destination to visit some other well-known sites in the Charente. Many boat rides (electrical or thermal engined) are available, with a large choice of routes to take in order to discover the marshlands and their surroundings. 

CHATEILAILLON-PLAGE, FORMER CAPITAL OF AUNIS

The town became famous as the first place to have sea-bathing in 1870. With a certain retro charm, the town is attractive with its typical seaside architecture and beautiful Belle Epoque style villas along the sea front. It is a very sunny seaside resort, with a large beach and a casino. On the Boucholeurs beach, mussels and oysters are farmed. In the south, around a large lagoon, the nature reserve of Marais d’Yves (Yves Marshlands) has a remarkable biodiversity. 

Many events take place every year in Châteillaillon-Plage. The kite festival (takes place during Easter weekend) brings together all kite enthusiasts and fascinates everyone, from the oldest to the youngest.  

Attend 'Chatel en Fête', a town festival where the inhabitants choose a certain theme which then can be found on the market stalls, in the streets and parades.

Finally, the 'Boucholeurs Fair' takes place in August and offers all visitors the opportunity to learn about local heritage, especially oyster farming and the shellfish industry. During the festival, traditional games are back in the spotlight and the gourmets are not forgotten as they can enjoy seafood tasting. These festivities give a flavour of the activities and Charente heritage available in the seaside part of the region. 

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FOURAS, FIRST SEASIDE RESORT

This small family seaside resort on the Aunis coast, is one of the very first centres for seaside tourism in the Charente-Maritime. It is pleasant to walk in the pine forests amongst the tamarisk trees and holm oaks. Surrounded by fortifications, built on an old feudal castle by Vauban to resist invaders, it is a stronghold at the mouth of the Charente River. Fort Vauban houses a 12th century crypt and a local history museum. Fort Enet completes this arsenal. Fouras is the starting point to visit Ile d’Aix or to approach Fort Boyard. Fouras has its own casino.

ROCHEFORT AND ITS ARSENAL

15 km inland, at the mouth of the Charente River, Rochefort was a prosperous town notably for its maritime and military past. Today, Rochefort is an important tourist town for those who like thermal baths. It is the 6th largest thermal town in France.

The town received the prestigious label “Ville d’art et d’Histoire” (Town of Art and History) due to its focus on heritage and conservation. Its arsenal, constructed on the orders of Louis XIV and built under the authority of Colbert, was one of the most important and most beautiful. Rochefort has shipyards, a foundry, dry docks, and rope works. Many vessels were built here especially frigates, which were constructed here until 1926, the date of the closure of the dock yards. The rope works was burnt down during the war and restored in 1976, with its superb 374 metres long 17th century façade. Today it houses tertiary activities and the Centre International de la Mer (Sea International Centre). A superb public garden, with a small maze, has been landscaped around the buildings.

Not far from here, a titanic project started in 1997: the building of an exact replica of the frigate Hermione which brought La Fayette to America in 1780. The vessel has been completed and has sailed the high seas. 

While strolling in the older town, you can visit the house of Pierre Loti (French naval officer and novelist, known for his exotic novels [1850-1923]), the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Museum of Art and History), the Musée National de la Marine (National Marin Museum) and the Musée des commerces d’autrefois (Traditional Trade Museum). Another unusual site to visit is in the south of the town: the Martrou transporter bridge; the only fully working one, listed as a French Heritage Historic Monument.

HIERS-BROUAGE, HARBOUR IN THE MARSHLANDS 

Brouage is a small fortified town, between Rochefort and Ile d’Oléron. It was built as a port on the Atlantic coast for the salt trade. Silt deposited by the rivers Charente and Seudre, filled in the port and have left Brouage surrounded by marshes. There is a great variety of flora and fauna to be seen. It has been labelled a 'grand site national' (Great National Site). It has many historic buildings: royal gate, royal forge, food market halls, cooperage, powder keg… It has an outer fortified wall which is 13 metres high and 2km long, with bastions, courtines and bartizans (wall-mounted turrets) and a breathtaking view over the marshlands with its oyster harbour. Walking along these fortifications is well worth the effort.

Around 1570 Samuel Champlain was born. He was an explorer of Canada and founded Quebec in 1608.

MARENNES, OYSTER CAPITAL

Situated at the estuary of the Seudre River, Marennes, once surrounded by salt marshes, is the birth place of the oyster which is popular world wide. A former island off the Gulf of Saintonge, today it is attached to the mainland. Marennes has developed a solid reputation as the producer of the finest oysters. The oyster farmers use colourful little wooden cabins which are dotted around the oyster beds. 

The Cayenne harbour and its 4km channel is the starting point for visits to the oyster farms and the clear water enables the cleaning of the oysters. Travel through this oyster town on foot or by bike in order to learn all there is to know about oysters. The Seudre estuary provides nearly half of the oysters consumed in France.

Follow the right riverbank of the Seudre River and stop at Marennes-Plage to enjoy sunbathing on the tourist friendly beach. 

On the left bank of the Seudre River is one of the most beautiful villages in France. The white houses, masses of flowers, little fishing harbour, alleyways and market hall plus small craft shops and galleries make Mornac sur Seudre a very picturesque village. You will also see the production of oysters here. Its fortified medieval church is known for its 'chevet' (an apse with an aisle which gives access to a series of chapels set in bays). It is a listed Historic Monument and part of French Heritage. 

La Tremblade, heading up the left bank is a very picturesque village is also a large oyster harbour. 

Discover the estuary of Seudre in an unusual way and take the Train des Mouettes (Seagull train), from La Tremblade to Saujon. It is the only working steam locomotive in Charente. Two flying seagulls are the emblem of the Charente Maritime.

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