Slightly larger than Vermont, Poitou-Charentes covers a territory of 9,965 square miles and is home to 1.64 million people. It is the second most prominent region of France in terms of historic monuments and is renowned for its wealth of Romanesque art.
Poitouâ€™s Magnificent Architecture.
Centered on Poitiers, the regionâ€™s capital, Poitou is a large plain whose meadows and fields are bisected by the Vienne River. Cattle and sheep breeding are the main resources of the large farms hidden in verdant copses. Parthenay, a picturesque city perched on a rocky spur, is proud of its 12th-century citadel surrounded by ramparts and accessible by a narrow 13th-century bridge. Located on the regionâ€™s western rim, Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe is a Romanesque abbey first erected in the 9th century and adorned with the finest and most complete series of murals painted in France. Retracing 31 scenes from the Bible, the beige and pink-toned paintings that decorate the nave are now on UNESCOâ€™s World Heritage List.
Scoping the Future.
Perched on a promontory between two rivers, the city of Poitiers offers a rare number of buildings and a distinctive medieval section of town. Its Notre-Dame-la-Grande church typifies the Poitou Romanesque style of the 12th century and the recent restoration of its facade highlights its magnificent sculptures and windows. Other examples of religious architecture are found in the Sainte-Radegonde and Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand churches. Six miles north of Poitiers, the Futuroscope is the regionâ€™s star theme park. Specialized in imaging and numeric technology, this 173-acre â€œEuropean Park of the Moving Imageâ€ offers 22 attractions, eight of which are new this year. It includes hotels, restaurants, shops and a magnificent park where visitors can rest between attractions. Outside of Poitiers is also the village of Bougon, where one of the oldest examples of funerary architecture in the world can be seen. The site includes five tumuliâ€“â€“circular or elongated burial groundsâ€“â€“whose construction dates back to 4700 BC, predating the Pyramids of Egypt by a full 2,000 years. A modern glass and steel museum built on the site of a Cistercian abbey retraces human, technological, geological and climatic evolution from the very beginning of manâ€™s existence
Romanesque Villages and the Comic Strip Museum.
If Poitou ranks high in terms of architectural heritage, its southern neighbor, Angoumois, is not far behind. There, the Charente River meanders through a valley dotted with Romanesque villages and sun-bathed hills covered with the vineyards that will produce cognac. In AngoulÃ¨me, the main city, one can still walk around the fortifications that enclose the 12th-century Saint-Pierre Cathedral. On a more modern note, the city has been home to the National Comic Strip Museum since 1982. Apart from the pleasures of cognac tasting, a visit to the city where this beverage is made is a reward in itself. Cognac is a charming town whose air is redolent of its famous namesake: it is said that the equivalent of 12 million bottles is lost every year to the evaporation from the casks! If time is the cognac makerâ€™s best friend, it seems also to have befriended the city, where people have adopted a slower and gentler pace. Nevertheless, cognac is big business here: 94% of the 8.6 million gallons production is exported, with the U.S. accounting for 40% of those sales (www.bnic.fr/web_bnic_en/htm/cognac_appellation_detail.htm
A Replica of La Fayetteâ€™s Ship.
Between Cognac and the Atlantic is the old province of Saintonge that unfolds around the green valley of the Charente River. The town of Saintes has monuments from every period: a Roman arch and arena and the 11th-century Abbaye aux Dames (Ladiesâ€™ Abbey). Located on the Charente River a short distance from the coast, the town of Rochefort has a proud maritime past dating back to the 17th century. A historical reconstruction project has been under way in the town since 1997: using 18th-century techniques, shipwrights are building a replica of the Hermione, the frigate used by La Fayette to sail to America in 1780.
Water-meadows and Coastal Resorts.
North of the Charente estuary, the old province of Aunis is the site of the Marais Poitevin, a 198,000-acre zone of marshland. Known as the â€œGreen Veniceâ€, it is formed by alluvial soil brought by the SÃ¨vre River and its innumerable branches. A labyrinth of rivers and canals bordered by willows, ash trees, poplars and elders delineates fields where some of Franceâ€™s best vegetables grow. Flat-bottomed boats are used to move between the whitewashed houses and to conduct guided tours of the area that includes a nature preserve. A drier area of the Marais makes good cattle-raising country. The regionâ€™s main seaport, La Rochelle, draws from its glorious past to offer a rich architectural heritage including a series of towers to safeguard the townâ€™s entrance and its four harbors. The city also includes a museum of Protestantism and NeptunÃ©a, a maritime museum and aquarium.
Two Islands as Vacationersâ€™ Eden.
The seashore remains a favorite destination for vacationers coming to Poitou-Charentes. Aside from the fortresses and citadels that are testaments to ancient coastal defense, the CÃ´te de BeautÃ© (Coast of Beauty) offers sandy coves (called conches) sheltered from the wind and bordered by fragrant pines.
Out to sea, two islands recently connected to OlÃ©ron, just off the Charente estuary. It is the second largest island in France after Corsica. Its main town, Saint-Pierre-dâ€™OlÃ©ron, is located at the center of the island, while Saint-Trojan-les-Bains is a seaside resort with Mediterranean-style vegetation thanks to its mild climate. The Ile de RÃ©, lying less than two miles off La Rochelle, has white sands that have given it the name of RÃ© la Blanche. Its main town, Saint-Martin-de-RÃ©, is a charming tourist center with a 15th-century church and the remains of fortifications built by Vauban, the 17th century military engineer. Ars-en-RÃ© and Les Portes-en-RÃ© are two small villages that are proud of their old houses.
â€¢ Poitiers. The regionâ€™s capital is perched on a promontory and offers a rare array of art and architecture.
â€¢ La Rochelle. The old fortified port is the most attractive town on the Atlantic Coast between Nantes and Bordeaux.
â€¢ Niort. This prosperous town set in lush countryside is the birthplace of Madame de Maintenon, who secretly married King Louis XIV.
â€¢ AngoulÃ¨me. This town is built on a plateau above the Charente River and surrounded by ramparts.
â€¢ ChÃ¢tellerault. Site of a 10th-century castle built by a Count of Poitou, the city was also the childhood home of the philosopher Descartes.
â€¢ Rochefort. The city takes pride in its illustrious maritime past and its newly reopened thermal springs.
â€¢ Saintes. The monuments date from every period since the Roman occupation in this prosperous city on the banks of the Charente River.
â€¢ Cognac. The city is the birthplace of King FranÃ§ois I and the cradle of the fine brandy that bears its name.