POITOU-CHARENTES

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 FRANCE POITOU-CHARENTE Panorama de la Rochelle la nuitPoitou-Charentes shoulders the Atlantic Coast on the sunny Bay of Biscay. A popular spot for tourists in search of sun and sand, this historic region is also home to diverse natural scenery and some of the finest Romanesque architecture in the country.

Long associated with Aquitaine to the south, Poitou-Charentes has considerable medieval history. This heritage can still be seen today in the cobbled streets of small towns, the castles and the magnificent Romanesque churches. Much of the region’s historical architecture is linked to the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James, which was very popular in the middle ages. One of the many routes to the church in northwestern Spain passed down the Atlantic Coast. The fortified town of Parthenay, for instance, was a marker along the route and its large main gate is testament to the many pilgrims who passed beneath it.

The regional capital Poitiers reflects this rich history too. During the middle ages, it was favoured by Eleanor of Aquitaine, the famous queen whose marriage to Henry II King of England made this region a possession of the English crown. She visited often and funded many public building projects, for instance the Notre Dame church. Today, during summer, light displays reveal the original medieval colours of this building. Poitiers is also home to the second oldest university in France and still has a strong student population, making it a lively spot for night life. Nearby Poitiers is a fantastically odd theme park called Futuroscope with a mish mash of adventure rides, 3D and IMAX movies of considerable variety, and a dancing robot ride (we are not making this up).
 
Outside the capital there are still many cultural sights to see. Saintes on the Charente River has some fine Roman ruins, particularly the amphitheatre. There is also the magnificent Cathedral of Saint-Pierre, a gothic masterpiece dating to the 15th century which was built upon earlier Roman ruins. Cognac, famous of course for its eponymous brandy, is worth a visit for the tasting tours as well as the picturesque medieval town where the air is surely heavy with the ‘angel’s portion’ of the brew. La Rochelle has been an important port throughout history and the base for Huguenots and Templars alike. Its economy and culture still moves with the tide with a strong boat building industry as well as the largest marina for pleasure boats in Europe. Rochefort, another town with deep maritime ties, actually dates back to only the 17th century. The city of Angouléme, which looks out over a rocky promontory and is surrounded by boulevards, is interesting for its old printing and paper making industries. These traditional skills have branched out in surprising ways: the city is now the site of an International Comic Festival, an annual International Forum on Animation Technologies (FITA), and is associated with motor trials and racing – motor engines being an intriguing side interest for those mechanically minded printers.

The Atlantic climate of the Bay of Biscay has given the region unique geographical features. The area is a big producer of oysters and salt, and along the coast evidence of these industries can be found.  Situated north of La Rochelle is Marais Poitevin, the largest marsh on the Atlantic coast. Also called La Venise Verte or the Green Venice, the marsh is criss-crossed by canals, with the mossy green waters shaded by the abundant foliage of willows, and is reminiscent of the canal landscapes of England. Boating, kayaking, fishing, and walking are popular activities here. Along the Atlantic coast are long stretches of sandy beaches and seaside resorts, while just off the coast lie some charming islands, with sleepy villages that transform into busy, bustling tourist hubs during the heights of summer: Ile de Ré has salt marshes and oyster beds on its northern side and beaches on its south, while Ile d’Oleron is the second largest island off mainland France with forest areas and opportunities to cycle and go horse riding.

Poitou-Charentes is becoming a popular spot for second and holiday homes among the French and the British. It offers a laid back lifestyle akin to the Mediterranean coast of the south without the glamour or pretension. For a sense of France’s medieval past, for maritime history buffs, for lovers of oysters and cognac, or simply for those who seek a relaxing holiday in mild Gallic climes, Poitou-Charentes is a fine choice.

 

 

 

 


The bones of a young Neanderthal woman were found at Saint Césaire, dating back to around 36,000 years ago. These reveal that this area has considerable prehistory. However, the earliest attested inhabitants were the Pictavi or Pictones, a Gallic tribe. They collaborated with Julius Caesar in 58BC in order to rout the Helvetians from their territory, but the tribe was later divided over the revolt against the Romans in 52BC, which was led by Vercingetorix. The regional boundaries of Aquitania to the south were extended north up to the Loire River and so the region of Poitou-Charentes was swallowed up into this larger province. 

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths held sway in the south of France and had their capital in Toulouse. The Franks took over in the 6th century AD. The Muslim Umayyads were constantly invading the south of France and defeated the Duke of Aquitaine in a battle near Bordeaux. In order to expel these invaders from his land, the Duke allied himself with Charles Martel, a Frankish military leader. The clash culminated in the now famous Battle of Poitiers in 752 or 753, which halted Islamic expansion into Western Europe. 

From the 10th to the middle of the 12th centuries the city of Poitiers found importance as the counts of Poitou also acted as the dukes of the whole of Aquitaine. In the 12th century, as King Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the region became a possession of England. It only became a part of France once more in 1416 during the Hundred Years War, the struggle between the English and French crowns for power.

In the 16th century La Rochelle was an important Protestant Huguenot stronghold. Indeed, the city was ceded to the Huguenots in 1573 but then in 1627 invaded by Cardinal Richelieu, who oversaw a devastating 14 month siege during which 23,000 out of the population of 30,000 died of starvation.

Poitou-Charentes had close ties with Canada and the USA, not only through maritime trade but also migration. In fact, many of the people who would go on to become to Creole population of Louisiana came from this region of France originally.

The region was occupied by the Germans during WWII and La Rochelle in particular underwent an invasion by Allied forces in 1944-5.