Exploring the Maritime Heritage of the Poitou-Charentes
What do Cognac, comic books, cliff diving and sea fortresses have in common? Well, as the post title suggests, you’ll find them all in France’s Poitou-Charentes, a richly diverse region which offers everything from maritime heritage through to culture, food, and of course, Cognac!
With hundreds of kilometres of coastline, this region has a particularly strong maritime heritage, which is what I will be focusing on. Let’s start with La Rochelle, the capital of the Charente-Maritime department.
Officially founded in the 10th century, La Rochelle has actually been inhabited, and likely acting as a port, for thousands of years, first by the Gauls and then by the Romans. Since its official founding it’s had a colourful history, with my favourite characters being the Knights Templar, who used it as their main sea harbour during their period of strength.
La Rochelle has also had its fair share of sea battles and has a rich naval history, from the hundred year war right up to World War II, where it served as German U-boat harbour and was the last French city to be liberated of Nazi occupation.
All this naval history has been wonderfully preserved, with the “Vieux Port”, or “Old Harbour”, acting as a focal point for visitors, and therefore a must-visit for your trip. The highlight has to be the Towers of La Rochelle, three towers which date from medieval times and have guarded the entrance to the port since then. They are also the location for the French stage of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, where entrants hurl themselves from the Saint Nicolas tower, 27 metres above the Bay of Biscay.
The old harbour is also full of wonderful seafood restaurants, and is the perfect place for spending an evening relaxing, eating and enjoying some French nightlife. It’s also a great place from where to venture further afield, with two highlights being boat trips to Fort Boyard and the Ile d’Aix.
Fort Boyard was built under the rule of Napoleon in the early 19th century, ostensibly to provide La Rochelle with a robust sea-based defence against any invading British fleets. Unfortunately, it took so long to build that it was obsolete before it was completed, so it was never used for its original purpose, instead being used as a rather formidably located military prison, before being abandoned entirely.
Nowadays it is famously used as the location for the TV show of the same name, which has been running since 1990. You don’t need to take part in a game show to see the fortress though, you can just take a cruise from La Rochelle to Fort Boyard, which will circle the fortress and let you find out everything you want to know.
The other excellent cruise option from La Rochelle is the cruise to the Ile d’Aix. This little island was the last place in France where Napoleon lived before surrendering to the English, and with only 200 inhabitants, is perfect for a relaxing day of quiet exploration away from the mainland.
Let’s move on from La Rochelle now, and move south down the coast. While the whole coastline is filled with fascinating spots, from lighthouses to salt marshes, I’m going to quickly talk about another favourite, the town of Rochefort.
Not to be confused with the cheese producing region in the south of France (spelt with a “q”), Rochefort also has a fascinating maritime heritage, and had a vital role in the defence of the French coastline, in particular serving as a base and re-supply location for the French Navy for centuries.
It’s in Rochefort that you’ll find the Corderie Royale, a vital part of the Rochefort Armory that was responsible for creating the rope for the tall ships of the French Navy, a role it played for over 200 hundred years. Now it’s open as a popular visitor attraction, where you can learn all about the history of the armory and the rope making centre.
Rochefort is also where one of France’s best known frigates recently set sail. Or at least, a recreation of one of France’s best known frigates.
The Frigate Hermione, originally launched in 1779, played a starring role in the American War of Independence, and a historically accurate version set sail from Rochefort in April 2015 for the USA, due to return in August 2015. Read all about that voyage right here.
There is lots more to do in the Poitou-Charentes that I’ve not been able to cover in this post – from the street art and comic festival in the city of Angoulême, the world famous salt marshes of the Ile de Ré, the world-class lighthouses along the coast, to the Cognac producing town of, well, Cognac.
You certainly won’t run out of options on your visit.