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POITOU, VENDEE & CHARENTES



A Pilgrimage Through Western France

Poitou is one of France's oldest provinces. Out of it were carved the départements of Vendée, Deux-Sèvres, the two Charentes, and Vienne. The entire history of medieval and modern France can be deciphered in the region's landscape and monuments. Inhabited since the earliest of human history, and covered—like all of western France—with megaliths and Bronze Age sites, Poitou entered history as the land of the Pictones. In Roman times Poitou was a division, or civitas, of the province of Aquitaine. As ancient remains demonstrate beyond a doubt, Poitou was deeply, enduringly Romanized. The conquerors' influence was centered in the oppidum, or town, of Limonum, which from the ninth century became known as Poitiers. In the latter days of the Empire, Limonum grew into a major transport and administrative center, and the imperial legate resided there. Archaeological digs in and around Poitiers continue to reveal Gallo-Roman structures. The remains of a third-century rampart are still visible in several districts of Poitiers, and the city's cultural center displays Gallo-Roman inscriptions, furniture and a magnificent statue of Minerva. A few miles north, at Vandeuvre-du-Poitou, is the Gallo-Roman archaeological site of Les Tours Mirandes, the largest in western France.

Poitou was the scene of three epic battles that proved decisive for the course of French history. At Vouillé in the year 506, the Frankish ruler Clovis chased the Visigoths out of France and consolidated his kingship. In 732, Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne, beat back the Moorish invasion of Europe at Poitiers. And in 1356, Poitiers witnessed one of France's worst defeats in the Hundred Years' War, when King John the Good was taken prisoner by the English. Christianity rapidly took root in Poitou and flourished with rare vigor. In the fourth century the bishop of Poitiers (later Saint Hilary the Great), and his disciple, the future Saint Martin of Tours, founded the influential abbeys of Noirmoutie and Ligugé.

La Rochelle

Poitou's golden age spanned the tenth to the twelfth centuries. The Guilhem family, who were counts of Poitiers, rose to the rank of dukes of Aquitaine in 928 and retained the title for 200 years. These opulent seigneurs had themselves crowned in royal style at the abbey of Saint-Martial in Limoges. Under their rule, Poitiers acquired its great Romanesque sanctuaries: Notre-Dame-la-Grande, Saint-Jean-de-Montierneuf, Saint-Porchaire, Sainte-Radegonde, and Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand dominate the surrounding plains. Throughout Poitou, the Guilhem era saw the construction of important Romanesque monuments, a tangible sign of an intense spiritual revival marked by the erection of the abbey of Fontevraud (just over the Poitou border in Anjou), and by the endless procession of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Abbots, feudal lords and city fathers fostered a boom in church construction. Many of those churches still stand today, their eloquent carvings and frescoes intact. At Chauvigny, a craggy promontory supports the imposing remains of several feudal fortresses, while in the lower town, the church of Saint-Pierre displays fascinating carved capitals. A few miles away, the church of Saint-Pierre-les-Églises preserves the oldest wall paintings in Poitou. In the church at Saint-Savin, once part of a Carolingian abbey, visitors gaze in wonder at the most remarkable cycle of Romanesque frescoes in Europe: scenes from the Apocalypse decorate the porch; the Passion and the Resurrection are depicted on the western wall. The nave's grandiose fresco made it possible for illiterate medieval Christians to learn the major of episodes of Bible history: Adam and Eve, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Tower of Babel, etc. Local peasants could even see a reflection of their own lives in the tools and gestures of Noah pruning his vines.

At the same time, the province sprouted with fortresses and châteaux at Loudun, Châtellerault, Lusignan, Vivonne and Mont-Morillon. The dean of them all was founded at Chauvigny around 1025, by the Poitiers-Bourges road that crossed the Vienne River at the very foot of the fortress.

In 1137, the Guilhem dynasty ran out of male heirs, and Eleanor of Aquitaine presented the duchy as part of her dowry when she wed King Louis VII of France. When he repudiated her, and Eleanor married England's Henry Plantagenet, she took the duchy with her. Energetic, elegant, celebrated by troubadours who compared her to the “eagle, queen of the air,” Eleanor brought a final burst of brilliance to her house, but with her Poitou lost its independence.

Thereafter, Poitou opened up to different cultural and artistic influences. The new Gothic architecture, imported from Ile-de-France and Anjou, coexisted with the Romanesque in Poitiers's churches of Saint-Jean-de-Montierneuf and Sainte-Radegonde, but the Gothic style triumphed in Poitiers's cathedral of Saint-Pierre. The 1200s saw the launch of major sculpture workshops in Poitou. The wooden stalls of Poitiers's cathedral, executed under Bishop Jean de Melun between 1235 and 1257, and the sculptures currently exhibited in the chapter room of the abbey of Charroux (52 km south of Poitiers) are undisputed masterpieces. Military architecture evolved as well: the squat, square donjons of the Romanesque period gave way to cylindrical towers, like those at Montreuil-Bonnin, typical of the style that prevailed from the time of King Philippe-Auguste.

As the front line of Aquitaine, Poitou played an essential role during the Hundred Years' War. After John the Good's defeat in 1356, England's Edward III used the province as a base for threatening the Paris region. After a welcome spell of peace under the rule of King Charles V's brother, art patron Jean de Berry, the Dauphin (future Charles VI) made Poitou and Berry the base for his reconquest of France. He founded the University of Poitiers in 1431 as a counterweight to the Sorbonne. The university gave Poitiers international stature; the printing and the book trades flourished so vigorously that Poitiers rivaled Paris. Along with the musical works of composer Clément Jannequin (1485-1558), the greatest artistic legacy of the Renaissance in Poitou is a collection of sumptuous town houses, notably the Fumé, Berthelot and Beaucé houses in Poitiers.

In 1537 the first persecutions of Protestants began in Poitiers. The Wars of Religion engulfed Poitou in earnest from 1562 on. The destruction they wrought is still visible today at the abbey of Charroux or the churches of Sainte-Radegonde and Saint-Hilaire. Militant Protestantism in the region dates from this era, particularly in the western reaches of the province, where Louis XIII and Richelieu led a ruthless siege against Protestant troops at La Rochelle in 1628. The Edict of Nantes guaranteed religious freedom for Protestants; its revocation by Louis XIV in 1685 meant forced exile for 7,000 Huguenots.

Vendée: The Green Venice

What was called Lower Poitou before the Revolution now makes up the département of Vendée, composed of the two very different zones that are inland and coastal Vendée. Inland Vendée is a land of hills and low mountains that prolongs the Armorican massif, before it plunges into the wetlands of the Marais Poitevin, west of Niort. The Marais is a unique and magical landscape made up of polders, or swamps reclaimed from the sea. The effort began far back in the eleventh century, when the abbey of Maillezais was founded on an outcrop of limestone for the express purpose of draining the land and making it arable (the ruins of the Romanesque abbey church can be visited today). Known as the Venise verte or “green Venice,” the Marais Poitevin is crisscrossed by a maze of canals, which visitors can explore in flat-bottomed boats that leave from Coulon, on the River Sèvre. The drier, eastern portions of the Marais Poitevin support livestock, especially beef cattle. Industrialized towns are few in Vendée: Cholet, famous for its printed handkerchiefs, Fontenay-le-Comte (also home to the Musée Vendéen), and the meat-packing center of Parthenay all share the discreet charm of sleepy provincial towns.

Vendée

Coastal Vendée bears little resemblance to the interior. Its long stretch of shore is punctuated with port towns that once enjoyed considerable renown, like Les Sables-d'Olonne. Nowadays, the oyster and mussel beds of the Bourgneuf and Aiguillon bays, seashells collected for sale, and sea salt gathered from glittering salt marshes are the area's chief resources. Away from the coast, vegetable growers cultivate carrots, lettuces, garlic, beans and potatoes on small truck farms. This produce rarely leaves the region, but along with ducks from Challans, butter from Charentes, and fresh seafood from local waters, it makes the markets of Vendée a food lover's dream. The booming tourism industry has changed the face of coastal Vendée in the past 20 years. More than 180 miles of beaches and a sunny climate attract holiday-makers from all over Europe to Saint-Jean-de-Mont, Les Sables-d'Olonne and the pleasure islands of Yeu and Noirmoutier.

In France's collective memory Vendée is forever linked to the popular uprising of 1793, when the levying of 300,000 troops by the young république française unleashed a revolt in the western provinces, which were still loyal to the ideal of a Catholic monarchy. There followed what Napoléon called a “war of Giants” that opposed the la grande armée catholique et royale and the republican army, a war that dragged on until 1815. As one travels through this landscape, which has changed but little since the eighteenth century, it is easy to imagine the pitched battles fought at Cholet and Chantonnay, or the countless ambushes laid by Vendéens in the wooded hills of the bocage. On summer nights at the castle of Le Puy-du-Fou a brilliant sound-and-light show recreates the saga of the Vendée wars.

Charentes: A Most Fertile District

“I do not wish to hear our Touraine anointed 'Garden of France,' for it is in no way comparable to this; or, if Touraine is a garden, then this is paradise on earth!” The Charente Valley and its verdant countryside elicited that compliment from historian Estienne Pasquier in 1585. A century later, Albert Jouvin, the royal treasurer and a famous traveler besides, saw in the provinces around the cities of La Rochelle and Saintes “one of the most fertile districts of the realm, rich in wine, wheat, ship timber, fish, salt, cattle, meadows, and good seaports.” South of Vendée, these western reaches of the old province of Poitou (home of Cognac and of the late President François Mitterrand), beguiles the visitor with bucolic visions of deep-plowed fields and vineyards, and with maritime scenes as colorful as any Mediterranean seascape.

Coastal Cherentes

Coastal Charentes opens onto the Gironde River estuary to the southwest. To the west lies a sea of narrows and channels protected by two island versions of the local countryside: the enchanting Ile de Ré and Ile d'Oléron. It adds up to more than 320 miles of coastline, where the admirably preserved ports of La Rochelle and seventeenth-century Rochefort testify to the grandeur of Charentes's naval past (Rochefort's Corderie Royale, a former ropewalk, is a remarkable sight). Royan, a popular resort town entirely rebuilt after the war, lures visitors to the tip of Charentes's coast with its broad beaches and casino.

Limestone cliffs eaten away by the waves, ancient valleys filled up by silt from river and sea, sand dunes pinned down by plantations of pines: Charentes's shoreline offers the intriguing spectacle of a titanic battle between ocean and earth. Centuries of effort have gone into mastering the sea, by medieval monks and modern engineers: their legacy is a maze of canals and ditches, dikes and locks, and a checkerboard of salt pans and oyster beds. The wetlands around La Rochelle prove that reclamation can be a success, but the barren marshes near Rochefort and Brouage (birthplace of Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec), a former port that is now miles from the sea, show that even the most valiant efforts can fail.

Farther inland the Charente River, an important commercial artery since the Late Empire, connects the ancient cities of Saintes (the site of major Roman and Romanesque monuments) and high-perched Angoulême. To the north of the river, limestone plains unfurl their fertile fields, cultivated for many centuries. In the 1700s, the vineyards which had flourished here since the Middle Ages gradually encroached on wheat-bearing land, owing to the high prices paid at export for the region's celebrated brandy.

Cognac distillery

In Cognac and Jarnac visitors can tour the cellars of such prestigious distillers as Hennessy, Otard, and Martell, Hine, and Courvoisier. The very air in these towns is intoxicating! The slopes of the “Champagne” (the word comes from the Latin for “chalk”) districts—Cognac, Segonzac—yield the highest quality brandy. The outlying “Bois” or wooded areas still bear the scars of huge swathes of forest felled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to provide firewood for Cognac's stills and timber for the shipyards at La Rochelle.

A quiet, provincial backwater for some 200 years, Poitou-Charentes, as the region is now officially known, only recently began to exploit its resources in a dynamic, forward-looking way. This traditionally rural area now actively seeks to attract high-tech research and industry. The Futuroscope theme park at Jauny-Clan, just north of Poitiers, symbolizes the region's new vocation. Hailed as a “showcase of the future,” the park draws more than a million visitors each year. What's more, it is now home not only to French, but also to American and Japanese advanced technology firms, which have adopted Poitou as their European base.

Linked to Paris by the TGV bullet train, Poitou, Vendée, and Charentes are emerging from their long torpor. They are only too eager to welcome visitors and show off their ancient history and rich artistic heritage. The time is ripe to discover the still-secret treasures of western France.

Back to Poitou, Vendée & Charentes
Images courtesy of La Maison de France


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