The most beautiful villages of the Poitou-Charentes
There are about 32,000 villages in France and just 151 of them are given the accolade of being one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. In the Poitou-Charentes there are seven such villages, all of them worth a visit.
AUBETERRE-SUR-DRONNE, Charente: With its red-tiled roofs, steep cobbled streets and typically French town square lined with linden trees, it’s not surprising that this village in the south of the Charente is the best-known and most popular of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, in the region. if you see just one, this is the one to visit. But it’s not just looks that make it special – the once fortified town saw battles against the English and then the Huguenots during the Wars of Religion. And as a stopping point for travellers on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the village also has a significant pilgrim history. Aubeterre is a lovely village to wander about in, especially as many of the streets are filled with artisans making and selling pottery and other crafts. At the heart of the town is Place Trarieux, an attractive, tree-lined square that’s the perfect place to stop and watch the world bustle by. It’s named after Ludovic Trarieux, the founder of the League of Human Rights who was born here. Another native is Roger Vivier who invented the stiletto! Tourist office: Place Ludovic-Trarieux; tel 05 45 98 57 18
The underground church, église souterraine or église monolithe of Saint-Jean: the village’s most amazing site is this church which was carved out of cliff face by monks back in the 12th century. Twenty-seven metres high, the église monolithe is said to have taken 100 years to complete and includes a nave, baptismal font, vestibule, octagonal columns and gallery. The necropolis contains 80 or so sarcophagi and the 6m high, carved monument standing in the apse is a replica of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre church. Archaeologists are still trying to understand the mysteries of this extraordinary building. More information from the Aubeterre tourist office.
The church of Saint Jacques: for a touch of Moorish Spain, take a look at the 12th century façade of this church – make sure you see the signs of the zodiac! This is the only part of the original church left – the rest of it was destroyed during the Wars of Religion.
Musée des Marionnettes: run by Englishman Keith Hubbard, he has over 200 shadow, rod and glove puppets as well as marionettes. His shows are in French and English. Open June-September. Place Ludovic-Trarieux; tel 05 45 98 02 71
Musée du Papillon et de l’Art Africain: a mix of collections of more than 12,000 butterflies and insects that owner Albert Petit and his family have collected from Africa. There is also a smaller collection of African artefacts and jewellery. Open Easter to October. Place Ludovic-Trarieu; tel 05 45 98 64 58
Beach fun: at a point where the river Dronne widens to resemble a lake is an artificial beach with real sand that is constantly replenished. It is a great place to spend a few hours splashing around. Route de Ribérac
TALMONT-SUR-GIRONDE, Charente-Maritime: South of Royan, Talmont sits atop a rocky cliff with fantastic views out to the Gironde estuary. Built in the 13th century as a fortified village at the orders of Edward I, it still has its original layout, the narrow streets flanked by small white houses and hollyhocks, the ubiquitous flower of the region. Saint Radegonde church, one of the most famous Romanesque church in Poitou-Charentes, towers over the village protected by the ancient ramparts. Tourist office: rue de l'Eglise; tel 05 46 90 16 25
ARS-EN RE on L’ÎLE DE RÉ, Charente-Maritime: On the northwest coast of the island, this pretty port village with its winding streets is quintessentially l’Île de Ré. The houses are in the traditional style of white with green shutters and framed by hollyhocks, the prettiness a contrast to the surrounding saltpans that have been worked for the past 800 years. The town is famous for Saint-Étienne church, whose black and white painted bell tower is a beacon for passing ships. During the summer, you can climb to the top of the church for a view of the surrounding forest and oyster beds. If you can, try to be there for La fête de la Sardine et du Port which takes place of the July 5 and celebrates the village’s history. Tourist office: Place Carnot; tel 05 46 29 46 09
LA FLOTTE-EN- RÉ on L’ÎLE DE RÉ, Charente-Maritime: The hub of activity in this lovely village on the north coast of the island is around the port, which is filled with small sailing and fishing vessels – it’s a great place to have a drink and watch the world go by. La Flotte not only boasts the pretty homes and gardens of l’Île de Ré villages, it’s also the site of two impressive fortifications. Fort de la Prée, built in 1626, is the oldest fortification on the island and played a major role in the battle against the English. L’Abbaye des Chateliers was built by Cistercian monks in the 12th century. Pillaged and set on fire in the past, today it’s been restored and is an atmospheric sight. Great for children are the guided tours and treasure hunts that allow them to explore the village and the seashore. Sign up at La Maison du Platin. Tourist office: Quai de Sénac; tel 05 46 09 60
MORNAC-SUR-SEUDRE, Charente-Maritime: Once a commercial fishing port, today like much of this part of France oysters and salt are the economic mainstays, along with tourism. As pretty as Ars and Flotte with similar village style, it also has some fine Romanesque architecture, especially the church of Saint Pierre. The nearby salt marsh is a great place for a ramble, not just for the views of oyster farms and wilderness but also the wildlife. Tourist office: 46 Place du Port; tel 05 46 22 61 68
COULON, Deux-Sèvres: Situated in the Marais Poitevin, the watery landscape of slow moving rivers, meadows, fens and fields, Coulon in the Deux-Sèvres , is considered the capital of the Venise Verte (Green Venice). Here you can see the typical marshlander houses with their white-washed walls and brightly coloured shutters as well as the more elegant Renaissance architecture in white stone. The Maison du Marais Poitevin by the river was once where river taxes were collected. Today it’s a museum where you can learn about the history and life of this atmospheric area. From Coulon you can hire punts and spend a few hours exploring the area. Or take the miniature train. Tourist office: 31, rue Gabriel Auchier; tel 05 49 35 99 29
ANGLES-SUR-L’ANGLIN, Vienne: Dominated by the ruins of Chateau Guichard high up on a hill, wander the narrow winding streets and take in the architecture that dates back to medieval times. You can visit the chateau and see the remainders of two towers, the donjon and two chapels. The village is also known for its fine embroidery - see the tourist office for details of where you can see the craft in action. Recently opened in the Roc Aux Sociers or ‘Witches Rock’, replicas of prehistoric carvings that date from 14 000 years ago that were found here in the 1950s but are closed to the public to preserve them. Tourist office: La Place; tel 05 49 48 86 87
Photograph: CDT CHARENTE
SEE ALSO: VERTEUIL-SUR-CHARENTE