There’s a little pocket of France which remains one of its hidden gems – Charente-Maritime. It hovers across four departments, right on the cusp of where north meets south. The area is well served by airports and motorways yet is still distinctly rural in feel.
A very French corner of France
It’s a place where cuisses de grenuoilles (frogs legs), escargot (snails) and andouillette (a sausage not for the faint hearted made of, amongst other things, intestines and sometimes tripe) are still very much in evidence on local lunch menus. Shops shut for lunch, restaurants have a habit of shutting for August, some schools still close on a Wednesday and a few of the locals speak in a heavy patois. It’s also a place where one minute there are rolling green hills and thick, lush woodland and then in the blink of an eye, you’re driving across burnt orange planes dodging the melon stalls. Sunflowers morph into vineyards, and huge lazy rivers transform into a vast network of orderly canals making up one of the largest marshlands in France.
The area sits neatly between La Rochelle, Nantes and Poitiers across the departments of the Vendée, the Deux Sevres, the Charente and the Vienne. It’s diverse, quirky, occasionally infuriating and surprisingly lacking in tourists (well ok, there’s a few but not compared to other areas).
Fontenay le Comte in the Vendee
Almost in the centre of this quiet little triangle is the renaissance market town of Fontenay le Comte which stretches down in a gloriously straight line from a lofty, green square at the top of the town, across the River Vendée and then up again. It’s a little sleepy unless you arrive on market day but if you head to the other end of town and climb up to the Donjon des Cimes there are amazing views across the roof tops as well as huge enclosed nets up in the trees for the kids to play on. It’s in Fontenay that you first start to get a taste of the south and it’s not a bad place to be based to explore.
The diverse landscape of Poitou-Charentes
To the west of Fontenay by about an hour you have the Atlantic coast with its seaside towns, the Bay of Aiguillon (home to mud flats, salt marshes and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds) and Les Sables d’Olonne. To the north lie the rolling hills of the ‘bocage’ and the forest of Mervent. 4,000 hectares of oak, chestnut and beech surround a vast lake here, the result of damming the 2 rivers that flow through the forest (the Vendée and the Mère). Ravines, panoramic views, fortified villages, wildlife and 200km of walks are the order of the day here and make Mervent a spellbinding place.
The landscape south of Fontenay is dramatic in contrast; flat, hot with a Mediterranean feel. Yet as you head south east, it all changes again, and you find yourself in the pretty and ingenious world of the part of the Marais Poitevin known as Green Venice. With canal side towns, ancient abbeys and intricate, arboreal waterways, it was all created by man out of what was once little more than a silty bay.
Theme parks and activities
It’s not just the whirlwind of changes in landscape that makes this little corner so compelling. Dotted amongst the cornfields, valleys and rivers are all sorts of interesting things going on. The world famous Puy du Fou theme park for a start, is to the north, where you’ll find historical enactments on a dramatic scale: Viking boats rise out of the waters, fires stream out of a moving chateau and huge birds of prey swoop so close their feet almost scratch your cheek. You know it’s not an ordinary theme park when you’re warned that dangerous animals are in amongst the audience and not to eat while you’re watching the show. And that’s before you get to the gladiators!
Further south there’s the Indian Forest of Adventures (tree top adventures taken to the next level) and in a similar vein half an hour north of Fontenay there’s the Parc D’Adventure; high octane Go Ape at half the price. There’s also a zoo at Mervent where you can walk with some of the animals, cycle riding in abundance, gentle water sports or a spot of fishing.
In Nantes, you have the Les Machines de l’île, a fascinating experiment in the old dockyards which will have you riding on a 12 metre high mechanical elephant or a 4 metre ant and sailing round on a merry go round in a cranking, metal crustacean. The vision of two artists, the concept is described “as visualising a travel-through-time world at the crossroads of the “imaginary worlds” of Jules Verne and the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci” and that undoubtedly captures the spirit of your day here.
Yet at the other end of the spectrum and just a couple of hour’s drive to the east is Futuroscope, with all that is modern and high tech. There’s a new water park too, ancient abbey’s perched on marooned little islands and chateaux to explore in abundance.
History hand in hand with nature
But despite the dozen or more major attractions, it doesn’t feel busy. You’ll get a table without booking at lunch and your 2 hours will never be rushed. You’ll find history hand in hand with adventure, nature to suit every palate and activities for every generation and speed. Each visit offers up something new and compelling, a different pace, a different atmosphere or challenge, this little corner of France doesn’t disappoint.
Tourist Office: Vendee-Tourism.co.uk; Puy du Fou: www.puydufou.com/en; Futuroscope: en.futuroscope.com; Indian Forest of Adventures: www.indian-forest-atlantique.com; Parc d’Adventure: www.parc-aventure-79.fr; Mechanical machines at Nantes: www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/en
Lucy Pitts is a freelance travel writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France