Along the coastline of Charente-Maritime, there is an area known as the Pertuis d’Antioche, a strait separating the islands of Olèron and Ré. Its strategic position enabled this stretch of water to provide protection for the ports of La Rochelle and Rochefort, making it highly prized and often fought over.
Don LaGrave took a road trip to the land of his Huguenot ancestors who hailed from this area before they settled in Canada in the 17th century…
Driving over the Charente river from Rochefort, and heading south, it would be easy to miss the village of Hiers-Brouage where Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec, came from. During the siege of La Rochelle in 1628, Brouage was the operational base for Cardinal Richelieu. From here he commanded the French army against the Huguenots of La Rochelle. It was a terrible loss for the Huguenots. It’s hard to imagine the pretty town as it was, lapped by the sea. The subsequent silting of the river ended Brouage’s role as a port town and European capital of salt. The ancient citadel remains, remodelled by famous military architect Vauban.
Hiers-Brouage is easy to miss because the ramparts block the view of the town. Its streets are laid out on a grid pattern house fewer than 500 people. Officially one of the most beautiful villages of France, it is well worth seeking out. Walk the ramparts and visit the Champlain Museum to get a feel for its past. The 17th Halles aux Vivres, a former covered market, is now an exhibition site which covers the history of the salt trade and the fortifications to protect the area.
This is great area for cycling – it’s very flat, and there’s an interesting bike museum. The town is home to many artisans and there are boutiques and several cafés. The views across the bay and are breathtaking.
From here it’s an easy drive to the Ile d’Oléron via a 2-mile long bridge. Here, you’ll discover another Vauban fortress – Le Chateau-d’Oléron. This is oyster territory with multicoloured fishing huts some of which are now used as workshops by artisans. With its beautiful beaches, salt marshes and oyster beds, Oléron is a tranquil little island with a traditional feel.
From Oléron take the D123 road to Rochefort, a city on a curve of the Charente River. The town dominated the late 1700’s as a ship building center of excellence. Built by Louis XIV, the Rochefort Dockyards turned out more than 500 warships, including the Hermione which carried Lafayette to the American Revolution. You can take a tour of the historical ship building sites in this Arsenal Quarter, which are built like fortresses and include the vast Corderie where hemp was turned into rope. There’s also the National Naval Museum
Close by, the Jardin des Retours includes the Conservatory of Begonias. With a population of some 25,000, there is a broad range of hotels and restaurants where menus focus on the local seafood especially oysters and mussels including “mouclade”, mussels with a creamy curry sauce.
La Rochelle is best enjoyed on foot. There are several museums and La Grande Roue, a Ferris wheel which provides great views of the old port. The people watching is great and if you sit alongside the harbour you can watch the boats manoeuvre. Restaurants, bars and tourist shops line the port. The market at Place de Marché on Rue Gambetta offers a feast for the palate.
Ile de Ré
The Ile de Ré is a small island reached by boat or by car over a vast toll bridge. It’s best to go very early in the morning as the bridge can get very crowded. My advice is to head straight to Ars-en-Ré, about an hour’s drive across the island. You will be tempted to stop en route as there are so many beautiful sites but you can do them on the way back! Enjoy breakfast at Ars-en-Ré or just beyond at Les Portes-en-Ré. If you can spend a few days here there’s plenty to do and see in the area: cycling, sailing, surfing, or simply enjoying the atmosphere. Visit a salt marsh where you can buy some fleur de sel and learn about the ancient process of salt mining. Climb the Phare des Baleines (185 feet and 257 steps) for a great view. There are a number of beaches all along the ocean side best reached by bike.
On your return to La Rochelle take the D735 and stop off at Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Visit the ruins of the fortress and stroll along the quay with its nautical shops and fine restaurants. It’s a great place to pick up souvenirs, including wine of Ile -de-Re.
By Don LaGrave, Boston, MA