Royan in the south west of France, in Charente-Maritime, is a classified “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire”. This holiday resort combines the old world charm of the Belle Epoque with modern architecture, a buzzing port and sea front and plenty to see and do in the town and close by.
Here’s what to see and do in Royan
Take a tour and discover the unique architecture of Royan
Get your bearings with a tour of the town. In the aftermath of World War II, Royan, which suffered huge damage, needed reconstruction on a grand scale. The architects in charge of the city’s rebuilding in the 1950s, experimented with new forms, techniques and materials to design a model city, aiming for an open and modern look and feel. Royan’s updated look is unique and comes from combining modern architecture and in particular the influence of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, combined with Charente-Maritime coastal style.
In downtown Royan explore the heritage of the 1950s rebuild on the seafront and city streets. The 19th century Belle Époque style was replaced with what were then innovative concrete buildings. More than 100 architects worked on the redesign prioritising residential buildings. The neoclassical apartment blocks frequently feature an element of Art Deco style.
Group tours are available in English from the tourist office.
Royan central market – a must-see in Royan
Redesigned in the 1950s, the indoor market is striking. If you could see it from above you’ll know the concrete roof is shaped a bit like an open parachute. Actually it’s mimicking the effect of an open sail. The round building has undulating concrete walls reminiscent of painted corrugated iron, influenced by Brazilian architecture. From the outside, there is no hint of the extraordinary interior which is beautifully lit with sunlight flowing through delicate glass blocks in the ceiling. The locals love their market. In the midst of the rebuild, the money ran out and townsfolk had a whip-round and collected the funds to finish it.
In 2019 Royan market came second in the “Favourite market of the French” contest. It’s a wonderful indoor market with a wide variety of meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables, breads and cheeses – everything from flowers to frying pans, olives to olive oils, herbs and spices and, a local speciality, Pineau des Charente, wine made with cognac.
Church of Notre-Dame de Royan
The concrete Notre Dame Church on the Santiago Compostela pilgrim route is somewhat dilapidated from the outside though the steeple is impressively tall (I’ll be honest it made me think of a multi-storey car park). But don’t let that fool you. When I entered the church, I felt as if I had opened the door onto another world, it was like stepping into a spaceship with its startlingly modern interior. Monumentally high ceilings and incredible stained glass windows make for a extraordinary design. It’s best seen from outside at night when the stained glass is lit up.
Musée de Royan
Built in the old market building, this is a small museum which covers local history. The most popular exhibit is about Picasso’s time in Royan. The artist lived here for a while and the exhibit shows examples of some the stunning artwork he completed whilst there.
Wander along the sea front
The sea front is more traditional, bars and restaurants line the esplanade and make for a great, relaxing place to while away the hours. Round the bay, the Belle Epoque style villas are a great contrast after the city’s concrete vibe. Stop at Pointe De Suzac, a short drive from Royan. This natural “balcony” over the Gironde Estuary and protected natural area with forests and lots of wild birds. There are also WWII bunkers along the coastline. It’s not a well-advertised attraction but well worth seeking out.
Take a break at a beach house bar and restaurant
Along by Pointe de Suzac you’ll find La Crique-Suzac Beach House bar and restaurant. It’s in a stunning location and has a great menu and fabulous holiday vibe. Chef David has worked in restaurants around the world but returned to this area where he was born and is really making a mark. Featured as a top summer pick in Elle magazine, the dishes are seriously tempting, there are music nights and a fabulous Sunday brunch. Chef David told me he sources oysters from a 5th generation oyster fishing family in nearby La Tremblade, and fish from the local estuary – utterly delicious. Details: lacrique-suzac.com
Regulus Caves at Meschers
Around 15km from Royan, Meschers has an extraordinary troglodyte site in a seaside resort. The sea caves show how houses were formed out of the soft limestone and chalk. Guided tours are available from March to November including night-time walks.
Take a detour to Talmont sur-Gironde
Talmont-sur-Gironde is a ‘Plus beau Village de France’ and ‘Petites Cités de Caractère’. Discover the village founded in 1284 by Edward 1st of Aquitaine, on a rocky promontory overlooking the Gironde Estuary, south of Royan. Cobbled streets, pretty houses, artisan studios and stunning views await.
The popular Palmyre zoo covers a whopping 18 hectares, including 14 beautiful landscaped gardens. More than 1600 animals, including over 130 different species, live here. You can join in with feeding the penguins and watch the daily sea lion, parrot and cockatoo shows.
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