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Poitou – Charentes

Poitou-Charentes

Situated in western France, the region is comprised of the departments of Deux Sevres and Vienne, centred on the ancient city of Poitiers in the north and the lower lying Charente and Charente Maritime in the south of the region.

Geographically, the region is situated on part of France’s Atlantic coastal plane with a more hilly area further inland. The whole region enjoys one of the mildest climates in France and the coastal plane is the sunniest after the Mediterranean.

Mostly rural in character, the region’s largest town is its medieval capital, Poitiers, with a population of just over 90,000. Consequently, the area’s economy is based primarily on farming with cattle, corn and wheat being the main products. In the south there are extensive vineyards producing the characteristic brandies of Charente.

Oysters are also a local speciality and much of the coastline is given over to oyster beds. The freshest and most well-known come from Marannes-Oleron around La Rochelle.

One of the region’s main attractions is The Futuroscope Theme Park, opened in 1986. Now in France’s top 10 most visited sites, it receives around 1.5 million visitors a year. Known for its striking architectural style with pavilions made of metal and glass, its attractions include 3D and 4D cinemas and other multimedia techniques. English translation head- sets are available for some of these.

Everyone will be familiar with photographs of the medieval twin towers which guard the Vieux Port of La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay. The second largest city in the region, La Rochelle is crammed with well-preserved historic buildings, chic boutiques and a plethora of tempting restaurants. Now considered an ideal short-break destination from the UK, it can be explored easily on foot or by utilising the 160km of cycle paths on one of the council’s yellow bikes.

The city is home to a number of music and film festivals, along with several sports events and concerts. Every September Le Grand Pavois, the largest floating boat show in Europe, is held. There are also many other attractions including museums and an aquarium to suit visitors of all ages and interests.

The hub of the city is the Gabut district which runs alongside the old harbour. Here you will find a range of colourful sea-food restaurants all jostling for custom and small shops, making it an ideal spot for a leisurely evening stroll.

In May 1988 the city was connected to the Ile de Re by a long bridge which offers easy access to this popular tourist area as is also its larger neighbour, the Ile d’Oleron. La Rochelle also has good links to other parts of France by rail and has an expanding international airport.

Along the coastline are a number of well-known beach resorts where yachting and surfing are popular sports, particularly on the aptly named Cote Sauvage.

With its lovely sandy beaches, Royan is considered one of the Atlantic coast’s best holiday resorts. Largely rebuilt after the Second World War, it is a mix of traditional and modern styles. There are several beaches to be found there, each with its own distinctive character. Its covered market is open every day from 7am to 1pm and is one of the best in the region

As far as food and drink are concerned, visitors are spoilt for choice. In addition to the famous oysters, the seas around the coastal plane provide a wealth of sea food. You will find a variety of shell fish including mussels, crab and langoustines along with good quality sea fish of all types.

The cheese of the area is mainly goats’ in variety. Often formed into a log shape and cut into slices, it is sold extensively in local shops and markets. The breeds of beef cattle reared on local farms are the Limousine and Parthenaise , noted for the quality and flavour of their meat. The main fruit product is its famous Charentes melon which is available throughout the summer months.

However, the Charente area is mainly famous for the production of Cognac, a type of brandy produced in the vineyards around the town of Cognac from which it gets its name. There are strict legal requirements to be met in production methods in order to merit the ‘Cognac’ brand name. The most well- known brands are Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin but there are also some smaller producers who offer alternative varieties.

Another local speciality is the aperitif Pineau des Charentes, generally known simply as ‘Pineau’. This fortified wine, usually about 17% proof, is popular in the region but less well known outside France or even in other areas of the country. Rather sweet in flavour, it is more commonly found in its white form although red and rose are also available. It is best served chilled. Pineau can be purchased in local supermarkets or, even better, direct from small producers.

To sum up, this charming region offers a wealth of gastronomic delicacies from both the land and the sea. One of the largest markets is the one at Chauvigny in Vienne which acts as a show-case for many of these local products.

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