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France's South West Atlantic Coast

France’s South West Atlantic Coast is claimed to be the favourite holiday destination of many French people – particularly Parisians. For it’s an area that’s easily accessible from Paris, and offers vast seascapes and miles of safe sandy beaches. The coastal resort of La Rochelle in particular, is, in fact, described as being ‘the most attractive and unspoilt seaside town in France’, and has become a firm favourite holiday destination with both French and British tourists.

Situated between the coastal resorts of Les Sables d’Olonne and Royan, La Rochelle was once one of the most important trading ports in France. And it still remains the most important French fishing port on the Atlantic Coast. It is also considered to be interesting both historically and architecturally. The ‘Vieux Port’ is considered particularly interesting, with impressive 14th century towers guarding its entrance.

The Porte de la Grosse Horloge straddles the entrance to the old town which leads to the Tour de la Chaine, which acquired its name because of the heavy chain that was slung across to the opposite tower – Tour St-Nicolas – to close the harbour at night.

And situated at the top of a succession of steep steps that lead to Rue Sur-les-Murs, which follows the top of the sea wall, one comes to Tour de la Lanterne – claimed to have once been used as a lighthouse – from the summit of which one can obtain a stunning view of both the town and the adjoining countryside.

Beyond lies the beach, which is backed by an extensive belt of park, known as Parc Charruyer, which is described as being ‘truly beautiful’. La Rochelle’s main shopping area is known as Rue du Palais, which leads up from the Vieux Port to ‘Place de Verdun’. Eighteenth century houses line the street, with the shop fronts being set back beneath the ground floor arcades.

Desribed as being the finest are the Hotel de la Bourse – which is, in fact, The Chamber of Commerce, and The Palais de Justice, which has a colonnaded façade. On the corner of Place de Verdun stands the eighteenth century cathedral.

Closer to the town walls, in Rue St-Come, stands Musee d’Orbigny-Bernon, which exhibits a vast display that features local history, together with a collection of porcelain from China and Japan. Other nearby museums include Musee du Nouveau Monde and Musee des Beaux- Arts.

To the east of the Vieux Port lies the quartier du Gabut, which once used to be the fishermen’s quarter, and which has been transformed into a succession of bars, restaurants and shops. Beyond it lies the quarters of the old fishing port, which is now known as Musee Maritime. And it claims to include among its exhibits ‘an interesting collection of superannuated vessels as well as land based exhibits’. A further walk brings one to the Muse des Automates, which is described as ‘a fascinating collection of three hundred automated puppets’, some of which are historically interesting while others are interesting from a mechanical angle.

Further down the same street one comes to the Musee des Modeles Reduits. Here, it is claimed, ‘scale models of every variety and era are on show, including models of a submerged shipwreck’. About two kilometres south of the Vieux Port one comes to the Port des Minimes, which is described as ‘a large modern marina development with mooring for thousands of yachts’. Here too there are said to be shops, restaurants, bars and apartments. And it is here that the Plage de Minimes is to be located, a beach that also lays claim to a spectacular aquarium which is situated near its shores.

Accommodation in La Rochelle, it is said, can present something of a problem unless one books well in advance. In fact, from May until early autumn, hotels and even camping facilities, tend to be in great demand. There are numerous hotels within the confines of La Rochelle but ‘last minute accommodation’ it is claimed, can be hard to procure. Advance booking, in fact, is strongly recommended.

The resort does have a number of self catering alternatives, which are also popular since the town abounds with numerous restaurants, which are not only often scenically situated, but provide excellent fare of all kinds.

And these range from expensive gourmet restaurants to pizzerias and ethnic ‘eateries’, including Indian and Chinese restaurants. In fact, the list would seem to be endless………..

Nightclubs are also part of the nightly scene, and there are theatres, cinemas and concerts of every kind to be found in the city. And La Rochelle plays host to an annual major festival of French-language music in mid July, which is known as ‘Les Francofolies’. It is said that this festival features musicians from all over the world as well as France, and is claimed to attract as many as 100,000 visitors to the city.

At a La Rochelle suburb called L Pallice, which lies to the west of the city, there stands a toll bridge – constructed in 1988 – that leads to the Ile de Re, a narrow island that’s fringed by sandy beaches on its south west coast and salt marshes and oyster beds on its north east coast. And in season the island seems to draw crowds of tourists, who flock to its sandy beaches. In fact, it’s estimated that at least 400,000 tourists regularly visit the island during the summer months.

South of La Rochelle lies Fouras, which has several beaches, but which is generally looked upon as the embarkation point (from the ferry dock Pointe de la Fumee) for the small island of Ile d’Aix, which attained fame as having been the place where Napoleon spent his last days in Europe. The house in which Napoleon lived for a week in 1815, before being transported to St. Helena, is now a museum, which has ten rooms that are filled with displays of the emperor’s ‘works of art, clothing, portraits and arms’.

Ile d’Aix, it is claimed, has but one hotel which is called ‘Napoleon’! But there is also a campsite on the island. Further south of La Rochelle lies Rochefort, which dates back to the seventeenth century, and which was also once an important naval base. With its ‘regular ranks of identical houses’ the town is described as ‘a monument to the tidiness of the military mind’.

And the town’s naval history has been carefully recorded in a couple of museums, known as Musee d’Art et d’Histoire and the Musee de la Marine, where a collection of model ships, figureheads, navigational instruments and other naval objects are on display. South west of Rochefort is the village of Marennes, described as being ‘the centre of oyster production’. In fact, it’s claimed that it supplies more than sixty per cent of France’s oyster requirements. Furthermore, any visitor wanting to see the oyster beds and be informed about how the business is run, can do so by paying a fee to the nearest tourist office.

A particularly recommended restaurant in the area is a café called La Verte Ostrea, which is situated at the end of a pier – and where oysters and shellfish form the basis of every meal!

Across the sea from Marennes lies the Ile d’Oleron, described as being France’s largest island after Corsica, and a top favourite with both day trippers and family holiday makers during the summer months. Renowned for its beautiful sandy beaches, the Ile d’Oleron is joined to mainland Marennes by a bridge. Also renowned for its ‘green terrain’ Ile d’Oleron lays claim to a pine studded forest known as Foret des Saumonads, which lies along the island’s north-eastern environs, while at its southern tip lies the larger Foret de St-Trojan, which extends up the western coast along the popular La Grand Plage.

The island’s interior too is pretty, having waterways that wind into the land. One of the island’s most interesting attractions is considered to be a bird park known as Les Marais aux Oiseaux. Initially established as an ‘injured birds’ hospital’, it is now a ‘breeding centre’ for rare and endangered bird species.

It’s claimed that hundreds of holiday homes exist on this popular island. Its main town is situated in the south and is known as Le Chateau – named, it is said, after the citadel that is still in existence, together with some seventeenth century fortifications.

The island’s chief town in the north – and considered to be particularly picturesque – is St. Pierre, whose market square features a thirteenth century monument. And the major attraction near this area is a superb stretch of sandy beach known as La Bree-Les-Bains. Royan, which stands at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, lays claim to some beautiful beaches, particularly in the suburb of Pontaillac in the North West. And considered to be a sight worth viewing in the town itself is the Church of Notre-Dame, which was built in the 1950s.

The Cote d’Argent is the area that represents the long stretch of coast that extends from the mouth of the Gironde estuary all the way to Biarritz. And it is described as the ‘longest, straightest and sandiest’ in Europe. The beaches are backed by soaring sand dunes, beyond which lie what is described as the largest forest in Europe, namely ‘Les Landes’.

Considered to be the oldest resort in the Cote d’Argent is Arcachon, whose white sandy beaches are described as ‘magnificent’. About 12 kilometres south of Arcachon is one of the Cote D’Argent’s most remarkable sights, name the Dune du Pyla, which, soaring to a height of more than 100 metres, is Europe’s highest sand dune, and is described as ‘a veritable mountain of wind-carved sand’.

From the summit of this gargantuan dune one obtains a fabulous view of the bay of Arachon and the long stretch of the forest of the Landes that extends all the way to the most southernmost point. The sides of the dune have been described as being ‘as steep as an Olympic ski jump’ – but the view more than compensates for the steep climb that the ascent involves. In fact, it’s the perfect finale to a touring trip of France’s South West Atlantic Coast…………..

Roberta Crookes has worked as a newspaper journalist throughout most of her life, writing news stories, editorial features, advertisement supplements, and reviews. And in the course of her work she has interviewed many famous people from all walks of life. She has also managed to combine parallel careers in both journalism and acting, and, being Welsh speaking from North Wales, her main television featured parts have been Welsh language roles with BBC Wales.