The Southwest: Poitou-Charentes and the Atlantic Coast
Dune du Pyla
The coast, on the other hand, remains unmistakably Atlantic dunes, pine forest, reclaimed marshland and misty mudflats. While it has great charm in places, particularly out of season on the islands of Noirmoutier, Ré and Oléron, it's a family, camper-caravanner seaside, lacking the glamour and excitement of the Côte d'Azur. The principal port in the north, La Rochelle, is one of the prettiest and most distinctive towns in France. The sandy beaches are beautiful everywhere, though can occasionally be disappointing, especially the northern stretches, where the water is murky and shallow for a long way out. On the dune-backed Côte d'Argent, south of Bordeaux, however, the sea can be outright dangerous.
Inland, the valley of the slow and green River Charente epitomizes blue-overalled, Gauloise-smoking, peasant France. The towpath is accessible for long stretches, on foot or mountain bike, and there are boat trips from Saintes and Cognac. The Marais Poitevin, too, with its groves of poplars and island fields reticulated by countless canals and ditches, is both unusual landscape and easy-going walking or cycling country.
But perhaps the most memorable aspect of the countryside and indeed of towns like Poitiers is the presence of exquisite Romanesque churches. This region formed a significant stretch of the medieval pilgrim routes across France and from Britain and northern Europe to the shrine of St Jacques (St James, or Santiago as the Spanish know him) at Compostela in northwest Spain, and was well endowed by its followers. The finest of the churches, among the best in all of France, are to be found in the countryside around Saintes and Poitiers: informal, highly individual and so integrated with their landscape they often seem as rooted as the trees.
Lastly, of course, remember that this is a region of seafood fresh and cheap in every market for miles inland and, around Bordeaux, some of the world's top vineyards.
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