France is a huge country, many times bigger than each individual part of the UK, and as a result it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint exact locations where the family can have a great deal of fun without spending a fortune. While the big-name attractions are easy to find, the smaller ones are often either a chance discovery after a fortunate slip of the steering wheel, or perhaps a secret passed on by word-of-mouth. If you’re visiting the south of the Charente-Maritime, here are a few of those ‘secrets’ I’m happy to pass on; corners of the department where expenditure can be covered by cash, and credit cards can stay in the wallet!
It’s almost impossible to move on some days during the August high season in France, but happily we don’t seem to suffer so badly here, maybe because the Charente-Maritime is less known and attracts a mainly French clientele. But the fact remains that it is still relatively easy to move around during the summer, and attractions are still easily accessible despite being in the more touristy areas of the coastline. So my first recommendation is an afternoon at the Hippodrome Royan Atlantique. My children first went there under some duress, thinking they would be bored out of their minds. Happily though, each time we go they are captivated, not just by the sound and sight of horses thundering past only feet away from them, not just by the flying clods of turf and the excited shouts of the jockeys, and not just by the smorgasbord of delights on offer to eat and drink… I regret to say it’s the lure of the bookmaker (even if Dad does all the running) and the clink of Euro coins that generates the most amusement – this beautiful course has a betting hall that specialises in huge €2 bets.
Entry fee for the afternoon is minimal, a race card is free, and six races will span three to four hours; a carefully managed kitty will entertain everyone for the duration and looking around you’ll see all in the crowd are playing the same game. We have never won more than we came with, I admit, but once we did manage to pay for our ice creams. In truth though, it is the whole experience of the race day, spun out in such a familial and friendly way for people of all ages that it is less like gambling than just having a good laugh, which makes this attraction so pleasant. A day at a French country racecourse such as this is a joy to behold, and bears none of the grime and slyness traditionally associated with the darker side of many racecourses. It really is family entertainment.
Away from the coast and moving inland past the historic abbey at Pont-l’Abbé-d’Arnoult, the visitor comes to the more scenic parts of the River Charente. Once above the locks of Saint-Savinien, the Charente regains some of its natural glory and turns into a green giant that swirls gloriously past former trading towns with jetties and piers, and a whole clutch of châteaux. One of these towns is Port-d’Envaux, a place we love to visit for a variety of reasons. Here, we can park by the river and enjoy kayaking, swimming, picnicking, walking, fishing, and a selection of smaller attractions for food and drink.
A very short drive away is the wonderful grotto of the famous Les Lapidiales sculpture group, who during the summer transform a former quarry and its surrounding woodland glades into an ethereal gallery of sandstone art. Port-d’Envaux is a town with much charm and history, and a fine place to spend a summer’s afternoon, sitting on a bench with either a cold beer or a cold fruit juice under the trees.
Outside of the August madness, we love to visit the Île-de-Ré for a day’s cycling. We hire bikes from one of the many cycle shops that dot the island. We normally choose a shop close to where we want to explore that day. This has allowed us to choose a different area each time we have been to the island and as a result we’ve seen quite a bit of this unique area. The good news is that there are few hills, so the cycling is good for youngsters who love the freedom of the many car-free routes, and it’s easy work for parents who need to tow smaller members of the family in a chariot or on a child-seat. We normally take a backpack each with a small packed lunch. If it’s a hot day, a swimming costume and a towel can also be useful as the Atlantic side of the island is great for bathing. An essential requirement is an ice cream for goûter!
After several trips we can say we have found the best pizza in the department, down in the harbour of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. To have this as an end-of-day treat I would advise you to pick a bike shop in Saint-Martin itself, so you can have your car to hand for the drive home. Île-de-Ré is a fascinating place, and there are numerous beaches and places to stop and stretch legs. Essentially though, it is the ease of cycling that is the attraction, and the obligatory stops for refreshment along the way are a bonus for young legs that just want to go fast!
We were astounded to find a zoo nearby which rivals many we have visited at far more important locations worldwide. The Palmyre Zoo is located in the very heart of holidaymaker territory, but it manages to avoid being a typically corny tourist attraction. It’s actually a zoo of significant importance for France, hosting myriad exotic species, some of which are very rare and serve as the basis for breeding programmes.
An August visit must start at 9.00am, when the doors open, and you really should stay ahead of the crowds. Take a picnic – there are plenty of shady spots to stop and eat. Elephants, snow leopards, rhinos and a plethora of other small game, fish and fowl all co-exist happily amongst 18 acres of pines on the Côte Sauvage; in total some 1,600 animals from 115 species enjoy the mild climate – and maybe even all the attention!
Last but not least is Le Château de la Gataudière, a small country château just outside Marennes, which proudly proclaims itself as the City of Oysters. As well as the château itself, which is open for tours, there are a multitude of things for adventurous people to do, whether they’re large or small. The highlight is a zip-line area, with courses that are liberally monitored. Some of the adult courses are 14m off the ground! So, if any of your family has an appetite for thrills, this may be just the place for them to quench their thirst for self-infl icted terror. In addition you can also get stuck into paintball, an extreme catapult that propels unsuspecting occupants to 130km per hour in under two seconds, a maze, bubble football and quad bikes. Each attraction is payable separately, so there is little wastage of hard-earned cash; you don’t pay for something you don’t get around to doing.
Marennes: The City of Oysters
A historic fishing town surrounding the 11th-century church of Saint-Pierre and its towering 85m spire – the highest in the Maritime – Marennes and its surrounding saltwater marshes and ponds have been producing quality oysters for many centuries. A commune that encompasses the mouth of the Seudre estuary, the southern coast of the Île d’Oléron and the vast marshlands of the Marais de Brouage, this is a colourful town that really comes to life during the summer months, when visitors throng its quays and canals in search of some of the finest shellfish in Europe. There is much to explore, either by foot or by bicycle along the Chemin des Claires, wandering through the ancient inner town or visiting the outskirts where the brightly coloured fishermen’s huts and boats form part of the aquaculture landscape. The City of Oysters is part-attraction, part-working community that lies along the Cayenne Canal to the south of the town. You can see it as an educational mix – there’s the shellfish farm, with a guided tour amongst the growing sheds, but then there’s the all-important restaurant to try as well. Marennes Tourism: www.tourisme-marennes.fr
Les Lapidiales: Quarry Art
About a kilometre south of Port-d’Envaux along the D119 to Plassay, is an old abandoned quarry in a small wood. Park alongside the road under the trees, which is typically deser ted, and follow the sound of stone being worked into a clearing. Here, every year during the summer months, the members of Les Lapidiales work on both monumental free-standing sculptures and add substantially to the carvings in the grotto and quarry that por tray the story of humanity as seen through the eyes of a multitude of different artists from many ethnic backgrounds. Alongside local and French artists, you’ll find sculptors from all over the world adding their culture and beliefs to the fantastical creations that loom amongst the greenery. It is a spectacular sight and one that entrances both children and adults alike. Read more about this enchanting place here. During the summer months there are many other attractions to enjoy here, including music, drama and workshops – and there is no charge for visiting.
WHAT TO SEE
Palmyre Zoo: 6 avenue de Royan, Les Mathes; Tel: +33 5 46 22 46 06. Opening times: April-September: 9am-7pm; October-March: 9am-6pm
Château de la Gataudière: 19 rue de La Gataudière, 17320 Marennes; Tel: +33 5 46 85 01 07. Opening times: April-September: every day except Monday 2pm-5pm. July-August: daily 10am-12pm and 2pm-6pm. Closed on Sunday morning.
Hippodrome Royan Atlantique: 5 avenue de Verdun, Royan; Tel: +00 33 5 46 22 46 17. Entry fee: €5.50 (Children under 16 free). Opening times are subject to change: check online calendar for details.
Port-d’Envaux, Les Canotiers: 5 rue du Port, Port-d’Envaux (boat hire); Tel: +33 5 46 92 17 50. Self-drive (no permit required) electric boats, motor-boats, kayaks, pedalos, etc.
From France Today magazine