Poitou-Charentes region of France is treasure trove of ancient finds

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POITIERS, France -- Tucked away in the undiscovered corners of western France is the Poitou-Charentes region, once aptly described as the area that motorists dash across between the Loire and Bordeaux.

However, when planning itineraries, there are many good reasons to slow down and savor some of Poitou-Charentes' bucolic countryside, prehistoric monuments, Romanesque art and architecture and cellars stacked with France's most famous spirit: cognac.

The Arch of Germanicus in Saintes.The northern gateway to this unfamiliar region is Poitiers, a three-hour drive from Paris.

I took the 90-minute train trip from Paris aboard the TGV, returning to Paris from Poitiers after a six-day circuit drive.

My favorite Poitou-Charentes sites were mostly found while traveling on the narrow-lane network of D-roads that connect villages, rather than on the national auto routes.

Medieval-looking Poitiers, with its narrow streets, town houses and cathedrals, is the regional capital of Poitou and one of France's richest cities in architectural treasures.

Its roots date back to 3000 B.C., and since Roman times, Poitiers has been a major ecclesiastical center of France.

The cathedral of Notre Dame-la Grande is the city's most imposing church. Built in the 12th century, the cathedral still has some wall sections remaining from an eighth century church on the same site and contains extraordinary stained-glass windows, many depicting the life and deeds of Joan of Arc.

The highlight of Poitiers' Romanesque churches treasury started in 1025. The church ranks as one of the finest examples in France of the Romanesque artistic tradition that reached its height in the 12th century.

Another intriguing site is the fourth century St. Jean baptistry. One of France's oldest Christian structures, the baptistry is now a museum with an intriguing collection of Merovingian sarcophagi, an octagonal baptismal font and Romanesque frescoes.

Travelers who enjoy Romanesque routes -- called Itinerairies Romans on brochures provided by local tourist offices -- will want to take a detour 25 miles east to the abbey church in St-Savin.

The church boasts ceilings and walls that are decorated with what some consider to be the best-preserved medieval frescoes in France.

Bougon, west of Poitiers, provides an abrupt change from the Romanesque period with a big step back in time to about 4500 B.C.

Here is a megalithic site dotted with five ancient burial mounds, some of which visitors can enter, that predate the Egyptian pyramids by 2,000 years.

An on-site museum retraces the evolution of man and displays a rich collection of artifacts in a modern glass building.

A big detour -- where travelers can cheat and take the highway -- leads to Aulnay and its St-Pierre-de-la-Tour church, another Romanesque masterpiece that stands along the pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The 12th century church rises in solitary splendor among the dark cypresses of an ancient cemetery.

Continuing west toward the Atlantic Ocean, the byways lead to a region called the Marais Poitevin, home to the Poitevin marshes. The marshes are a vast tree-canopied maze of man-made canals and natural waterways. Here visitors can hop out of their car and rent a plate, a flat-bottom boat for motoring about bayou-like groves and picnicking under the poplars.

Right on the Atlantic Ocean is La Rochelle, once a main gateway to France's conquest of the New World. The arcaded streets are paved with cobblestones that were used as ballast for ships sailing back from Canada.

The old port is framed by imposing 14th century towers. The historical harbor is filled with fishing boats delivering the day's catch for auction at the morning market.

The town hall, near the old port, dates from the 17th century. Across the street stands a monument to a former mayor, Jean Guiton, whose statue was presented to the city by its U.S. sister city, New Rochelle, N.Y.

Directly south on the shore is Rochefort, where workmen are painstakingly constructing a replica of the Hermione, a frigate on which Lafayette sailed to Boston in 1780.

Visitors can tour the workshops and walk the high planks around the wooden vessel, scheduled to sail to North America in 2007.

I next headed inland and south to reach Cognac country, making time along the way to visit the 15th-to-16th century Chateau de la Roche-Courbon with its grand and formal gardens. There was also a stop at the town of Saintes, divided by the Charente River.

Remnants of the powerful presence of Rome in southwestern France include the landmark Roman Arch of Germanicus overlooking the river and the Gallo-Roman amphitheater, built in the first century, with a capacity for 20,000 spectators.

A particularly attractive site from the medieval period is the Abbaye aux Dames with its richly decorative facade. Consecrated in the 11th century to house Benedictine nuns, the handsomely restored "Ladies Abbey" is a fine example of Saintonge Romanesque architecture, named for the region of Saintes.

Grapes in the region are harvested late in September, as we could see motoring along to Cognac.

We were on our way to sample the world-famous brandy at the Martell wine shed, one of many chais (including Hennessy, Courvoisier and Remy Martin) open to the public. A sweet liqueur called Pineau des Charentes was served as an aperitif in the Cognac region.

For a real sugar fix, journey just outside the town to the village of Trois-Palis, where chocolate-covered nuts and prunes are made by Letuffe and sold on premises.

On the way back north to Poitiers, we stopped in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France by the 143-member association called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.

High above the valley, hilly Aubeterre is also lovely. Its major attraction is the extraordinary monolithic church, dedicated to St. John and hewn into the cliff to resemble an enormous primitive dwelling.

A subterranean passageway leads down to a fifth or sixth century baptismal font, part of an earlier church. Separate crypts and tombs indicate even older use of this religious structure.

Our final night was spent in Angouleme, perched high on a rocky ridge overlooking the Charente valley and encircled by ramparts.

The town's crowning glory is the 12th century St-Pierre cathedral, the fourth building on a site where construction began around 415 A.D.

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