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