6 days cycling in Charente Maritime

Peter and Gerard came to stay last week for a relaxing time cycling around Charente Maritime. Peter had worked in Cognac as a stagiaire a while back so wanted to rediscover the area and see it in the sunshine.

This is a great opportunity to show briefly what a week at Chez les Bons looks like from both the cycling and the eating point of view!

On their first morning we collected their bikes from Royan Bycycles after a breakfast of fresh bread from the local boulangerie with home-made mirabelle jam from the neighbour’s trees.

Our first ride was a local one to loosen the legs and enjoy the stunning estuary with its gentle breeze amongst the vast number of sunflowers  and grape vines.

Naturally a coffee stop and light lunch were the order of the day, we set off after lunch at a gentle pace to ensure we made the most of the cool tailwind to assist us home where we were greeted with a nice cold beer and a glass of rose.

Needless to say after such a great start Gerard and Peter were up early and super keen to get in the saddle as today’s schedule was going to be beautiful, taking in medieval dungeons and the beautiful town of Saintes which nestles on the banks of the river Charente. There may have been some dangling of toes in the water on a hot day.

As neither had been to Ile d’Oléron, this was Tuesday’s destination. Peter wanted an easier day so leaving the car nearby, he visited the 17th century citadel of Brouage

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Meanwhile Gerard and I headed off for a quick tour of the island taking in its oyster beds and the Lighthouse at the northern tip. After which we all met up for a late lunch in the port of Chateau d’Oléron on the south eastern corner of the island.

 

When they said they wanted to visit the Médoc on Tuesday and Wednesday my first thought was – what an excellent idea! Having only visited briefly last year, I was keen to get to know this area of pine forests and world-renowned vineyards much better. After a quick online search accommodation was found and booked and we were off on Tuesday morning to get the ferry from Royan.

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The afternoon was spent cycling through the shady pine forests on the Atlantic coast.

That evening after a hot 120km we were fed and watered and in bed early!
On Wednesday we went over to the eastern part of the peninsula and along the Gironde Estuary through the vineyards of St Estephe, St Julien and Pauillac. The workers were hard at it trimming back the vines in the baking sunshine, as were we as we cycled 80k working off the bottle of red wine that we had polished off the night before.

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The last 60k from Blaye back home from 4.30 onwards were perhaps the hardest as the heat really began to have an effect.

After our exertions in the Médoc, a quieter day was called for on Thursday so a 50k loop through the Fort de la Coubre was in order – finished off with moules frites in the sunshine at La Tremblade.

Total – 576km for the week!

What did we eat?

Breakfast

  • Delicious bread from the local bakery and home-made jam
  • Muesli and granola
  • Lots of coffee

Lunches

  • A great menu du jour on Ile d’Oleron – only €13.50!
  • A baguette on the beach in the Médoc
  • A great menu du jour waiting for the ferry back – €25.00
  • Moules frites on the port of La Tremblade

Dinners

  • La Crique – on Plage de Suzac between St Georges de Didonne and Meschers.
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  • Pizzas from the wood fired oven watching England play Tunisia in the sunshine at Le Soubok in Royan
  • Barbecues at home

 

Thanks very much for coming Peter and Gerard, and from the feedback you really enjoyed it too – I can’t wait to see you again next year.

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Beautiful new house photos!

Whilst working at The Felix Project last winter I met the lovely Katie Barraclough who told me that she loves taking pictures of places and food in her spare and travel time.

We talked about the possibility of her coming to stay for a weekend and came up with the idea of a couple of days in La Rochelle with its beautiful windy streets, photogenic harbour and sunsets followed by a couple of days at Chez les Bons and new local restaurant La Crique.

She had recently bought a snazzy new camera and was keen to try it out in the area. Luckily for us, the sun was out whilst she was here so all the pictures she took including house, garden and restaurant looked amazing!

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Outside

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Inside.

What do you think?

2018 Village Fêtes in Charente Maritime

The village Fete is a key part of village life all over France.

It involves all the inhabitants getting together around some local event or monument and eating, drinking and dancing until late into the night. They can reminisce about how the fête used to be and complain about how the drink-driving laws are now so strict that they can actually remember getting home in the morning.

There are some unofficial rules to be followed even if the organisers are unaware.

  • Firstly, there must be a negligible presence on social media. The organising committee will probably have an average age of 70+ so a press release to the local paper will be the latest great PR stunt.
  • Secondly, there must be much local produce – in Charente Maritime this will include Pineau, Moules and Oysters. All eating of said produce is to be done on wooden trestle tables.
  • Thirdly, there must be a cover band. This will preferably be an ageing French rocker, given Johnny Halliday’s unfortunate recent passing, expect to see many covers of varying quality doing the rounds this year.
  • Lastly, once the fete has been set up and is running smoothly, it must never, ever change. The younger fetes are 20 years old, when they get to 40 they’re well established. By the time they reach 100 years then a telegram from the Queen would be in the post, if they had one – a queen that is, not a postal service.

So with that in mind, here are two Charentais village fetes that follow most if not all of the rules above. They are set up and run by small committees that do it for the love of the village and for a great few days. When you go be sure to seek them out and say thanks!

The Fête du Pineau at Epargnes

Pineau is the local aperitif and the local producers let you taste the fruits of their labour from wooden stalls that are put up for the occasion.

It spreads over 3 days and each evening there is a barbeque and you eat out under the stars on the aforementioned wooden tables.

Last year was the 40th anniversary and they really pushed the boat out with covers of Celine Dion AND Johnny Halliday that rounded off the evenings.

It is held this year from 10-12 August.

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Gala Cycliste at Champagnolles

Champagnolles has the only grass Velodrome in Europe and the first Saturday of July they invite championship racers and clubs from all over France to race around it.

This year is the 96th edition so it’s been going for a while.

After the races there’s a massive roast suckling pig and drinking into the night.

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Enjoy!

Tour du Poitou Charentes 2018

The route has been announced for the 2018 Tour du Poitou Charentes which will take place from Tuesday 21 – Friday 24 August this year. It starts in Jonzac and finishes in Poitiers 660km later passing through the rolling hills and vineyards of the region.

I’m sure that this will be the most action that some of the quiet villages have seen for quite some time!

The day stages are as follows:

Day 1: Jonzac – Cognac – 193km

Day 2: Segonzac – Melle – 189km

Day 3: Gençay – Couhé – 98km

Day 4: Time Trial – Champagné St Hilaire – Couhé – 23km.

Day 5: Brioux-sur-Boutonne – Poitiers – 157km.

Have a look at the routes for each day here:

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The following teams have confirmed (up to 7th June):

Trek-Segafredo

AG2R La Mondiale

Groupama FDJ

Astana Pro Team

Cofidis, Solutions Credits

Wilier Triestina – Selle Italia

Euskadi Basque Country – Murias

It will be a great opportunity to see up and coming riders from these well known teams up close. Enjoy!

If you have any questions about cycling in the region please ask!

7 Things to do in Saintes

After cycling on the newly minted Le Flow Velo for the day recently, we ended up in Saintes.

This beautiful, quiet town sits on the banks of the Charente and is well worth spending some time in. Here are some suggestions of what to do/see whilst you’re there…

Stay in the peace and quiet of an old nun’s cell at the (very) cycle-friendly Abbaye des Dames.

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Eat your well earned dinner at Les Saveurs de l’Abbaye

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Learn about the history of the Abbey des Dames and its bell tower on an (interesting, I promise) audio tour.

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Take a selfie next to the Roman Arch – Arcus Germanicus.

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Visit the Roman Amphitheatre.

Wander round the narrow pedestrianised streets of the Quartier de St Pierre.

Buy your next day’s lunch at the Marché de St Pierre (Wednesday and Saturday).

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Ile d’Oléron

Ile d’Oléron is France’s second largest island after Corsica, but it’s a lot more accessible for cyclists as it’s linked to the mainland with a bridge which means it’s a great place for a day trip.

We had a day off recently and thought we’d go for a wander to see what the island has to offer. Armed with suggestions from Aurélie, who grew up on the island, and David, who is from La Tremblade nearby, we set off to explore. The weather was overcast and rainy … for pretty pictures of the island at it’s best in the sunshine head here.

The Oléronais are known for being fiercely proud of their island and are very much in favour of introducing a charge to cross the bridge as way to keep down (read: out) the number of visitors that arrive each year so as  to protect their island paradise and its quiet way of life.

They also have a rather idiosyncratic take on hospitality so be ready for that.

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Don’t let this deter you however, as it’s beautiful!

The best way to see the island is on a bike – you won’t upset the locals by clogging up their island with another car, it’s better for the environment and better for your legs.

It’s about 30km from one end to the other with a main road going up the middle. Consequently, the best thing to do is to stick to the smaller lanes that go around the coastline. You can count on about a 75km round trip from Bourcefranc on the mainland.

Navigation is pretty easy – cross the bridge, turn left or right and keep the sea on the same side until you get back to it!

At the start of your day, be sure to keep an eye out for Fort Louvois, built in the 17th Century by Vauban to defend against the Brits, on the right-hand side as you cross over.

If you’re going anti-clockwise, the first stop is Chateau d’Oléron, originally an old citadel town and small port where the oyster farmers brought their wares to land. Needs must, and it’s now been somewhat rebranded as a little tourist town with lots of colourful oyster huts that sell jewellery and locally made clothing and food.

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As you head up the Eastern side of the island from Chateau, the land is flat and marshy which is perfect for oysters to grow. The huts here are still in use and you’ll see lots of small producers turning the mesh bags that the oysters grow in.

One of the ‘nice’ things about visiting the island with someone who knows it is they tell you little anecdotes such as when we past L’Ipermarché which used to be a nightclub and I heard about one of David’s friends being ill in the bushes by the side of the road after a particularly heavy night.

Slightly further north you will find the Foret des Saumonards and its beach, Plage des Saumonards, which, in case you needed to know, is the island’s naturist beach … another ‘useful’ piece of local knowledge!

At La Brée-les-Bains there is a small harbour and a wild beach that is reached by walking through a pine forest. You will also find L’Écluse, now the island’s only nightclub, hidden away behind a creperie which one imagines does a roaring trade as clubbers leave at closing time.

At the northernmost tip of the island is the Phare de Chassiron. If you climb to the top you get a lovely view across to La Rochelle and into the Bay of Biscay on a clear day. It’s surrounded by a frankly hideous 50’s building which has a hotel, bar and shop where you can buy some tourist tat.

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Heading back down the west coast, it’s quite wild with long sandy beaches where you can take a well-earned rest and enjoy the great views out to sea and across to the mainland.

After a while you get to La Cotinière, which is the largest fishing port on the island and the 7th largest in France. It’s worth being there when the fishermen land their catch as some of it goes straight to the market stalls over the road.

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Depending on your timing, it’s definitely worth stopping at Le Relais de Salines near the very literally named Le Grand-Village-Plage slightly further south. It’s an(other) old oyster hut in the middle of the marshes where the fish is beautifully presented and cooked to perfection.

We had a chat with the owner and he used to run a Michelin starred restaurant in Bourcefranc so knows his stuff but eventually decided to go back across the bridge and open a restaurant as he wanted to run it.

You’re sure of a warm welcome and a great feed – just don’t ask for moules-frites!

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If you’ve got an questions about the area please get in touch and I’ll be happy to help out.

La Flow Vélo

The sun was out last week so the best thing to do was go for a bike ride with people you’ve never met before on a route that has only just been completed!

La Flow Vélo is one of France’s newest bike routes that links tiny, car free Ile d’Aix to Thiviers nestled deep in the Dordogne.  It skirts along the meandering Charente river through the sleepy towns of Saintes, Cognac and Angouleme before heading south east through the Perigord to its final destination.

Quite why it was decided to link these two destinations together is anyone’s guess but apparently it required a Herculean effort to get the tourist offices and agencies of three separate départements to work closely together and for that we should be truly grateful as the result is a clearly signposted route through the backroads and paths of this lovely part of South Western France.

Having met Lyn and her good friend Nicole at the tourist office in Fouras, with some trepidation we set off to explore this uncharted territory.

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I was joining them for the section from Fouras to Saintes via Rochefort. 15k to Rochefort and then 25k to Saintes we were told…more of which later.

With the sun up high and shining brightly off we set towards Rochefort; the route itself goes along small roads, cycle tracks and the occasional gravel track. Sometimes it’s quiet and in the middle of nowhere, other times it runs along side a main road.

 

Our first stop was Decathlon outside Rochefort for some oil to stop a squeaking chain! Once all bike parts were again running smoothly we had an appointment at the ‘Old Businesses Museum’ in the centre of town. In a nutshell, a local family had a fascination with old artefacts that got seriously out of hand and they ended up buying an old warehouse to store them in. They are very well presented in old mock ups of bars, barbers shops, hat shops and the like.

After all this historifying we needed some food to prepare ourselves for an afternoon in the saddle….. and a bottle of rosé obviously.

Did I mention that my riding companions were Australian?

 

After some refreshment and a little snooze in a park whilst Lyn visited La Corderie Royale, which supplied the French Navy with its ropes from the 17th Century to the late 19th Century, we were off on the next part of journey along the Charente River to Saintes.

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The path was again well signposted so we stayed on the right track all the way. With some consternation we noticed a sign saying ‘Saintes => 66km’ on the way out of Rochefort, but we bravely headed on nonetheless.

 

A lovely afternoon was spent cycling on back roads and tracks alongside the Charente and its various tributaries. The route is basically flat so accessible to any level of rider. I was on a carbon road bike and consequently was a little nervous at times on the gravel. On balance I would recommend a slightly sturdier touring or cyclo-cross bike with 26 or 28 mm tyres.

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The route is very quiet and it was lovely to be able cycle side by side and chat as we pootled along. Much conversational time was spent on the fact that we were ‘at work’ as we cycled past another field of rich yellow colza (oil seed rape) that was in full bloom at the time.

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After a well-earned break and a restorative ice cream bought from a campsite grocery we carried on in the late afternoon sunshine.

 

One particular highlight was passing the beautiful Chateau de Crazannes which dates back to the 14th Century. It has now been fully restored and if we’d had the time (turns out the 66km signpost was right!) we would definitely have taken a look.

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After a look around Port d’Envaux which is made up almost entirely of old wealthy merchants houses with views over the Charente and a restaurant with a delightful terrace on its banks, we decided to take the departmental road to Saintes where our hotel and restaurant awaited.

 

In a nutshell:

Easy cycling, Sunshine, Rosé and great chats in lovely scenery – exactly what a cycling holiday in France is about.

 

We really liked:

For the leisure cyclist, the flat route, clear signposting, peace and quiet.

 

‘Things to consider’

The ride surface is ‘variable’ so if you’re a regular road rider, you may want to stay on D roads.

We suggest stocking up in Rochefort with snacks and drinks as there was not much along the way.

Depending on fitness levels and how much you want to stop and visit sites then you may make this into a 2 day trip. Accommodation will doubtless spring up along the route as it becomes more well known.

PS Here’s a link to the Strava route of the ride:

https://www.strava.com/activities/1532570054/embed/b2a7b9b041625ce594353a3981ff5a18b46ed204