The summer in Aquitaine is a cultural melting pot, full of lively, bubbling, spicy activity providing a glut for any sized cultural appetite. The greatest difficulty is deciding what to see and above all what has to be left out. One thing at least, sadly, has been made easier and that is that there will be no St Aulaye pastel exhibition this year. It seems that ‘they’ have decided to make it a biennial exhibition.
A series of events that had caught our imagination were the concerts on the beach at Royan, Charente-Maritime. Held at the end of July, taking place late in the evening on a wide stretch of the beautiful, fine sand of the town beach in Royan, set at the head of the Garronne estuary they sounded perfect. We opted for a fairly ‘straight’ classical set. Making sure that our gite guests could cope without us for a couple of days we left Bon Abri in Puymangou on a scorching hot morning and headed in to the Charente. We stopped briefly in the bee buzzing, summer dozing town of Condéon with its large Romanesque church of St Marien.
The carved main doorway arch is highly weathered and the images of knights on their horses are hard to decipher. Some of the mythical beasts are almost recognisable but what I thought looked like Christ throwing the merchants out of the temple was, we were led to believe, more of the bestiary. I suppose that if I had stood outside for 13 centuries I might be a bit weathered. Inside the long, tall nave was cool and dark with some interesting, small box pews.
Under an hour later we drove into the equally sleepy, but far bigger, town of Pons.
The fish filled river flowed gently through the town along the edge of the cliffs that are topped by the remains of the Norman keep and ornate chateau that now houses the Mairie.
Pretty, neat and napping in its dotage I only hope that pilgrims heading to and from Santiago de Compostela found a livelier town in the Middle Ages.
In stark contrast to the restful air of Pons the fortified coastal town of Talmont was thronging. We parked in the huge municipal carpark outside town, sat and had a reviving lunch and then fell in with the other visitors to this quaint little town that squats behind it medieval walls and keeps its back to the gales that the winter throws at it from the Atlantic.
From the fishermen’s huts perched on their stilts out in the estuary to the blue painted shutters of the customs house and the solid, storm defying walls of l’eglise St Radegonde the town shouts quaint and picturesque; but it is still well worth a visit for all that.
The next stop was Royan; what a culture shock that was for us; there were cars, people, cars, shops and more people. For us country-folk, fresh from our village in the forest with a population of less than 90 this was a real shock to our systems. The small, bijou hotel was easy to find on a street that runs from the beach to the market. Parking was almost as easy with a choice of on or off street spaces a short walk from the hotel. By now our searing hot day had turned to drizzle and the drizzle looked as if it might turn to rain as the time for the beach concert got gradually closer. We left it to the last minute to head for the beach and a couple of minutes later we were standing on a deserted stretch of wet sand with the flickering lights of the harbour and promenade reflected from the rippled surface.
There was no one in sight and the few signs declared that the concert had been postponed until tomorrow. We went back to the hotel after walking the several hundred yards out across the sand to the low-water mark. Our picnic was eaten on our hotel bed and the excellent wine went down really well in the dry and cosy room.
Next day was dull as we went up to the market and wandered around. The market was very impressive, as most French markets are, with a wide range of produce beautifully arranged. The stall that really took our attention was outside the covered area and was very busy.
The lady was selling a huge range of strange tomatoes and other vegetables including physalis and a wide range of wild herbs. We tried to talk to her about the herbs but she was so busy we were barely able to fit in a request to take pictures and were unable to say ‘thank-you’ afterwards.
The church of Notre-dame soars high above the town and dominates it from most view-points. It is a strange, stark concrete edifice that becomes more and more enticing as you approach it.
It was bombed to total oblivion at the end of the war and this object was constructed in 3-years. It looks truly amazing until you see where the speed of construction has been its downfall, the re-enforcing has badly rusted and the concrete is falling away. The structure is dangerous and is undergoing a major structural re-fit. The cost is staggering.
Personally re-energised with pain au raison we drove out across the flat farm-land to Isle d’Oleron. We had hoped to reach the small fort of Louvois with its low-tide causeway in time to walk across but missed out.
The island of Oleron was a huge disappointment. Flat and heavily wooded with every available space made over to the cultivation of snot in a shell, errr, sorry, I mean oysters. Huge expanses of clear white sand and everything that was worst about childhood holidays to the beach, slow moving lines of cars, boring long expanses of sand and the ever present feeling of compulsory ‘having a good-time’.
The shore-side villages are packed and thronged with people walking one way and then the other. ‘Snot’ restaurants abound and there are, it seems, no quaint little villages left here. On the positive side the land is farmed and the waters fished; the ports and harbours work for a living dragged from the cold, heartless sea.
As we drove to get off the island across the long and delicate bridge the sun shone down and promised a fine evening. Once back in Royan and with no hotel to worry about we bought another picnic, sans vin, and joined the crowds of elderly (mostly) people heading onto the strand. We staked our claim to a small section of sand and settled in for a 2-hour picnic before the concert began.
The sun set, the temperature plummeted and the moon rose. Then, suddenly, the concert was under-way. A lovely selection of music presented in some really unusual ways, Vivaldi from an acapella group of women, some modern Spanish music from Wan Ferera, the most unbelievably delicate, sensitive music from a duet of Alpine horns (sounds impossible but its true), a girl from the Paris Ballet performing an extract from ‘Carnival of the animals’ and it went on.
The finale emphasised by a brief but impressive firework display set us up nicely for a long and very tiring drive back to Bon Abri and bed (at 4:30 am).