The guesthouse in the Poitou-Charentes region was our idea of French heaven. Gastronomy and bonhomie are part of their raison d’être.
The proud burghers of Poitou-Charentes might have been un petit peu annoyed when, in 2014, their pretty, peaceful and pastoral region was merged into one big region, now known as Nouvelle Aquitaine. Or maybe they weren’t at all, as it meant that they could keep their precious domain a secret for a while longer.
The irony is that Poitou-Charentes is far from ‘nouvelle’ but actually a historically rich area with the medieval city of Poitiers as its ancient heart, its environs a rural idyll with villages dating back to Roman times, ancient woodland and virtually car free lanes flanked by flower filled meadows. This is why Poitou-Charentes is one of our most popular French regions for self guided hiking and cycling holidays, as well as being birding bliss. Especially if you want collines rather than cols, maisons d’hôtes over mountain refuges. Poitou-Charentes is France without the big starry landmarks, but most definitely at its most au naturel.
You are never too far from the coast in Poitou-Charentes either, the maritime mecca of the region being the 12th century port town of La Rochelle famous for its sand, sea and all round chic social scene. There are also two stunning seaside segues in Poitou-Charentes, one being the island of Île de Ré linked to the mainland by a causeway, boasting stunning beaches with dunes, pine forests, cycling trails and Hamptons-esque homes for Parisians escaping the city. The other is the Marais Poitevin wetland that is now joined to the land, thanks to the 13th century monks who decided to reclaim it from the Gulf de Poitou. Today it is a maze of green, shady waterways, best explored and getting lost in on a barque, or traditional flat bottomed boat a bit like a British punt.
You won’t get lost on a self guided walking or cycling holiday in Poitou-Charentes, however, staying at a traditional maison d’hôte or family run guesthouse in a village such as Scillé. Here your hosts will send you on your way every day along different walking routes such as the Cinq Communes Trail or Route du Busseau, all with carefully crafted itineraries along ancient lanes, cool streams, orchid filled woods and lakes such as Le Beugnon. Or if you are cycling and you don’t mind a bit of a challenge, you can easily take on as much as 90km every day for a week with different, French fancies every day. These include the Fôret-sur-Sèvre, medieval town of Sainte Ouenne and the aforementioned Marais Poitevin.
Picnics will be prepared for you and three course dinners waiting for you, along with a well earned aperitif on the terrace, where the most beautiful evensong of birds echo across nearby woodland and surrounding meadows. You can also come here on a bird watching holiday, with species from kestrels to cuckoos, kites to kingfishers. Spring, summer and early autumn is perfect for birding here and when the sun is set you can still keep your eyes peeled in an upwards direction as the rural villages of Poitou- Charentes proffer perfect dark skies, with the Milky Way and shooting stars making frequent guest appearances.
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Just as birds don’t pay too much attention to regional borders in France, neither do guests in the Poitou-Charentes region which has the French département of Vendée as a welcoming neighbour. Walkers and cyclists often take a step over the invisible line into the Pays de la Loire, which is the overall region’s name, to enjoy the likes of Vouvant, a medieval town tucked into the la Mère River with prettiness as its middle name. Nearby is the Forêt de Mervent which stretches for 5,000 hectares and where you can cycle or walk along 200km of trails through beech, oak and sweet chestnut trees. The forest is 12km north of the Renaissance town of Fontenay-le-Comte, which definitely competes for prettiest town status. We give it ‘douze points’ in fact, given the fact that it is also one of the gateway towns to Marais Poitevin.
The other Poitou-Charentes gateway town to the Marais Poitevin is Niort. Take time here to enjoy its magnificent medieval centre, 12th century donjon and the traditional 19th century market hall. This is the perfect place to pack a picnic in your pannier before heading to the Marais or for a stroll along the Sèvre River.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Webzooloo] [Topbox: Renaud Camus] [Île de Ré: Giancarlo Foto4U] [Marais Poitevin: Webzooloo] [Bird watching (egret): Giancarlo Foto4U] [Vouvant: CC BY-SA 4.0] [Niort: dynamosquito ] [Horse riding: Elijah Hail]