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Hiking Through the Charente-Maritime, France


La Rochelle harbor

Ile d'Aix

Forest preserve on the Ile d'Aix
by Jeanne Tasker

[from Summer 2010] Preparing to embark on my third walking tour in France - en pie - my big worry was, “am I going to get there?” The Icelandic volcano eruption had already caused a two-week delay for my friend, Susan, who was preceding me and with whom I would meet up in Paris. But all seemed to be okay; my airline assured me that it was a go, my pack was ready, and I was off. This time, the hike would be on the southwest Atlantic Coast, in the Charente-Maritime area, north of Bordeaux. Previous hikes had taken me through the Dordogne and a circumnavigation of the Belle Isle, also on the Atlantic coast.

Five of us met in Paris, staying at our famously cheap but well located hotel, within walking distance of so much – the Louvre, just across the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay, and more. The breakfasts are adequate, and some rooms have ensuite bathrooms (other rooms share a hall bath). There is no elevator – the winding, narrow staircase is a good training regimen for the walking trip. This is not a luxurious accommodation, but it would seem so when stacked against other lodging that would come later in the trip. But the pink chestnut trees in bloom on the Place Dauphin, outside of our hotel room windows, were gorgeous, despite the cold, windy, unspring-like Paris weather.

The first two days we took excursions to Versailles and Giverny, which I had never seen on previous trips to Paris. My impression of Versailles was “all this for one man?” and no wonder that they cut off their heads! Monet’s gardens at Giverny were a riot of color from the flowers and trees in bloom, although it was too early for his famous water lilies.

On day three we took the train to the Atlantic coast to begin our walking trip. Starting from La Rochelle, we walked from town to town, and island to island - using buses and ferries when necessary - toting our packs; not to exceed 16 lbs. said our hike guru, Susan. We did not carry sleeping bags, tents or cooking equipment, which kept the packs light. We stayed at affordable inns, hostels, and hotels, partaking of the included breakfasts and finding the local farmer’s market or shops to pick up fresh food for a picnic lunch during the day’s walk - fruits, vegetables, bread and cheese, and a square of chocolate, a must. At hiking day’s end, we found our next accommodations and inexpensive, but good dinners.

We are a group of women of a certain age, ranging from 66 - the kids - to two months shy of 80. We raised a few eyebrows as we hiked along the coast of the Charente-Maritime, an area of beautiful salt marshes and rugged Atlantic coastline and beaches; first, because we were walking all of that way with packs, and second, because of our ages. Susan seemed to delight in telling our ages to people we chatted up along the way, and detailing our infirmities (mostly bad knees, which is why we were hiking this generally flat terrain). Eventually, we threatened to strangle her if she told another soul.

The Charente-Maritime is filled with commercial oyster beds and salt flats, which have supported the area for thousands of years. During the Belle Epoque, the wealthy built beautiful, large, gingerbread “cottages” to escape the summer heat of the cities. Many still remain. Some of the small towns were crowded with French tourists celebrating their Independence Day, not that of the French Revolution but because this area of France was the last liberated at the end of WWII. On the Ile de Ré we rented bicycles, which we rode through the pouring rain into fierce head winds. The bicycle shop owners treated us to a bowl of hot tea, us in our sopping wet clothes, and said, “Thank you to the Americans” for their deliverance.

Remembrances: Swans, ducks, herons and storks in their nests throughout the salt marshes; oysters, mussels and fish available everywhere, incredibly delicious and very affordable – 6.5 euros for a dozen oysters was the best bargain; Golden Retrievers on leashes in all of the towns – they are obviously the fashionable dog of the moment in France; the priest in Marennes who welcomed the Americans (All eyes turned to us – how did they know? Did our backpacks and scruffy appearance give us away?) to the Ascension Day mass and then invited us to climb the tower of the 12th century church, which usually carries a 2 euro fee to scale 265 steps; Jeanette and Jean Jacques from Les Mathes who stopped to chat along the trail where they were day hiking, asked what hotel we had booked and showed up later to invite us to their home for an aperitif; hoots and hollers at a sidewalk sports bar in Saint-Palaise-sur-Mer, where French tourists watched the French national rugby championship; the diversity of accommodations, ranging from the seedy auberge in Ronce-les-Bains with nary a sliver of soap or plastic drinking glass, and dishtowel-sized bath towels, to our last night in Royan, with loft master suite, comfortable beds, and so many thick white towels that we didn’t use them all; and, sadly, ruined bunkers all along the Atlantic coast, relics of Hilter’s Atlantic Defense.

In all, we hiked for ten days. The longest day’s walk was about 37 kilometers, when we missed the blazes on the GR 4 and added an extra seven kilometers. [The blazes, white over red slashes, mark the French national system of trails, the Grandes Rondennes (GRs), making it very easy to follow, except when you are not paying attention and miss them! It's always better to use maps and guidebooks along with the blazes.] The last day into Royan was a short 7 kilometers, a walk in the park for footsore, blistered feet and tired legs. The TGV took us back to Paris and our last night on the Place Dauphin before returning to the U.S. It was a memorable trip at an incredible price; we averaged $1,000 to $1,200 apiece, excluding prepaid trains back and forth from Paris, and airfare. With all of the memories and experiences, and interaction with the very friendly and unfailingly helpful French people, it was priceless.

If You Go:
For information on the Charente-Maritime region, see www.charente-maritime.fr (in French only).
We had a very nice meal at La Cayenne in Marennes (Rue des Martyrs 17320, Tel. +33 05 46 85 01 06). Our best hotel stay was at the Hermitage Hotel Royan in Royan (56 Front de mer 17200, Tel. +33 05 46 38 57 33).

Photographs by Jeanne Tasker

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