Top towns and villages in Vendée and Charente Maritime
In an area so varied, there’s no shortage of towns worth exploring. Some earned their colours during the Vendée wars and many buildings of historical significance are still visible today.
La Rochelle – Instantly recognizable by the towers that guard the entrance to the port. Stroll around the harbour and the white houses that surround it, creating poetic reflections in the water. Then carry on under the arcades towards the town centre, soaking up the impressive architecture and constant bustle. La Rochelle is a hive of culture and home to the Francofolies music festival, just one example of its thriving cultural scene.
Ile de Ré – Of all the islands dotted along the coast here, the Ile de Ré is perhaps the most delightful. Cross the 3 km bridge to get there from the mainland and then set out to explore it by bike. Not only is cycling the easiest and most popular way to get around, it also provides access to every nook and cranny of this beautifully preserved spot which seems to have escaped the clutches of time. The island offers a welcome refuge for all types of migrating birds, with or without wings!
Les Sables-d’Olonne – A chic French beach resort that has managed to keep its authentic seaside identity intact. Partly due to the canvas huts which still line the beach as if to explain to modern-day tourists what a true seaside holiday is all about. But also due to its diverse terrains: beyond the sandy shores, there are marshes, dunes and pine groves just waiting to be discovered.
Rochefort – In 1666, the French politician Jean-Baptiste Colbert founded a maritime and military arsenal in Rochefort with the ambition of making it the biggest and best in the kingdom. Although the French Navy is no longer based here, the town’s architectural and cultural heritage remains intact. Rochefort has been granted the title of Ville d’Art et d’Histoire bestowed on towns of particular artistic and historical interest. Definitely worth a visit.
Saintes – History is alive and kicking in Saintes. Wander through the streets and survey the many remains on view; they range from Roman times to the 18th century, with some Middle Age relics thrown in for good measure. See the amphitheatre, the abbey, and the church (a UNESCO world heritage site), and stroll round the old town which is fully pedestrianized.
Ile d’Oléron – Another island but not just any island: it’s France’s second largest after Corsica. It’s so big that it even has two different climates: the southern end is reminiscent of the Mediterranean region with its palm trees and mimosa plants, while the northern tip is more akin to Brittany. There are rose creepers that climb as high as the houses, marshes that beckon you to cycle through them, and walks that are punctuated by speed bumps as if to remind visitors that life here is slow.