Holidays, tourist attractions and beaches in sunny Royan
Royan on the Charente-Maritime coast can claim to be one of the best Atlantic beach and holiday resorts in France. It has a warm and sunny climate, tourist attractions, a lovely natural location and best of all some wonderful sandy beaches.
Once a chic seaside resort of beautiful Belle Époque architecture, it was flattened in January 1945 by Allied bombing. This attack appears to have been needless – according to one historian the Germans had already left the town – and caused huge damage. The town was rebuilt in modernist style in the 1950s today it is an attractive mix of the old and new, the colourful old villas nestling behind the main part of town.
It also has a fine port to wander around, lots of natural areas rich with wildlife to explore and for those who like to shop there’s plenty to do, too, from Royan’s renowned market to some upmarket stores aimed at Parisian holidaymakers. For despite its growing popularity with some foreign holidaymakers, Royan is still a place where the French like to holiday and enjoy the seaside as only the French can. Indeed, its beaches and ambiance have attracted the Sarkozy family for many years.
The best beaches: The largest beach is La Grande Conche which runs for 2,650metres, is full of beautiful, fine sand – and faces due south. What more could a beach lover ask for? Add to that some great nearby hotels and fine restaurants in Royan and you can see why La Grande Conche is so popular. But there are other fine beaches too, including the Conche du Chay at nearby Pontaillac, just to the north, which is considered to be the most relaxed and intimate beaches in the area. Another quieter beach is the Conche de Pigeonnier (conche means cove) while there are plenty of fine Atlantic beaches further south around Saint-Georges.
Meanwhile to the north of Royan is the Bonne Anse, which not only has a beach but is also a great location to see wildlife.
Church of Notre-Dame: you’ll probably either love or hate Royan’s main church. Unlike the Romanesque style of the region, this church is most definitely modernist, and rather like the Tardis seems much bigger (and some would say nicer) inside. Built of concrete between 1952 and1956 and replacing the original church that was destroyed during the Allied bombing, the nave is as high as Notre-Dame in Paris. Inside, the stained glass windows tell the story of Royan.
The market: another striking piece of modernist architecture is Royan’s covered market, a shell-shaped building that was also created during the 1950s reconstruction. Architecture aside, the market is considered one of the best in the Charente-Maritime. It is open seven days a week from 7am-1pm but it’s best to get there early– before 10am – to see it at its bustling best as locals come to buy not just fresh fruit and vegetables but also the freshest catch of the day.
The views: Walk about town to appreciate not just the changing architectural styles but also the lovely views out to the Atlantic. One recommended route is the chemin douanier (customs walk) for a vista of sandy beaches and secluded bays as well as Belle Époque mansions. Follow the path along the shore from the port before heading up to Grande-Cote, via the towns of Vaux-sur-Mer – it has a lovely Romanesque church – and Saint-Palais-sur-Mer. You can also cycle along the coastal park that takes you through the nearby pine forest.
Out on the water: Take a boat ride out to Le Phare de Cordouan, one of France’s oldest lighthouses – and one that still has a live-in lighthouse-keeper. Ten kilometres off the coast and 67-metre high, inside it boasts a black and white marble floor. For a breath-taking view, you can climb the 300 or so steps to the top. Another notable lighthouse is the one at La Courbe.
For cruise details, see the tourist office.
Les Jardins du Monde: over seven hectares see plants and garden styles from all over the world, including a Japanese garden and an Indonesian forest plus a bamboo labyrinth and collections of orchids. Children will love the butterfly house, bamboo maze and the electric boats that can be taken out onto the water.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS NEARBY
The Côte Sauvage: Literally the ‘wild coast’, it’s a stunning stretch of sand and sand dunes facing directly onto the Atlantic. Extra care, though, has to be taken when bathing here as the winds, undercurrents and tides can make this area a particularly treacherous place to swim. The beaches are backed by cycle paths and it is also possible to go horse-riding. For details on bike rentals and stables, see the tourist office at Royan. For those who like their taste of water to be a little more controlled, the Conche de Foncillon has a series of seaside swimming pools, where the water is kept at a balmy 28° C! See also the atmospheric villages such as La Temblade with their oyster nets and huts.
La Palmyre zoo: one of the biggest and best in Europe, it’s set in 14 hectares amongst the pines of the Forêt de la Courbe. See more than 1,600 animals from all five continents including polar bears and snow leopards plus Siberian tigers, elephants, monkeys and apes.
Meschers-sur-Gironde and the Grottes de Régulus: clinging to the cliffs and surrounded by forests of oak and pine, Meschers, 12km south of Royan, is a typical fishing village that has become famous for its ancient caves (Grottes troglodytiques) created by the sea weathering away the white calcium cliffs. The caves have an interesting modern history, having been a place of hiding since the Middle Ages, first for pirates and ship wreckers, then protestants during the Wars of Religion. The most visited caves are those known as the Grottes de Régulus. These are named after the French warship Le Régulus, that was deliberately set alight and scuttled off these rocks on 7 April 1814 to avoid capture by British ships.
There are 15 different caverns stretching for more than a hundred metres, and visitors can go on guided tours. You can find out about the ruthless ship wreckers who used to work here, plus ‘Guicharde’, the last inhabitant of this place, who lived here until the beginning of the 20th century. There are also night-time visits and activities for children – reservations are required for all of them.
For more information about the Grottes de Régulus call 05 46 02 55 36 / 05 46 39 71 00 or visit the Meschers-sur-Gironde website.
There’s also the Trogloscope with its special effects show devoted to a local pirate attack at Meschers in 1617 (with a captain Picard!), exhibition and cinema screen. It’s only open in July and August, with shows at 3pm, 4pm, 5pm and 6pm (plus 9pm and 10pm on Saturdays). Adults €4, children under 12, €3.
For more info about the Trogloscope call: 05 46 02 75 98
Another series of caves are Les Grottes de Matata where there is a museum, hotel, banquet hall, bar and crêperie. More information: 05 46 02 70 02 or visit www.grottesdematata.com.
Tourist office: Avenue des Congrès; 05 46 23 00 00
Where to stay in Royan: Not surprisingly for such a popular Atlantic resort, Royan has lots of accommodation to tempt tourists, from fine hotels, mid-ranking hotels and budget hotels to bed and breakfasts, gîtes and campsites.
Where to eat & drink in Royan: There are also a seemingly endless number of restaurants in Royan, many of them specialising in seafood, as well as bars and cafés. For more information search for restaurants in Royan.
Words: Michael STREETER
Photograph: Christian Musat @ Shutterstock