Get a real taste for ‘Nouvelle Aquitaine’ and the breath-taking Atlantic coast on a tour that’s the finest blend of ancient and modern. Enjoy the company of the Charente river as you get to know the warming flavours of Cognac country and pedal on through rolling vineyards towards the Roman amphitheatre at mighty Saintes. Historic Rochefort - built to a rigid plan to defend the French Royal Navy - may be a more sober affair, but its nearby oyster farms are an invitation to chew on things and chill out with a glass of Charentais Blanc, before coasting it up via stylish sandy beaches and more modern resorts to colourful La Rochelle and that French holiday island favourite, Ile de Ré.
in 3 star hotels in Cognac (2 nights), Saintes, Rochefort and La Rochelle (2 nights). We are pleased to discuss details on request.
From the heart of historic Aquitaine to beautiful Ile de Ré on the Atlantic Coast, let cycle paths and little lanes lead you by the side of the River Charente, through rolling vineyards, forests and farmland, across bird-rich marshlands and along the most sparkling, sandy coastlines. Your route around Cognac to Rochefort is studded with abbeys and castles and on the coast you two wheels will take you from beach to beach and on to discover charming little fishing harbours. Highlights include the prestigious brandy cellars at Jarnac and Cognac; Abbaye de Fondouce; the Arch of Germanicus and amphitheatre at Saintes; Château La Roche Courbon; Rochefort’s replica frigate, L’Hermione, and restored royal rope walk; city of four harbours, La Rochelle; stylish 19th century resort, Châtaillon-Plage, complete with casino and racecourse and the awesome views from bridge and little harbours of Ile de Ré.
Day One - Arrive & explore Cognac
It’s practically impossible to distil the famous brandy from the town itself in Cognac – the two have definitely developed alongside each other. Although the Romans settled here and a monastery founded in 1031, it was only after the Dutch ‘invention’ of Branntwijn or ‘burnt wine’ in the 1500s that Cognac decided to make the more of its poor-traveller-of-a-wine, by distilling and casking it ‘sur place’, to create something really rather special. Wander the cobbled streets, graze the market stalls or take a snifter of the cellars and you’ll find the spirit almost everywhere you go. Even Château de Valois, Francois I’s birthplace, is owned by a Baron with a keen interest in the stuff. Whether you choose to enjoy the park - home to the town’s fine museum collections - to visit the Romanesque church or grand St Jacques gateway, why not live like a local and reward yourself with a glass of something special on a café terrace – cognac and tonic, anyone? Overnight in Cognac.
Day Two – Get a taste for Cognac Country
Time to saddle up and head out on a circular day ride along what Henri IV called ‘the most beautiful river in my realm’. Cycle along the flatlands of the Charente through Bourg-Charente to Jarnac where either side of the water, you’ll find perhaps the most prestigious cognac houses – Courvoisier and Braastad. A tour and tasting is a must and the Courvoisier team will share legends about Napoleon’s favourite tipple too. Jarnac has connections with another statesman – the late French President, François Mitterand, show is buried here and remembered in a museum displaying gifts he received whilst in office.
Onwards through vineyards, villages and small hamlets and St Amant de Graves is a picturesque place to stop a while, but it is up to you whether you take the longer itinerary via Vibrac and Angéac-Charente. The route – really a figure of 8 – returns to Cognac via Jarnac, along the other side of the Charente. Overnight in Cognac.
Miles 31 /34 Kms 49 / 55
Day Three – Cognac to Saintes – Vineyards, abbeys & an amphitheatre
You’ll be on a roll today, cycling up and down vineyard slopes, getting a taste of Deux Sevres fruitiness and the real history of the region as you pedal past Romanesque churches to the 12th century Abbaye de Fondouce. It was created with the support of one of the most powerful and wealthy women of the Middle Ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine – wife to Louis VII of France and later Henry II of England – and after the Revolution eventually ended up as a barrel store. Onwards, but not necessarily upwards, the route continues south to meet the Charente for a ferry crossing at Chaniers before curling up towards Aquitaine’s first Roman capital, Mediolanum Santonum, later known as Xaintes (Saintes). Don’t miss the amphitheatre and great double archway, Arch of Germanicus, or the views from Capitol Hill (Colline du Capitole) marked by the residence of the town’s 17th century governor. The Abbaye des Dames and beautiful neo-classical court house are also worth including if you head out on a gentle evening stroll. Overnight in Saintes.
Miles 28 Kms 44
Day Four – Saintes to Rochefort – Fortifications of a different kind
From the land of fortified wines, it’s time to move on to fortified castles and a whole fortified town built to defend the French Royal Navy. Little lanes and cycle paths lead through farmland and forests to reveal Chateau La Roche Courbon and its impressive formal gardens. Originally built as a triangular castle heavily defended due to its relative proximity to La Rochelle, Jean Louis de Courbon transformed it in 1630, including magnificent gardens which proved to be precursors to Versailles. Stop off for a visit before winding your way onwards to Trizay with its 11th century abbey ruins and monastic buildings which once welcomed pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostella.
In comparison with the meanders of the day’s cycle route, the town of Rochefort couldn’t be more straight forward. Planned by Colbert in the 1660s to supply and defend the French Royal Navy, its streets set out in chequerboard fashion, strictly regimented with wide boulevards destined for grand military parades. Break rank briefly to visit the replica of the 3 mast frigate, L’Hermione, which sailed to the Americas in 1780. It is located in a wet dock close to the impressive recently restored rope walk building, La Corderie Royale, in the riverside Jardin de la Marine. Rochefort’s naval museum in the rectilinear citadel is certainly worth a visit too, just to get the off-shore battles between the French and British straight in your head of course! Overnight in Rochefort.
Miles 34 Kms 54
Day Five – Rochefort Return – A sortie to the oyster farms by Ile d’Oléron
Time to head south on a circular day ride to explore the wild-life rich marshlands near the Atlantic Coast and Ile d’Oléron. Follow the banks of the Charente to the 1888 ‘transporter’ bridge – part ferry, part bridge – which carries pedestrians and cyclists across the river cable-car style, then weave across the dissected marshlands teeming with birdlife to Brouage, a town made wealthy by its exploitation of the local salt-flats, home to a 17th century military fort and a unique cycle museum. Return from here if you prefer a shorter ride out today, otherwise it’s worth the extra excursion on towards Marennes where the terrain flattens to become the watery ‘Parc à Huîtres’ – the extensive oyster-beds which stretch between Saujon and the off-shore island. Don’t miss the colourful shacks by the oyster piers at La Cayenne near the River Seudre and be sure to make time for a tour and tasting at the oyster museum (L’Aventure de l’Huître) here, before returning to Rochefort by a more inland route. Overnight in Rochefort.
Miles 27/ 38 Kms 45/60
Day Six – Rochefort to La Rochelle – Magical marshland & sandy beaches
The coast is calling and there’s a chic start to the day with the little village of St Laurent (du Prée), being swiftly followed by Yves. The Reserve Naturelle du Marais d’Yves brings a wilder type beauty to the world after all the regimentation of Rochefort. Here, the views are wide and watery, leading past tufty marshland with leaning evergreens, rugged bays, oyster farms and salt pans. Next up though Châtallion-Plage takes any suspected chic one stage further – complete with smart villas, racecourse and casino, it became a fashionable resort for bathing with the arrival of the railways. Alas, Châtallion has seen its medieval fort disappear, but you might be able to spot the occasional pre-19th century agricultural and oyster farm building. The sand here does a regular disappearing act too, thanks to ongoing coastal erosion, and the sandy beaches have to be replenished regularly. Park up and take a dip here perhaps, or stop off at one of the other many beautiful beach spots - Plage St Jean des Sables, Plage d’Aytre, Plage du Roux… - en route to La Rochelle, one of France’s finest coastal gems.
Arriving in the City of Four Harbours, head to the Vieux Port to admire the mighty towers which mark out the historic ramparts – 14th century Tour St Nicolas, and Tour de la Chaine which links to Tour de la Lanterne by an unusual road following the top of the walls (Rue Sur-les-Murs!). Sit by the waterfront to drink in the views or maybe reccie a seafood restaurant for supper. The medieval centre is a must and will certainly work you up an appetite with its colourful market, but to get the real flavours of this ‘rebel’ town (remember that siege portrayed in ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexander Dumas?), why not head to a museum or two to learn about its Protestant past and trade with the New World? Overnight in La Rochelle.
Miles 28 Kms 44
Day Seven – Ile de Ré Discovery Day
It’s all sorts of things about the Ile de Ré which capture the imagination – the beaches of amazing white sand, the brightly painted shutters on white-washed cottages, the sail boats, café culture and even the light itself. Let the picturesque island inspire you as you discover its many colours for yourself along its great network of flat cycle paths. Cross the 3km long bridge which curves across the water, then follow a circular tour via Rivedoux-Plage and Abbaye des Châteliers – the largest abbey ruins in the region – to the vibrant old fishing village of la Flotte. Here, either cross the island to return via Sainte-Marie-de-Ré, or continue to the impressive port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, fortified by Vauban in 1681 with a 14km star-shaped stone wall, ultimately a built to defend the royal naval port base at Rochefort. Green (‘Ré’ = wild fern), pleasant, wrapped in sea and sky, the island is a real breath of fresh air and you’re sure to find yourself stopping to admire the view, put a toe in the water, or sample the fruits of local labours down by the quayside. Enjoy! Overnight in La Rochelle.
Miles 24 /31 Kms 40/50
Day Eight – Depart after breakfast
Depart after breakfast, or take time for a last wander around la Rochelle (well, have you seen the fine arts museum or elegant Renaissance Maison de Diane de Poitiers yet?) before heading back to Cognac by train or setting off on your onward journey.
Extra nights can be booked in La Rochelle to allow more time to explore the city and the Atlantic Coast of Aquitaine at your leisure.
Fancy a taste of Aquitaine’s coast, but don’t have so much time to explore? The Atlantic Coast Weekender (FAQAW4), based in La Rochelle is a great little French getaway with day rides from Rochefort and around Ile de Ré.
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