Angoulême, the former capital of the historic province of Angoumois, is the capital of the département of Charente. It is situated 275 miles southwest of
Paris, 51 miles southwest of
Limoges and 68 miles northeast of
Bordeaux. The ville-haute [upper town] is on a hill overlooking the juncture of the Anguienne and Charente rivers that are 230 feet below. The lower town’s character differs greatly from that of the upper town.
In 507, the Franks under
Clovis I took the town from the Visigoths. From the 9th century, it was the capital of the counts of Angoulême. During
the Hundred Years’ War, from 1337 to 1453, it was fought over by the French and English. By 1373, Angoulême remained under French rule. In the 15th century, Angoulême began its industrial development. Its expansion was fostered by the town having become a seaport on the navigable Charente River. During the late 16th century the town was involved in the fervor of the religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants.
Construction on the Byzantine Cathedral of Saint-Pierre took place in the12th century [1105 to 1128]. It is a domed Romanesque edifice. Its façade is a richly ornate collection of 75 Romanesque sculptures, each in its own niche. The interior has four domes, is without aisles and is stark in contrast. It was considerably damaged by the Calvinists, during the religious wars of the 16th century, and repaired during the 17th century. Between 1866 and 1875 the cathedral was extensively restored.
Today, the cathedral’s west front’s 12th century statuary, containing themes of the Ascension and the Last Judgement, is generally undamaged. Near the first doorway, to the right, is a superb Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the Evangelists.
A town hall was built in the 19th century on the site of the château that was the birthplace of François I’s sister, Margaret of Angoulême. Today, only the 13th century Lusignan and the 15th century Valois towers remain.
Angoulême has become a rail hub. This has served to make its suburbs into a modern industrial center. Its industries include bricks, carpets, comic books, felt, iron, jewelry, machinery, papermaking, refrigerators and textiles. It is also a center for the wine trade.
Châtellerault, the second largest town in Poitou-Charente, is located in the département of Vienne, about 22 miles north-northeast of
Poitiers and 51 miles south of
Tours. The town lies on both banks of the Vienne River, just north of its juncture with the Clain River. Route National 10 passes through the town and the A10 Autoroute is adjacent – it is on both main routes between
Paris. Châtellerault is the prefecture for the arrondissement of the same name.
The town’s name is derived from the 10th century château that the 2nd Viscount of Airaud built there. In the late 16th and early 17th century the Vienne River was bridged by the
Henri IV bridge. The French philosopher René Descartes once lived in the 16th century Maison des Sybilles that now houses a museum honoring him. There is an automobile museum nearby.
Since the 14th century, cutlery has been fabricated here. Now, however, its main industry is armaments.
Cognac, which was originally a salt exporting port, lies along the Charente River, 297 miles southwest of
Paris, 20 miles northwest of
Angoulême and 16 miles southeast by east of
Saintes. This département of Charente town has been famous for its brandy since the 18th century. Cognac has long been celebrated by every lover of fine brandy. The whole town seems to be engaged in the brandy business in some way or another. The brandy is distilled locally. The aging casks, made of porous oak from the
Limoges district, and the bottles, are both manufactured locally.
The two-stage distillation process, employing special regional stills, uses a light, acidic white wine that is produced from some 220,000 of neighboring vineyards. Distillation results in one quart of cognac for each nine quarts of wine. There is a further loss [known as the angel’s portion] of 2 ½% of the volume, per annum, during the aging process. The brandy is aged a minimum of two and one half years.
The town is also known as the birthplace, in 1494, of
Francis I. The Château de Cognac, where he was born, overlooks the calm river with a façade showing
Francis I’s emblem, the salamander. He ruled France from 1515 to 1547. Cognac also boasts the 12th century church Saint-Léger with a 15th century bell tower. In the late 16th century, during the Wars of Religion, the town was fought over by the Catholics and the Protestants.
Today, the château warehouses of Hennessy, Martell and Otard can be toured and their cognac tasted. The town is also the site of a French air force pilot’s school.
The fishing port of La Rochelle, which is located on an inlet in the Bay of Biscay, was the administrative center for the historic province of Aunis and is the current capital of the département of Charente-Maritime. It is 290 miles southwest of
Paris, 16 miles north of
Rochefort, 32 miles southwest of
Niort and directly to the east of the Île de Ré. There is a major commercial port nearby, called La Pallice, about 3.5 miles away.
The town was built around an 11th century fort that was built to protect the entrance to the Aiguillon inlet. The commune was chartered in 1199 after the dukes of Aquitaine destroyed the nearby town of Châtelaillon. From 1337 to 1453, during the
Hundred Years’ War, La Rochelle changed hands frequently. However, it remained in French hands following 1372. At the end of the Third War of Religion, in 1570, La Rochelle was one of only four fortified towns allowed the Protestants. Its fortifications measure 3.5 miles, in length, with seven gates. Following the Saint-Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in 1572, it became one of the main Protestant centers of resistance since many French Protestants took refuge there. In 1573, the Duke of Anjou besieged the town and granted it an honorable surrender.
During the 16th century, French Catholics discriminated against the Protestant [Huguenot] minority. To placate the Protestants, the
Edict of Nantes, in 1598, established 100 French communities where the Protestants were granted religious freedom and self-rule. One such community was La Rochelle.
In 1627, Cardinal Richelieu [Louis XIII’s chief minister] became intolerant of the Protestants and personally directed the siege of La Rochelle. After 14 months of a ruthless siege the people were starved into obedience. Out of a population of 30,000, 23,000 starved to death. This action occasioned many of its Protestants to flee to New York to found the city of New Rochelle.
By the 18th century, the port had become prosperous again by handling much of the commerce with New France. When France’s Canadian possession was lost, La Rochelle’s fortune also plummeted.
During World War II, the Germans occupied the town and built large submarine pens that were frequently bombed by the Allies. In September 1944 to May 1945 the Allies besieged the town.
La Rochelle’s 16th century Hôtel-de-Ville is an interesting Renaissance structure built in the Tuscan style of the reign of
Henri IV. Its courtyard façade, built in 1606, has an arcaded gallery. Other important tourist attractions are the 18th century Gothic Porte de la Grosse-Horloge, that leads to the old town, and the 18th century Hôtel de la Bourse.
At the harbor are two 14th century towers, probably built by the English, that guard the harbor’s entrance. The larger, named the Saint-Nicolas tower, is a massive fortification that has rested upon a foundation of oak pilings since its construction began in 1371. Facing it is the Tour de la Châin, so named because of the chain that was stretched, across the harbor, from it to the Tour Saint-Nicolas. The 15th century Tour de la Lanterne is a third tower that was built as a lighthouse.
The town was laid out with straight, regular streets. The remains of its ramparts have been converted into shady promenades and parks. The town still has a number of 16th and 17th century homes, decorated with gargoyles and statues, which are built over arcades along the rue des Merciers.
Since its modernization, La Rochelle has become one of France’s primary fishing ports. La Pallice, the nearby commercial port, was built in 1890 to accommodate the large sea-going vessels that La Rochelle could not handle. Through La Pallice, large amounts of nitrates, oil and phosphates are imported annually.
The two ports have acted as a magnate for industry and trade. There are now aircraft plants, assembly plants, automobile plants, canneries, chemical plants, distilleries, metalworks, petroleum refineries, railroad yards and shipyards. Tourism, which is attracted by the nearby islands, the scenic harbor and the town’s ancient locations, is also an important industry. The town has also become a fashionable summer resort and is one of Western Europe’s biggest yacht sailing ports.
The capital of the département of Deux-Sèvres is Niort. It is situated 94 miles north of
Bordeaux and 32 miles northeast of
La Rochelle, on the slopes of hills on the left bank of the Sèvre Niortaise River.
In the 12th and 13th centuries,
Henry II of England and Richard I, the
Lion-Hearted [son of Henry II], constructed a castle at Niort. Its fortified towers still dominate the river. South of the castle is the 15th through 16th century Church of Notre-Dame. On the facing hill is the Hôtel-de-Ville that was erected in the 16th century.
Early in the Reformation, the town became one of western France’s centers of Protestantism. Following 1685, the town suffered greatly from the revocation of the
Edit of Nants and the flight of many Huguenots.
Niort, where a number of French insurance companies are located, has become a center of the French commercial services industry. It is also a market town serving the rural communities of the Poitou-Charente region. Its products include chamois leather, chemicals, electronics, leather gloves, machine tools and plywood.
The Capital of Poitou-Charentes - Poitiers
Poitiers is perched upon high ground, overlooking the juncture of the Clain and Boivre rivers, 207 miles southwest of
Paris, 40 miles northeast by east of
Niort and 15 miles south of
Châtellerault. Route National 10 and the A10 Autoroute run adjacent to the town to its west. Poitiers is the capital of the département of Vienne.
The site of Poitiers had been occupied since prehistoric times, but the town itself was first established in Gallo-Roman times. Its name is derived from Pictones, the name of a Gallic tribe that originally settled the area. During its Roman period, it was called Limonum. In the 4th century, Poitiers was Christainized by its bishop, Saint-Hilary.
The town’s site was selected to command the ‘Gate of Poitou’ to the south. It was conquered by the Visigoths, during the 5th century, who were driven out by the Franks under
Clovis I. In the 5th century, Poitiers was the capital of the Visigoths. In 732, the Saracens Moslem’s French conquest got as far as Poitiers. The Franks, under
Charles Martel, altered the course of European civilization by stopping the Muslim invasion. The stunning victory took place at Moussais-la-Bataille, on the banks of the Clain between Poitiers and
Tours. Poitier became the capital of the ancient province of Poitou in the Middle Ages.
From 1152 to 1204, the English held Poitiers as the result of the dowry that
Eleanor of Aquitaine brought Henery II of England after having her marriage to
Louis VII annulled. During
the Hundred Years’ War, Edward, the Black Prince, inflicted a great defeat upon the French, under King
John II, at the
Battle of Poitiers in 1356. The English longbow archers were his key to success.
Between 1369 and 1374, the French reconquered Poitou. In 1429,
Jeanne d’Arc was interrogated there. In the course of the late 16th century’s Wars of Religion, the Huguenots’ siege of the town caused great destruction. The 19th century marked the town’s resurgence. Parts of the town were destroyed in World War II.
Boulevards, built upon the foundations of the town’s old fortifications, encompass the Vieux Cité and its labyrinth of thin, hilly streets. The town is host to Roman baths and amphitheaters. The polygonal 4th through 12th century Baptistère de Saint-Jean, which was built upon a Roman foundation, is considered to be France’s oldest Christian edifice. It is now an archeological museum with a collection of 5th to 8th century
Nearby is the Sainte-Croix monastery that was founded in 559 by Queen Radegund, the wife of
Clotaire I, the
Merovingian king. It was France’s first nunnery. Today, it houses two museums: The Musée Saint-Croix that mainly houses16th through 18th century Flemish paintings and three bronzes by Camille Claudel. The separate archaeological museum documents the history of Poitou from prehistoric times through the Gallo-Roman period.
The venerable 12th through 14th century Cathedral of Saint-Pierre is in the town’s eastern part. It is constructed in the Angevin Gothic style that is named for the counts of Anjou. Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England began its construction in 1162 upon the ruins of a Roman basilica.
Henry II gave the cathederal the 12th century great crucifixion window for its east side. Tiny figures of Henry and Eleanor are at the foot of the window. The building’s interior is replete with marble columns and arcades. The choir’s carved wooden pews are considered to be among France’s oldest.
The Romanesque Church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand was erected, in 1049, over the tomb of Poitiers’ first bishop. The partly Romanesque structure is a mosaic of styles. It is architecturally Poitiers’ most interesting church. In 1100, stone vaults were erected to replace the wooden roof that was destroyed by fire. The church was again renovated in the 19th century.
The 19th century Hôtel-de-Ville was built as an architectural extension to the 14th century counts of Poitou palace. It is now the home of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, displaying a collection of Roman and medieval sculptures. In 1431,
Charles VII, of France, founded the
University of Poitiers.
Poitiers is an administrative, commercial and transportation center. Its products include chemicals, electrical machinery, metal goods, printing, processed foods and rubber.
The town of Rochefort lies on the right bank of the Charente River, 6 miles east of the Bay of Biscay, in the département of Charente-Maritime. It is 18 miles southeast of
La Rochelle, 255 miles southwest of
Paris and 78 miles north of
A castle was built along the banks of the Charente River for protection against Norman invaders. In the 11th century, a township grew up around the castle’s fortifications, deriving its name from the castle. The township was laid out with streets bearing rectangular relationships to one another. Over the years, the township grew into a town and the foundations of the old fortifications become promenades. An 18th century fountain is the focal point of the Place Colbert.
From 1337 to 1453, during
the Hundred Years’ War, control of Rochefort was rotated, by bitter fighting between the English and the French. It was alternately held, during the 16th century Wars of Religion, by the Protestants and the Catholics. Commencing in 1665, Rochefort begain its rapid expandtion from a village to a large town. This growth was occasioned by
Louis XIV’s Minister of the Navy, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. It was he who chose Rochefort as the site of a fortified naval shipyard and repair base, arsenal and a naval school. The location was not ideal as a port, but the surrounding islands and promontories facilitated fortification. Between 1696 and 1806, there were five unsuccessful attempts to destroy it.
In 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette left Rochefort to sail to America to become a factor in its revolution against the English. The French fleet, that was based there, also participated in that revolution. The subsequent English destruction of the French fleet at Rochefort hastened the town’s decline as a naval base. In 1815,
Napoleon I rested near Rochefort, on the Île d’Aix, prior to surrendering to the British and exile to
Sainte-Helena. The Naval base was closed on December 31, 1926. During World War II, the town was bombed.
Today, the town’s Marine Hospital, and most of its buildings, date from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Maison de Pierre Loti houses a museum dedicated to the novelist. There is also a city museum of art and history and a naval museum, the Musée de la Marine, that displays replicas of all of the ships built there. Two specialized technical schools, and an air force base, are located nearby.
Local industries include coal, dairy, rubber boats and wood products. Since 1961, the town has become the site of spas for the treatment of rheumatic, dermatological and circulatory diseases.
The town of Saintes is located on the Charente River, in the département of Charente-Maritime. It is 47 miles southeast of
La Rochelle, 291 miles southwest of
Paris, 64 miles north of
Bordeaux, 16 miles west of
Cognac and 18 miles southeast of
Rochefort, just south of the juncture of Autoroutes A10 and A 837.
Originally, Saintes was a settlement of the Santones Gallic tribe. After the Roman conquest, the town became known as Mediolanum Santonum, and the Romans made it their capital for southwestern France. From 1791, it was the capital of Saintonge province that, in 1810, became Charente Inférieure and finally the département of Charente-Maritime.
Within the town are the ruins of bridge’s arch, relocated from a Roman bridge, and the 1st century Arènes Gallo-Romaines, a Roman amphitheater. The 15th century Flamboyant Gothic Cathedral of Saint-Pierre was erected upon Roman foundations. Its organs were built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was badly damaged in 1568 by the Huguenots.
The tomb of Saint-Eutropius, the town’s first bishop, is enshrined in the Romanesque church of the same name. This church was constructed by
Louis XI in the 15th century. The king believed that the 4th century Saint had cured him of a disease. The Romanesque Church of Sainte-Marie, and the adjacent 11th century Abbaye-aux-Dames, are worth a visit. The abbey was founded by the comte d’Anjou in 1047 as a convent. Many noble daughters were educated there. After the Revolution it was converted into a dress shop. It was restored and reconsecrated in 1942.
Telephone equipment is produced in the town and the surrounding area is known for the distillation of cognac.