Newsstands selling Sud-Ouest remind you where you are: this is not the Mediterranean, certainly, but in summer the quality of the light, the warm air, the fields of sunflowers and the shuttered siesta-silence of the farmhouses give you the first exciting promises of the south. While foreign tourists flock to Paris or the Riviera when summer arrives, the discerning French head for the west coast. Straddling the regions of Poitou-Charentes, Aquitaine and Pays-de-la-Loire, it’s an area of great variety, with Roman cities, rustling marshes, a beautiful wine region and miles of sandy coast, dotted with small islands and slumbering coastal villages.
The coastline is rich in beaches, which are especially lovely on the pine-covered, sandy Côte d’Argent, south of Bordeaux. The historic port La Rochelle is a pleasing mix of Renaissance mansions and ice-cream stalls, and the islands are delightful: Noirmoutier, small and idyllic; Ré, with long beaches, windswept plains and flashy Parisian guests; Oléron, unaffected and blue-collar; and romantic Île d’Aix, tiny and windswept. The islands are popular in July and August, but best in late spring or early autumn when the crowds slip away.
Inland, the cities make ideal weekend breaks: elegant Bordeaux, with unrivalled dining, nightlife and shopping; young and lively Poitiers; and cool, creative Angoulême, home to the comic strip.For walkers and cyclists there is the Marais Poitevin, a lace-like mass of intertwined canals, and for lovers of Romanesque piety, a long stretch of the church-lined route to Santiago de Compostela, the medieval pilgrim path to the shrine of St Jacques (also known as St James and Santiago) in Spain. The finest of the churches, among the best in all of France, are in the countryside around Saintes and Poitiers.
It is a region of seafood – fresh and cheap in markets, restaurants and oyster bars for miles inland. Around Bordeaux are some of the world’s top vineyards, producing robust reds (claret) and sweet whites like Sauternes. Baked specialities include macarons, invented in Saint-Émilion, and canelé (sweet pastries made from custard-like batter, and flavoured with rum and vanilla) from Bordeaux.