A Taste Of France – postcard from Charente.

 

From the Atlantic coast to the foothills of the Massif Central the beautiful Poitou-Charentes region of western France is an amazingly diverse landscape. With some of the mildest weather in France outside the areas on the mediterranean, it spans sundrenched beaches, estuaries, vineyards, rivers and woods. Breathtaking are the fields just resplendent with sunflowers their faces upturned paying homage to the sun.  Coastal towns like La Rochelle and Royan are popular with seaside tourists while the southern part of the region is a haven for the cognac connoisseur.

On a recent visit I got my first taste of what the region has to offer. Towns where the holidaymakers are mostly French, restaurants serving the freshest seafood and easy-going folk there to relax and have a good time. I returned home a little fatter, a lot browner and surprisingly with renewed purpose. In and among the lazy days of too much good food and drink and relaxing companionship were a couple of surprises.  Have you ever had a stranger just walk up to you and tell you your future? Well that happened to me 24 hours into my stay. A thoroughly revitalising week away, here are a few of my favourite moments  (and I’ve thrown in a few snaps too).

The Stranger in the village.

Have you ever wanted to visit what is considered one of the most beautiful villages in France? Then Mornac-sur-Seudre has to be on your list. An old fishing port back in the day, it’s main livelihood now comes from oyster farming. White-washed houses with striking blue and green shutters, hollyhocks scattered like colourful accessories across the village, it was picture postcard perfect.

Walking through the village with a friend we were approached by a small group of strangers. The ‘leader’ of the group introduced himself – born in Guadeloupe now living in France, he was showing visiting friends around the village. We exchanged pleasantries for a while and as we started to say our goodbyes his companion turned to me. He quietly asked my permission to tell me something. I paused for a few seconds but curious I assented. He drew closer – looking into my eyes he told me what he saw.

He told me that I was searching for my purpose, my destiny. That it was there bigger and greater than even my feeble mind could comprehend. That my fate, the answer, could only be found in a higher power and that it was there waiting for me. He encouraged me to not give up that I should keep on the journey, keep moving trusting that it was there waiting for me to discover. Talk about being stunned into silence, I get goosebumps just thinking about it now. I thanked him not knowing what else to say and within a few minutes he and the rest of the party were gone.

How did he know? Could he really tell what was going on in my mind, in my heart? I don’t know. All I know is those words touched me profoundly, answered a yearning perhaps I wasn’t even aware I had in that moment. They say guidance can come just when we need it and I decided to take that encounter as just that. It served to firm my resolve even further. Needless to say the mood of the day was changed, and my friend and I walked on in an easy silence each of us deep in our own thoughts. I was one with the peace that was Mornac-sur-Seudre.

Getting wild on La Cote Sauvage.

A 10km stretch of sandy beach running from St. Palais to Ronce Les Bains, the Cote Sauvage blends forests of pine trees with unspoilt beaches suitable for anyone – from lazy sunseekers to surfers.

As I walked along the water’s edge wet sand squishing between my toes I saw her coming towards me from a distance. With hundreds of holidaymakers milling around she walked proudly, unashamedly along the beach. Chest bare, arms swinging she was strutting her stuff. Now I hear you say she’s topless, she’s in France, surely that’s normal, what’s the big deal? Well that was my first reaction too until I saw people turn and stare in her wake. Mothers pulled their children away and fathers averted their gazes. Teenage boys laughed behind their hands and nudged each other as she walked by.

As she drew within a few yards of me I finally understood. Bare breasts were not the problem rather her ’65’ year old breasts were what was drawing all the attention. She didn’t look surgically enhanced so I guess you could say she was all natural. Was she seeking attention? Was she oblivious to the disapproving stares? Was she just a free-spirit who didn’t care? Who knows? I think what struck me was that gleam in her eye as we made eye contact, the ‘ I don’t give a damn what you think’ swagger in her hips.  The look that said I’m not ashamed of my body no matter what you may think or feel. I turned to my friend and we commented smilingly that we should be that brave at that age. As I watched her disappear in the distance all I could think was: ‘You go girl!’

Hanging out in Talmont-sur-Gironde.

If one of the most beautiful villages in France isn’t enough then here’s another. Talmont-sur-Gironde is a village dramatically perched on a small promontory overlooking the Gironde estuary, the largest in Western Europe. At the base of steep cliffs are tiny beaches set flush against mucky marshlands. I was standing near the dominating 12th century Romanesque church staring down at the murky water of the Gironde when I heard it. The notes hang on the air reminiscent of steel pan mixed with a few other things I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was drawn to it, curious to know what it was and where it was coming from.

A few yards from the church sat this quiet almost pensive looking man. Around him lay three strange disc-like objects (like UFOs) the fourth in his hands. He tapped it, rotated it, flipped it and showed his small audience how the sounds changed – those vibrations that just hang in the air. He used his mouth to catch the sound and turned it upside down to thump on it like a drum. I was fascinated.

I was late to the party but I learned that the instrument was called a hang and had been created over 15 years ago. It was the result of research into developing metals for the steelpan but also includes elements of other instruments like gongs, drums and ghatam (an old Indian percussion instrument). The sounds that came from these instruments were hauntingly unique and the musician was tireless in serenading us that afternoon. Once I got home I was able to find many great videos online to enjoy. For music lovers out there if you haven’t heard hang music before you should.

And that rounds off my week in the Charente region. It’s often the things you don’t expect that stay with you the longest, those out of the ordinary experiences that catch you off guard. This trip was no exception. I went expecting the sun and the sand, of course, but came away with so much more – clarity, a restored spirit and that renewed sense of purpose – the quest continues. Allons-y!

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