Royan – Quaint Modernism, Startling Seafood
South of La Rochelle, north of Bordeaux, between the estuaries of the Gironde and the river Seudre, lies a strange otherworldly landscape of marshes and forests, of pines and oaks and it’s here that you’ll find the quaint modernism of Royan. A hundred years ago Royan was a fashionable resort for the bourgeoisie, full of fashionable Belle Époque villas.
Zola lived there and later Picasso painted there and then came the war. It was to Royan that German troops retreated after the D Day landings and as a consequence the inhabitants of Royan were subjected to waves of blanket bombing, first by the British and then the Americans, who tried out napalm for the first time. So it was that the post-war planners had the opportunity to recreate Royan as an exercise in modernist town planning.
There’s something about the seaside that particularly suits the stylistic vocabulary of modernist architecture, the porthole windows, the sweeping curves like the prow of a ship. Having said that, you don’t necessarily notice it at first, the modernism, it creeps up on you in an accumulation of details. I stayed in a charming little hotelon the seafront, however in high season, hotel accommodation is hard to come by so you might be better off going for some of the very stylish self-cateringshort term lets that are available. From my balcony I could see the low rise curves of the beachside buildings, only later, walking on the expansive flat sands did I appreciate the sweep of the overall design.
There is one modernist statement though, and it’s impossible to miss and that’s the church of Notre Dame; the massive V sectioned columns rise dramatically to culminate in a 65 metre bell tower. Wherever you are in the town its imposing presence draws the eye. Apparently its interior is even more striking, I say apparently because this fifty year old concrete building is in dire need of repair and is currently closed. Something to do with using wet sand during construction.
A walk along the corniche discloses a succession of charming modernist villas, once so modern, now looking like sets from a silent film. In the town itself there’s plenty of boutique shopping on the elegant boulevard that leads to the market hall, built to resemble a giant shell and when you’re tired and hungry it’s a short walk back to the seafront to choose your restaurant. And what’s the local speciality? Why what else – seafood. These are not fancy restaurants but if you enjoy your seafood fresh and plentiful, then it’s an hour or two of pure heaven. My favourite was Le Carrelet, named after those picturesque and precarious looking estuary fishing huts which hang out over the water like inebriated spiders.
There I ate my way through winkles and whelks and oysters and mussels and maybe a crab or a lobster, but glutton as I am I never dared attempt the boat. Admittedly, the boat was intended for sharing, but even so. It took two people to carry it, it was big enough to carry the average ten-year-old and it was full of seafood, well some ice and some seaweed but mostly seafood.
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