In the first part of this cycling road trip around the Gironde estuary , my travelling companions and I made it as far as Mirambeau, sl...

Gironde estuary cycle tour 2/4: Mirambeau > Royan

In the first part of this cycling road trip around the Gironde estuary, my travelling companions and I made it as far as Mirambeau, slightly inland in the Charente-Maritime département. Departing on the morning of day two, our natural turtle-like instinct was to head back towards the estuary, riding through the ghost-town that was Saint-Bonnet-sur-Gironde, where the only person we saw was keen to strike up a conversation about where we were from and where we were going, all in the short space of time it took us to cycle round a bend in the road.  

We hit the Gironde at a spot where the tiny marina of Port Vitrezay had developed, complete with a jetty that reached some way into the water. Little did we know it, but we were about to embark on the most pleasant and most memorable part of our trek, cycling through a massive nature reserve known as Pôle nature de Vitrezay. The cycle path was as close as could possibly be to the water’s edge; the view over the estuary was only broken up by an endless succession of more carrelet fishing huts, while the linear route was only broken up by the occasional waterway heading inland. Eventually the cycle path distanced itself from the waterfront and followed the course of narrow canals. To one side, horses roamed free in the distance, while on the other side we could admire storks perched in their nests built on man-made poles.

The environment, and therefore our route, gradually became hillier before descending to Mortagne-sur-Gironde, where we were only able to steal a long-distance glimpse of Saint-Martial hermitage, where troglodyte living quarters are said to have been carved into the limestone cliff face as early as the 4th century, although the first written records of the site date rather from the 10th century. As the gate was closed, we were unable to investigate further and instead elected to proceed a little further north to Saint Seurin d’Uzet in search of some form of dining option. None was forthcoming though so we pressed further still, eventually settling down to late lunch at a no-frills restaurant in the hamlet of Barzan-Plage. 

Saint-Martial hermitage, Mortagne-sur-Gironde.
From then on everything went large-scale and it felt as if we were auditioning to be extras on the back of a Massive Street Preachers album cover, following the coastal cycle path as it traced its way up to the top of the chalk cliffs of Le Caillaud. The sense of space was almost overpowering as we rode alongside vines labelled as being “le Talmondais”; it could be argued that no winegrowing plots in the area enjoy a view which is as stunning as this, with the wide open Barzan beach now to the south-east, the estuary waters delivering a 180° panorama, and one of France’s most scenic villages, Talmont-sur-Gironde, peeking out over the horizon to the north-west. 

Talmondais vines with a view.
We took some time out to visit Talmont, which is officially home to 105 souls but draws a steady stream of tourists all year round. The strategically-located fortified community was founded in 1284 by Edward 1st, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine, although today it is more of a haven for artists and makers of handicrafts, whose workshops and stores give the narrow pedestrian streets an air of laid-back bohemian creativity. We edged our way as far as the 11th-15th century Sainte-Radegonde church, which stands tall above the estuary waters providing natural photo opportunities from all angles.

Downtown Talmont.
The view from the church in Talmont.
Twenty-or-so kilometres still lay between us and our evening destination, Royan, so we set off once again, staying as close to the coast as possible, although between Meschers-sur-Gironde and Saint-Georges-de-Didonne the roads did lead us away from the waterfront and towards some more challenging hilly terrain. Reaching the resort of Saint-Georges, we were surprised to see the number of people on the sandy beaches there, soaking up the year’s first warm sun rays. We were naturally drawn to the town’s 36-metre-tall lighthouse, Phare de Villières, which has been in position since the very start of the 20th century, although it ceased operating in 1969. Not far from its base was a memorial to the Operation Frankton commando raid on the city of Bordeaux during the Second World War, the first of three we planned to spot on our estuary trek. This memorial was a flat stone plaque featuring a bas relief portrayal of man paddling in a canoe from north to south, reminiscent of the direction taken by the Marines when they passed this point some 75 years earlier.

Phare de Villières.
Saint-Georges-de-Didonne's Operation Frankton memorial.
What was Saint-Georges seamlessly linked up with Royan and we proceeded along the waterfront, past the maritime port and into the residential heart of the town towards the hotel where our rooms had been booked. Once we had set up shop, and in spite of the day’s ride weighing down on our muscles, we did head out to take in one of Royan’s most distinctive edifices, the audaciously-designed Notre-Dame-de-Royan church, executed to the designs of architects Guillaume Gillet and Marc Hébrard, which first opened in 1958.  

Quietly opening the main door of the church, we stole a brief inside glimpse of the church’s dazzling stained glass windows, along with the sight of a member of the cleaning staff waving at us to indicate that the church was very much closed for the time being; she wasted no time in locking the door! We therefore had to make do instead with an outdoor tour of the angular structure, viewing from afar its various nooks, crannies, windows, balconies and spiral staircases. 

We signed off with a brasserie meal a short walk away in the bay of Pontaillan, where we were able to spot from afar the legendary Cordouan lighthouse. Sometimes referred to as the “Versailles of the seas”, Cordouan was originally erected between 1584 and 1611, and went on to become the first lighthouse to be registered as an historic monument in 1862. It remains the oldest lighthouse in France still in operation although it has, since 2006, been fully automated and computer-controlled. With daylight dipping, I managed to capture a shot of Cordouan with a couple of carrelet fishing huts in the foreground, and the lively waters of the Atlantic Ocean in between.  The photo was an apt way to sign off for day two.

Gironde estuary cycle tour day 2 mapped out. 

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