Things to see and do - French Atlantic Coast
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The Quaternary Era began about two million years ago. It was during this period that glaciers developed (the Günz, Mindel, Riss and Würm glacial stages), spreading over the highest mountains. However, the most significant event of the period was the appearance of the first humans in Europe, and more particularly in the Pyrénées. Archaeology and scientific methods of dating have made it possible to classify various phases of evolution – Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), Neolithic (New Stone Age) – which can themselves be subdivided into different periods.
The Lower Palaeolithic period is represented in the Pyrénées by Tautavel man, who came to light when the remains of a human skull were discovered in a layer of ancient sediment in the Caune de l’Arago in 1971 and 1979.
Tautavel man belongs to the Homo erectus genus, which inhabited Roussillon 450 000 years ago. He was between 20 and 25 years old and was able to stand upright, about 1.65m/5ft 4in tall. He had a flat, receding forehead, prominent cheekbones, and rectangular eye sockets beneath a thick projecting brow. Since no trace of any hearth has been found, it is assumed that this intrepid hunter, who had not mastered the use of fire, ate his meat raw.
The first hunters who came to live in the Caune d’Arago used it for several purposes: as a look-out to keep track of the movements of animals which had come to drink from the Verdouble; as a temporary place to set up camp and dismember their prey; and as a workshop for manufacturing tools.
Palynology (the analysis of fossilised pollen grains) has helped to determine the specific characteristics of flora and fauna from different prehistoric periods. Although the alternation of climates produced changes (from grassy steppes to deciduous forests), Mediterranean plant species (such as pines, oaks, walnut trees, plane trees and wild vines) have always been present. There was much game in the area: large herbivores included various types of deer and mountain goats, prairie rhinoceros, bison, musk ox and an ancient species of wild sheep. Carnivores (bears, wolves, dogs, polar foxes, cave lions, wild cats) were hunted for their fur. Small game comprised rodents (hares, voles, beavers, field mice) and birds still to be found today (golden eagles, lammergeier vultures, pigeons, rock partridges, red-billed choughs).
The tools found are in general quite small (scrapers, notched tools). The largest tools found are pebbles, measuring on average 6–10cm/2–4in, made into choppers, or flat two or poly-sided implements of varying degrees of sharpness. These early humans used material they found nearby such as quartz or schist, and more rarely limestone, flint and jasper.
The presence of numerous Mousterian deposits is evidence that Neanderthal man was present in the Pyrénées. Taller than homo erectus , he had a well-developed skull (1 700cu cm/104cu in). He was forced to adapt to the climatic conditions of the Würm glacial period.
Neanderthal man produced more sophisticated, specialised tools. He fashioned numerous double-sided implements, stone knives with curved edges, chisels, scrapers, pointed tools and all kinds of notched implements. His evolution is also evident in the construction of vast dwelling and burial places.
With the advent of homo sapiens, there was now a significant human presence in the Pyrénées. During the Aurignacian period, stone implements were supplemented with bone and horn.
The appearance of long thin wooden spears with metal tips (assegais) , awls and spatulas pointed to a technical evolution which progressed still further during the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods. Towards the end of the last Würm glacial period (Würm IV), a transformation in landscape and fauna occurred, with boar and deer predominating from now on. Humans both hunted and fished. However, the most revolutionary change was the birth of art. Sculpted human figures (the Aurignacian “Venuses”) and cave paintings are of exceptional archaeological interest. The animals, painted in red or black, on the walls of Niaux cave look strikingly realistic.
At the end of the Ice Age, the historical landscape of the Pyrénées became established. The Mesolithic Age is, in fact, an intermediary phase during which a multitude of civilisations appeared. During the Azilian culture (named after the Mas d’Azil cave), which began at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic period, the harpoon became an increasingly important weapon. Art, on the other hand, was restricted to enigmatic pebbles with symbolic markings.
The Neolithic Age is characterised by polished (as opposed to chipped) stone tools and the use of earthenware. This evolution was accompanied by a decisive change in economy and life style. However, in the eastern Pyrénées and the Ariège, evolution appears to have been slower, for it has been recorded that the local post-Palaeolithic population, who were joined by groups from outside the Pyrénées, remained static; they continued to live in caves and earthenware came into use only sometime later.
Further north, valuable ethnological information was discovered in the Font-Juvénal shelter, between the River Aude and the Montagne Noire.
As early as the fourth millennium, agriculture and cattle-rearing had become a means of subsistence, with wheat and barley being cultivated. At the same time, dwellings were adapted to meet increasingly elaborate domestic requirements, a fact borne out by the discovery of flat hearths for cooking, air vents to raise the combustion temperature, supporting structures (posts and slabs) and silos for storage.
In the Narbonne region, rural communities with specialised activities, using very elaborate implements, started to barter and trade with each other. Megalithic constructions (dolmens and tumili) were introduced to the Pyrénées from the western zone during the third millennium.
The middle mountain slopes were the most densely populated. Activities included stock-rearing and, increasingly, the making of weapons (arrows, axes and knives). Jewellery (necklaces and bracelets) and earthenware (bowls and vases) became more widespread. In the Catalan region, the Megalithic culture lasted until the Bronze Age.
The Roman Conquest
72 BC Foundation of Lugdunum Convenarum (St-Bertrand-de-Comminges), religious capital of the population south of the River Garonne, by Pompey.
56 BC Aquitaine conquered by Crassus, Caesar’s lieutenant.
Invasions, the Rise of the Carolingian Empire and the Hundred Years’ War
2C–4C AD Introduction of Christianity in Gaul. St Hilaire elected Bishop of Poitiers.
276 Germanic invasion.
5C Visigoth Kingdom in Aquitaine: continuation of the Latin culture and Roman law.
End 6C The Vascons , Basque mountain people from the south, driven back by the Visigoths, settle in the flat country Gascogne (Gascony).
507 Defeat of Alaric II , King of the Visigoths, by Clovis at Vouillé (north of Poitiers).
732 The Arab advance into Europe is halted by Charles Martel at Moussais-la-Bataille .
778 Kingdom of Aquitaine created by Charlemagne .
801 Barcelona taken from the Arabs by Charlemagne and Spanish Marches organised.
820 Start of the Norman incursions. Destruction of Saintes, Angoulême (c. 850) and Bordeaux.
c. 950 Beginning of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela.
1058 Union of the duchies of Aquitaine and Gascogne. The south west under the hegemony of the Comtes (Comtes of Poitiers and Angoulême).
1137 Marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis, son of the French King.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (C. 1122–1204) and the Plantagenet Territories
The marriage in 1137 of Eleanor, the only daughter of William of Aquitaine , to Louis, the French dauphin, brought with it a dowry which included the duchies of Guyenne, Gascogne, Périgord, Limousin, Poitou, Angoumois and Saintonge, plus suzerainty over the Auvergne and the Comté of Toulouse. Her husband was crowned Louis VII the same year. Fifteen years later, in 1152, the marriage ended in divorce; Eleanor retained all the lands of her dowry.
Eleanor’s subsequent marriage to Henry Plantagenet in 1154 was a political disaster for the Capetian dynasty: the combined possessions of the bride and groom, extending from the English Channel to the Pyrénées, were as vast as those of the French crown. Henry’s crowning as Henry II of England finally upset the fragile international equilibrium; the resulting Anglo-French struggle lasted on and off for 300 years.
Later, separating from her second husband, Eleanor left London for Poitiers where she held a brilliant court. From 1173 her various intrigues – she supported her son Richard the Lionheart in the fight against his father, Henry, for example – resulted in her being imprisoned in London by her husband, and she was only released on his death 15 years later in 1189. She took up her plotting again, this time against her youngest son, John (Lackland), and Philippe Auguste, King of France.
Eleanor spent her later life peacefully at her castle on the Isle of Oléron and finished her days at Fontevraud Abbey, where she is buried, together with her husband Henry Plantagenet.
1224 Poitou attached to the French crown.
1345 Start of the Hundred Years‘ War in Aquitaine.
1356 The French King, Jean le Bon , captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers and taken prisoner by the Black Prince .
1360 Treaty of Brétigny : the duchies of Aquitaine, Aunis, Saintonge and Angoulême become possessions of the English crown.
1369 Jean de Berry installed as Governor of Poitou.
1380 Restriction of the English presence in the southwest to Bordeaux and Bayonne, thanks to the formidable Constable du Guesclin (who had chased the grandes compagnies – bands of terrorising mercenaries and brigands – into Spain).
1422 Charles VII proclaimed King in Poitiers.
1450– Dismantling of English Gascony;
1500 Re-attachment of the Comtés of Armagnac and Comminges to the French crown.
1453 Final battle of the Hundred Years’ War, won by the Bureau brothers at Castillon-la-Bataille. Progressive abandonment of France by the English.
From the Renaissance to the Revolution: Wars of Religion
1484 The Albrets – Kings of Navarre – become all-powerful in the Gascon Pyrénées.
1494 Birth of François I in Cognac.
1515 Accession of François I. Battle of Marignano: victory for François over the Swiss and the Italians; northern Italy becomes French.
1533–34 The doctrine of the Reformation preached by Calvin in Saintonge, Angoumois and Poitiers (in 1558, from Basle in Switzerland, Calvin tells his fellow Protestants of the Confession of La Rochelle, a sign of the town’s early conversion to Reformation principles).
1539 The administration of justice reshaped by the Edict of Villers-Cotteret, which imposed French as the official language of the judiciary, instead of Latin or the Langue d’Oc.
1555 Jeanne d’Albret crowned Queen of Navarre (until 1572).
1562 Beginning of the Wars of Religion .
1569 Victory for the Duc d’Anjou over the Protestants in the battles of Jarnac and Moncontour . Poitiers under siege from Protestants.
1570–71 Imposition of the Protestant faith on Béarn by Jeanne d’Albret. Bloody rivalry between her lieutenant, Montgomery, and his Catholic adversary, Blaise de Montluc.
1579 An attempt made, with les grands jours de Poitiers, to end religious discord in the region.
1589 Accession of Henri IV , the son of Jeanne d’Albret.
1598 End of the Wars of Religion. Protestants granted freedom of worship, and 100 safe places (among them La Rochelle) in which to practise their religion, through Henri IV’s promulgation of the Edict of Nantes .
1608 The future Cardinal Richelieu created Bishop of Luçon.
1627–28 Siege of La Rochelle and eventual submission to Richelieu.
1659–60 Treaty of the Pyrénées. Marriage of Louis XIV and the Infanta María Teresa at St-Jean-de-Luz.
1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV.
Persecution of Protestants in Béarn by the King’s Dragoons (Dragonades) . Evacuation of many Huguenots from the country.
18C A decisive impetus to the country’s economic development brought during the era of the Intendants (stewards or governors): the Comte de Blossac in Poitiers, Reverseaux in Saintes, Tourny in Bordeaux.
1789–99 The French Revolution and the end of the Ancien Régime (execution of Louis XVI in January 1793); establishment of the Convention.
1793–96 The War in the Vendée ; execution of Louis XVI (1793).
1794 Deportation of priests aboard the hulks of Rochefort.
From the First to the Second Empire
1804 Consecration of Napoleon I as Emperor of the French, and founding of the town of Napoleon-Vendée (today, La Roche-sur-Yon).
1806 The continental blockade, designed to ruin England by denying the country its economic outlets on mainland Europe, also severely reduced activity in the ports along the Atlantic Coast of France.
1815 Embarkation of the deposed Napoleon for the Isle of Aix.
1822 Plot by the Four Sergeants of La Rochelle to overthrow the Restoration government.
1832 Attempts by the Duchesse de Berry to provoke another Vendée uprising, this time against Louis-Philippe I.
1852–70 The Second Empire – a period of splendour for the Basque coast and country and the spas in the region.
1855 Opening of the Poitiers-La Rochelle railway link.
1857 Birth of the town of Arcachon.
1860 Opening of the Eaux-Bonnes to Bagnères-de-Bigorre Thermal Cure route.
1867 The topography of the Landes revolutionised by the extensive planting of pines.
1868 Appearance of the Portuguese oyster in the Gironde.
From the Third Republic to the Present Day
1870 Installation in Tours and then in Bordeaux of a delegation from the National Defence Government, headed by Gambetta.
1876 Phylloxera crisis in the vineyards.
1905 A law separating the Church from the State pushed through by Émile Combes, Mayor of Pons, and Georges Clemenceau, a Deputy in the National Assembly.
1914 President Poincaré, the government and both chambers of the Assembly moved temporarily to Bordeaux before the first German offensive in World War I.
1929 Death of Clemenceau at St-Vincent-sur-Jard.
1939 End of the Spanish Civil War. Seizure of the Spanish gold reserves (lodged in Mont-de-Marsan) by the Fascist victors; 500 000 refugees flood into the southwest of France.
1940 Refuge again taken in Bordeaux by the authorities of the Third Republic after the German advance southward following the breakthrough at Sedan during World War II .
1945 German forces still entrenched in the Atlantic pockets (among them Royan) besieged by Free French soldiers and members of the Resistance.
1951 Death of Marshal Pétain on the Isle of Yeu.
1954 Inauguration of the oil wells of Parentis.
1966 Oléron becomes the first French island to be linked to the mainland via a bridge.
1987 Parc du Futuroscope opens to the general public near Poitiers.
1988 Completion of the bridge leading to the Isle of Ré.
1990 Opening of the new high-speed Paris-Bordeaux rail link, with the TGV -Atlantique (train à grande vitesse) making the journey in less than 3hr.
1996 President Mitterrand is buried in his native village of Jarnac.
1997 The Cirque de Gavarnie is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.
1998 The mint in Pessac begins production of euro coins.
1999 December – a terrible storm uproots trees and damages buildings across the southwest.
1999 Oil spill from the Crude oil carrier Erika pollutes beaches in the Vendée and the Charentes.
1999 The Jurisdiction of St-Émilion is insribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2002 Nicolas Sarkozy defeats Ségolène Royal, a representative for Poitou-Charentes, at the polls to become the President of France.
2007 Bordeaux, The Port of the Moon, is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2009 Michel Desjoyeaux becomes the only person to win the Vendée Globe race more than once.
History and Legend
St James the Greater, beheaded in Jerusalem in the year AD 44, was the first Apostle martyred for his beliefs; according to legend, his body and head were transported to northwestern Spain in a stone boat and buried on the coast of Galicia. On the site of his tomb, miraculously rediscovered in the early 9C, a church was built, and around it grew the town of Compostela.
When the Moors were driven from Spain, St James (Santiago in Spanish) became the patron saint of Christians: in the year 844, it is said, at the height of a decisive battle at Clavijo in Rioja, he appeared on a white charger and vanquished the enemy – a manifestation which earned him the nickname of Matamore (Moor-slayer).
Soon after the building of the church to St James, the faithful from far and wide began flocking to the site to venerate the relics. They travelled from hostel to hostel visiting churches, abbeys and holy places along a number of well-defined routes. Throughout the Middle Ages the number of pilgrims grew to such an extent that the church in Santiago de Compostela became a shrine equal in importance to Jerusalem or Rome.
The first French pilgrimage was led by the bishop of Le Puy in the year 951. Subsequently millions of Jacquets ,Jacquots or Jacobites ( Jacques in French means James) set out from Paris, Tours, Le Puy, Vézelay and Arles, which developed into assembly points for pilgrims from all over Europe.
Pilgrims to Santiago wore a uniform of a heavy cape, an 2.4m/8ft stave with a gourd attached to carry water, stout sandals and a broad-brimmed felt hat, turned up at the front and marked with three or four scallop shells, the badge of the saint, which identified the pilgrim’s destination. The shells, found in great banks along the Galician coast and still called coquilles St-Jacques (St James’ shells) in France today, were also used as a receptacle in which to collect alms. A scrip or pouch, a bowl and a small metal box for papers and passes completed the equipment. The network of hostels and hospices where pilgrims could find food and shelter for a night, or receive attention if they were unwell, was organised by the Benedictine monks of Cluny, the Premonstratensians and other orders. The Knights Templar and the Hospitallers of St John with their commanderies policed the routes, marked with carved mileposts or cairns; everything was done to provide for the pilgrims’ spiritual and physical welfare.There was even a Pilgrim’s Guide , the first tourist guide ever written, which was produced in Latin in c. 1135, probably by Aymeric Picaud , a monk from Parthenay-le-Vieux. This outlined local customs, gave advice on the climate and weather conditions to be expected, spiced the more mundane information with comments on the morals, customs, and mentality of the inhabitants of each region, and listed the most interesting routes, towns, and the sights on the way – the pilgrim in those days was in no hurry and frequently made detours that took weeks or months to complete, to visit a sanctuary or shrine.
The main routes all converged in the Basse-Navarre district before crossing the Pyrénées. The most important junction was at Ostabat; St-Jean-Pied-de-Port was the last halt before the climb towards the frontier. The pilgrims reached Roncesvalles by a mountain route which was once part of the Roman road linking Bordeaux with Astorga via the Valcarlos gap. The bell of the monastery at Ibañeta Pass would toll when it was foggy – or sometimes for much of the night – to signal the right direction to those pilgrims who might have got lost or lagged behind.
With the passage of time, however, the faith that fired people to set out on pilgrimages began to wane; false pilgrims seeking gain by trickery and robbery, and known as coquillards , increased; the Wars of Religion, when Christians fought among themselves, reduced the faithful even more. In the late 16C, when Sir Francis Drake attacked Corunna, the relics were removed from the Cathedral to a place of safety, after which the pilgrimage was virtually abandoned. By the 18C anyone wishing to make the journey to Santiago de Compostela was obliged to provide the authorities, when requested, with a letter of introduction from their parish priest and other documents certified to be true by a police official or signed by the pilgrim’s local bishop.