Royan: Visit this French sea town rebuilt with Brazil-inspired style

It was once known as the Pearl of the Atlantic but was ruined during World War Two. It has been redesigned in a new and innovative way

Low-rise white concrete has come to epitomise the town
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Royan, a town of 18,000 inhabitants on the Atlantic coast south of La Rochelle, was almost completely destroyed at the end of World War Two, giving architects a blank canvas to rebuild it around the few seaside villas that survived.

The result is a pleasant, low-rise town dominated by white concrete but with enough architectural follies from before and after the war to give interest. Some of the villas command stratospheric prices.

The town, situated at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, had its heyday in the late 19th century when it developed as a holiday resort.

Rich bourgeois families from Bordeaux were the first, from the 1820s, to take boats down the estuary, and it also attracted visitors from Cognac and Libourne.

Once the railway arrived in 1875, families from Limoges and all over France built holiday villas in the town where, like Arcachon, Royan’s rival south of Bordeaux, architects were given a free hand.

The results were holiday villas with added towers (why not?), gothic flourishes or even Alpine fretwork and Japanese pavilions, all mixed up next to each other.

A holiday village called Le Parc extended from the beach and up the hill behind it, filled with extraordinary buildings, many going over the top into kitsch.

The Prince of Wales and Picasso were some of the big names who stayed in the town, which gained the nickname The Pearl of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, the good times for Royan ended in a big way during the war – the German navy put huge guns along the estuary mouth, built bunkers on the best beaches, and laid mines all over town.

After D-Day and then the invasion by Allies of the south of France, the local commander refused to quit and run back to Germany, as most other units did.

The result was that the town was flattened by bombing raids, which included the first large-scale use of napalm by the US airforce, and three days of heavy fighting in April 1945, just weeks before the official German surrender.

Royan was one of the very last towns in France to be liberated – Charles de Gaulle made it a political priority to have French soldiers chase Germans from the country.

Amid the ruins, only a few of the original villas in Le Parc remained, some of them on the seafront. During the 1950s, the town was rebuilt with white concrete as the main material, and regained its place as a family resort.

Charlotte de Charette, a history expert who works in the town hall’s heritage and culture section and who leads regular tours, said: “It was a deliberate choice to be low rise, to fit into the surrounding countryside.

“The main architects and urban developers were influenced by Brazilian architecture, which is why white concrete curves predominate, instead of the grey used in places like Le Havre.”

A lot of the diversity of style was gone, but the town’s municipality took the opportunity to rationalise access to the seaside, and allowed several flourishes, such as a Brazilian-inspired concrete-roofed market.

It contrasted with the controversial dark grey concrete church of Notre-Dame de Royan, which is hated and loved in equal measure in the town.

Classical designs rub shoulders with contemporary villas in Royan. Pic: Ville de Royan / Ph Souchard

Similarly, if owners wanted to build modern villas in contemporary styles to replace their old homes, they were invariably given permission.

The villas built by architects after the war are now worth a fortune. One property, built on a rise five minutes from the beach, without sea views but with a large, sunny living room, four bedrooms and a pool in a 694m² garden, is on the market for €1.1million.

Even an ‘ordinary’ 1930s villa without architectural flourishes, 600m from the beach with two bedrooms, has a €440,000 asking price.

Getting townsfolk to appreciate the 1950s buildings has been a long process, according to Ms de Charette.

“There was no problem with the pre-war villas but the 1950s ones for a long time did not have the same value in the eyes of the local population.

“That has now changed, and the prices some of them fetch show that,” she said.

“Some are sold within days of being put on the market.”

Urban development rules have been made to protect them – it is forbidden to put external insulation on walls, for example, and solar panels are tolerated only if they cannot be seen from the road.

Protecting features such as original doors and fittings is also a priority.

“Many of the doors are unique, made by artisans using wood, glass and metal, and if owners want to insulate, often the only solution is to build a second, interior door,” she said.

“It is an effort but almost everyone agrees that it is worth trying to keep the vision alive of the people who rebuilt the town.”

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