Aunis is mostly a rolling chalk plain, whose navigable rivers have always been important modes of communication, and from which came economic development and the urbanisation of the region.
The region is coastal, with varied seafronts and offshore islands, from which maritime activities diversified. Nowadays tourism is of great importance.
Aunis has two river borders, those of the Sèvre Niortaise in the north, and the Charente River in the south. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean and two islands, the Île de Ré and the Île d'Aix. To the east it is bordered by the valley of the
Mignon River (the main left tributary of the Sèvre Niortaise), by the hills of Saintonge around Saint-Félix, and by the valleys of the
Trézence and Boutonne.[Note 1]
Chalk cliffs to the north and south of La Rochelle date from the Late Jurassic
Aunis is a chalk plain of the Jurassic period, characterised by gently rolling hills, where no valley is completely enclosed, and where the land has a regular descent towards the sea. The islands of Ré and Aix were made at the same time and from the same type of rock. The chalk table completes the triangular promontory which juts into the Atlantic, forming the northern extremity of the Aquitaine Basin.
Large freshwater and seawater marshes have formed in places that have been drained, hardly altering the general relief. The seawater marshes correspond to ancient marine gulfs, made from marine or fluvial sediments. Since the Middle Ages they have been continuously drained by people. In the north, the Marais Poitevin dries up, at the centre there are the valleys of the small river Curé and its main tributary the Virson and in the east the valley of the
Mignon River). In the south is the marshland of "Little Flanders" (French: la Petite Flandre), drained since the 17th century. Together these constitute an important reservoir of fresh water, essential for the agricultural and snail-farming activities of the north of the department.
The geography of the plain was always very unfavourable for communications. The region was almost an enclave, and for a long time on the margins of the French kingdom politically as well as geographically.[Note 2]
Huge efforts were made to break this geographical isolation. Without doubt the most spectacular was the coming of the railway in 1857, running from La Rochelle and Rochefort to Paris. This line has been repeatedly modernised (made double track, and electrified in 1993 for use by the TGV).
The regional railways connecting Nantes to Bordeaux also serve Aunis, passing through La Rochelle, Châtelaillon-Plage and Rochefort.
Roads have also been considerably modernised, notably the roads from La Rochelle to Rochefort, from La Rochelle to Niort, the A837 autoroute from Rochefort to Saintes, the viaduct over the Charente River at Rochefort, the ring road around La Rochelle, and the bridge to the Île de Ré, all of which are now dual carriageways.
The modernisation of communication infrastructure had its heyday in the second half of the 19th century, at the end of the Second French Empire, and economic activity diversified.
Agricultural and maritime activities
The two principal agricultural resources are intensive arable farming (wheat, maize, oil seed) and livestock farming. Dairy cows have long been the mainstay, but more and more cows and bulls are raised for beef (principally in the marshy areas).
Vineyards were virtually abandoned after phylloxera wiped them out in 1876, although there are still some on the Île de Ré.
At sea, between the estuary of the Sèvre Niortaise and the north of La Rochelle, mussel farming (mytiliculture) has an important place, while Fouras and the
Marais d'Yves Nature Reserve are the main centres for oyster farming. La Rochelle keeps its place as a fishing port thanks to its modern port of Chef-de-Baie, but even so fishing is in decline.[Note 3]
The salt marshes and French
: l'or blanc
("White Gold") salt are important natural resources of the Île de Ré
Reclamation of sea salt from the marshes of Aunis brought the region its riches in the Middle Ages, but this has now completely disappeared from the coast of mainland Aunis. However, it still takes place on the Île de Ré and notably on the nearby
Île d'Ars, and has lately achieved a certain notability for its small-volume craft production and minimal postprocessing.
In the north-east of Aunis there is a huge forest of hardwood trees, the
Forest of Benon, which has been protected because it is unique to the region. With an area of 3,300 hectares (8,200 acres), it is the Aunisiens' "green belt".
- La Rochelle Chamber of Commerce
- Rochefort and Saintonge Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Aunis does not have the strong industrial tradition which is the trademark of regions of the North and of Lorraine, and it was only at the end of the 19th century that factories started to be developed. After World War II, industry in Aunis continued, was reinforced, diversified and brought up-to-date.
Three industrial hubs emerged in Aunis to bring together the industries of Charente-Maritime:
- La Rochelle specialised in railway construction (Alstom) and naval construction (
Chantiers navals Gamelin), motor parts (Delphi Corporation), food industries (
Senoble), chemicals and pharmaceuticals (Rhodia) and pleasure boats (Dufour,
Fontaine-Pajot). It is by far the largest hub of the department. It is also a large commercial port, the eighth largest in all France. In 2007 it was granted the status of port autonome ("self-governing port").
- Rochefort and Tonnay-Charente developed port activities on the Charente River. The two towns have diverse industrial activities with aerospace (EADS,
Simair), automotive industry, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, chemical and plastics industries, pleasure boating, among them. The industrial area of Rochefort-Tonnay-Charente is the second hub of the department.
- Surgères has become a hub for the food industry, augmented by metallurgical and plastic industries.
In addition there are two smaller, newer industrial areas: Aigrefeuille-d'Aunis and Marans.
Thanks to the sea, Aunis developed its tourist potential which, in the late 19th century, came to the fore with the trend for sea bathing. Bathing beaches such as Châtelaillon-Plage and Fouras gained notability, while the larger beaches such as those of the Île de Ré became national treasures from the 1960s. The Pertuis d'Antioche, which is effectively an inland sea, was popular for pleasure boating in the 1970s. La Rochelle, with its immense
Port des Minimes, can hold 5,000 pleasure boats, and has become the largest pleasure boating port on the French Atlantic. Ars-en-Ré, La Flotte and Saint-Martin-de-Ré are also well-known pleasure ports, while the river ports of Marans on the Sèvre niortaise, and Rochefort, on the Charente, had disused port basins that have become home to pleasure boats, and can each take more than 200 craft.
The Île de Ré lives totally by tourism and can accommodate up to 250,000 tourists during the summer season. This "invasion" is even more pronounced on the Île d'Aix which accommodates up to 180,000 tourists each year, even though it does not have a car bridge.
Aunis has also developed its cultural and urban tourism with its two great historical towns of La Rochelle and Rochefort. The small towns of the interior are not without interest and have enhanced their heritage sites, like Surgères (Notre-Dame church, castle, renovated town centre) and Marans (port and river site), Tonnay-Charente (management of Charente quays). Aunis has made huge efforts to put in place green tourism and has developed, notably at Aigrefeuille-d'Aunis, quality tourist bases (lac de Frace, tourist complex of La Taillée).