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Aytré (Municipality, Charente-Maritime, France)

Last modified: 2022-07-30 by ivan sache
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Flag of Aytré, current and former versions - Images by Ivan Sache & Olivier Touzeau, 3 March 2022

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Presentation of Aytré

The municipality of Aytré (8,706 inhabitants in 2016, therefore the 5th most populated municipality in the department; 1,222 ha; municipal website) is located just south of La Rochelle.

Aytré was already settled in the Gallo-Roman times, as evidenced by the remains of a villa (1st-5th centuries) excavated in autumn 2004 in the Bongraine borough. The town was first mentioned in the 9th century as Aitriacus, subsequently changed to Aitriaco Naytré, Estrée, and, eventually in the 17th century, Aytré. A possible etymology is the Latin word strata, "a road", for a Roman Imperial road that allegedly crossed the settlement.

Aytré once covered a territory much larger than today, up to Maubec Canal and the Minimes borough, now part of La Rochelle, whose demographic increase absorbed significant parts of Aytré in 1216, 1372, and 1590. The limits of the municipal territory were fixed in 1858, the year of inauguration of the railway station.
In the Middle Ages, Aytré belonged to the Barony of Châtelaillon. During the Hundred Years' War, the successive sieges of La Rochelle by the French Royal troops (12214, 1226, 1295, and 1345) were organized from Aytré. In 1572, the Huguenot militia from La Rochelle suppressed the Catholic town of Aytré.
Aytré was again occupied by the Royal troops during the Great Siege of La Rochelle (August 1627-October 1628); the king stayed at the Réaux castle while Richelieu stayed at Pont de la Pierre. More than 20,000 soldiers were stationed in the town, whose parish church was transformed into a Royal chapel.

Aytré's first sources of income were salt gathering and fishing. Since the Roman times, most arable land had been grown with grapevine, which was totally suppressed by phylloxera in the last decades of the 19th century.
At the end of the First World War, the American Middletown Co. established in Aytré a factory producing railway wagons and vehicles under the name of Entreprises Industrielles Charentaises (EIC). Acquired in 1934 by Pullman Car Co., the factory was requisitioned by the German army. After the liberation, it was acquired by group Rothschild, to be overtaken in 1956 by Brissonneau & Lotz. In 1972, the French group Alsthom, renamed to Alstom in 1998, acquired the factory.
In July 2018, the SNCF (French national railway compâny) launched the Avelia Horizon project, which includes the building in the Aytré factory of 100 new high-speed trains (TGV). To be started in 2033 and possibly completed by another 100 trains, the project will maintian the factory in activity until 2031.
[France Bleu, 15 January 2019]

Ivan Sache, 30 November 2019

Flag of Aytré

The flag of Aytré (photo) is white with the municipal emblem. The former flag was similar with a thin blue border added (photo, photo).
The emblem features the Aytré Horse (photo, photo), a sculpture (2 m x 10 m x 7 m) designed in 1989 by Christian Renonciat (b. 1947; website) for the municipality and set up on the Charmilles square.

A noted sculptor, Renonciat designed several monumental sculptures connected to horses: Éloge du cheval (Saumur School of Equitation, 1984), Galop (San Francisco, 1988), Pégase renaissant (Sapporo, 1989), Galop, cheval-boîtes (Hong-Kong, 1995), Archeval (Saumur, 1997), Phenix, cheval de proue (project for Beirut, 2002).

Renonciat described the Aytré Horse as follows:

First, this is not a horse; it was built like a ship, with a keel, frames and clamps. At the same time, it looks like a horse, with a horse's head. Second, it is not a horse; this element is part of a whole: emerged remnant of weird archeological layers. What about unity? The frame of time can be inscribed in this reverted pyramid, from which, they say, twenty centuries look at us. Steel cast, too: more than twenty ton used to petrify all these pieces of wood, frames, stakes, boards and tree trunks. A horse boat, wood made of steel... nothing is simple.

The horse was inspired by the local imaginary and legends. For ages, the inhabitants of the coastal areas of Aunis have identified sea foam with a horse galopping to the shore. It also represents the iron horses manufactured by Alstom in Aytré.
The sculptor also identified the horse to the Trojan horse, which was built by Epeios in the service of the Atrids - therefore the pun on Aytré / Atrée (Atreus).

The ship recalls that Aytré was scared by the Rô beast "until high tide brought a boat mounted by seven heroes".
The horse-ship or ship-horse recalls the Norse ships, whose prow was often decorated with a horse or dragon's head. In 843, the warlord Thorsgil, after having conquerred Ireland and Wales, settled in Noirmoutier; the Northmen often visited Aytré, "the country of wine and salt where girls are so brown-haired and so lovely".
The stakes recall the dike built by Richelieu during the Great Siege of La Rochelle (1627) to prevent Buckingham's fleet to enter the port and rescue the besieged Huguenots. The Royal army was then stationed in Aytré. Close to the Charmilles square can be seen the opening of an underground tunnel used during the Siege and re-used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War.

The Rô beast was "a dire dragon with a scaly tail and a winged thorax", which used its great intellect, nearly human, to capture people, its main source of food. Rô scared all the region, where nobody dared attacking it in the dense forests and coastal caves where it took shelter.
Brought by the high tide, seven warriors forced the beast to withdraw to the Stone bridge, where they shot it with seven arrows, two in the eyes, two in the nose, two in the nostrils, and the last one in the lips. Upset, the beast started to howl loud, to no avail.
Rô was brought to Chau Point, where seven granite stones arranged around a deep hole could still be seen some years ago. The stones were the seats of the warriors, who sentenced the beast to jump down into the hole and stay there until heel freezes.
[Charentime, 18 July 2008]

Ivan Sache & Olivier Touzeau, 3 March 2022