As one of four administrative regions that comprise the department of Poitou-Charentes, Angoulême is the capital of the Charente. Nearby Cognac, also in the Charente, is better known internationally but with its burgeoning hip comics industry Angoulême is giving Cognac a grand-cru run for its money.
There’s plenty to see and do in Angoulême (see “Angoulême’s Fabulous Flights of Fancy” on this same website). Lodging and food tend to be somewhat less expensive and the town is generally much calmer at night. Yet the city retains most of the amenities that make France such a joy as a destination. Moreover, it’s a fabulous base for visits to many of the other delightful—and more well-known—places.
This region, including Charente, Poitou-Charente, Charente-Maritime and the Dordogne, are within easy access, particularly if you have a car. As a base for regional exploration, Angoulême’s hotels are affordable and it’s an easy jumping-off point for day trips. Continuing the theme of fabulous finds, there are a couple of endroits inédits, or places off the tourist track starting in Angoulême’s backyard of Soyaux, a suburb of Angoulême. At 43, route de Saint Marc is La Cueillette Fabulette, or the fabulous u-pick farm, you can slice seasonal vegetables, fruits and flowers right off the vine from March through October.
You just wander the fields with a trug and a knife and harvest what’s ripe. There are also local delicacies such as fresh mozzarella, artisanal syrups (rose-flavored was my favorite), charcuterie, locally-made sauces and wines. It was at La Cueillette Fabulette that I first tasted a little orange sphere wrapped in a papery husk and resembling a tomatillo but with a totally different taste. The French call it amour-en-cage, or love-in-a-cage (physalis edulis). It’s aptly named; my taste buds fell in love. I urge you to track down a seed packet for your home garden. I plan to put in an acre or two.
La Cigogne Restaurant, 5 impasse Cabane Bambou, Soyaux, is en route to La Cueillette Fabulette and an ideal setting for a refined country lunch. Perched on high ground overlooking the u-pick farm, you can enjoy la formule—a three-course lunch, a glass of wine and a finishing coffee—under the spreading shade in the courtyard for 25 euros and worth every penny. Sandrine and Erick Boux pride themselves on offering seasonal delicacies perfectly prepared. On a hot day, you’ll remain comfortable in the shade and you can park your car in a former quarry that now serves as an entry tunnel where it, too, will stay as cool as a rosé in a wine cave.
Straying further afield, you can hop a regional train into Bordeaux for a big-city day; the cost is about 35 euros roundtrip. As a day-tripper from Angoulême I had time to take in a photographic exhibit on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art entitled “Road Trip,” at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, 20 Cours d’Albret, featuring Dennis Hopper, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, John Pfahl, Ansel Adams and more. I lunched at Akashi, 5 Place des Martyrs de la Résistance, then spent the afternoon walking the length and breadth of the compact city center admiring the architecture, gardens and the rue Sainte-Catherine, a pedestrians-only shopping district. In a matter of a few hours I was able to tap the city for these treasures before returning in the early evening to the relative calm of Angoulême. There’s talk of a high-speed train linking big sister Bordeaux to Angoulême in the next few years. That could catapult this sweet town into a dortoir, or bedroom community, since real estate prices are significantly lower in Angoulême.
If you’ve got a car, you can follow the cognac circuit for a day of tasting at the near-mythic houses of Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Camus. The town of Cognac, birthplace of François I, is a forty-minute drive from Angoulême. It can easily be combined with a longer day trip to the coastal cities of Rochefort and La Rochelle passing through field after field of bright-faced sunflowers. A team of tall-ship enthusiasts at Rochefort has built an exact replica of the Hermione on which Lafayette sailed to the aid of the United States in 1780. It’s currently undergoing sea trials and crew training for a reenactment voyage to the United States in April, 2015.
A short drive from Rochefort is the lovely island of Oléron, France’s second largest island after Corsica. Luminous and laid back, it’s laced with bicycle circuits across its twenty-mile length. Sandy beaches, the charming fishing village of La Cotinière, the Chassiron lighthouse at the northern tip and many seaside cafes offering oysters and chilled pineau—the island has plenty of seductive pleasures.
Or, if you’ve got your heart set on a chateau visit, there are many in the area. A half-hour’s drive northeast of Angoulême is La Rochefoucauld, a village that is still the ancestral seat of the La Rochefoucauld family. François de La Rochefoucauld was the master of maxims and memoir (“We are never so happy or so unhappy as we suppose,” “What grace is to the body good sense is to the mind.” etc.). Be sure to plan your day to include lunch at the Restaurant du Château, 2 rue des Gaillaudes, specializing in fish. Located on their terrace alongside the Tardoire River, you can enjoy a view of the chateau, its ancient stone bridge and the waterfowl plying the stream.
Lunch will set you up in fine form for a visit to the chateau with its five libraries housing over 20,000 volumes, its long galleries, chapel and kitchen. Don’t tell any remaining revolutionaries, but a duke and duchess are still in residence. According to our guide, you can even overnight at the chateau and have breakfast with the approachable and chatty duchess.
One of the so-named prettiest detours in France is the island village of Brantôme, approximately an hour’s drive southeast of Angoulême, on the way to Périgueux, in Dordogne. Many francophiles are familiar with the gourmand pleasures of Dordogne. Brantôme certainly has those, too. But the primary reason for a stop at Brantôme, in my opinion, is to visit the Benedictine abbey founded by Charlemagne in 769. It features a large church, cloister, healing spring, 11th c. bell tower and centuries-older troglodyte caves with impressive bas-relief scenes of the Last Judgment carved into a huge wall.
Paddlers take note: you can rent a canoe or kayak and circumnavigate this scenic town handily in under thirty minutes save for optional ports of call for a glass of pineau or a shandy. Country walks ranging from 2.5 to 11 miles are plentiful in this area, too. The tourist office near the abbey has detailed walking maps.
If the thought of visiting Paris overwhelms you but you’d like to visit France at a gentler and friendlier pace, take a look at Angoulême and this region with its rich cultural, natural and culinary delights. If you travel with children, they may be happier seeing tall ships, going to a comics museum, cutting their own veggies at a farm and bicycling the byways of the region than trudging the museums and metro network of Paris. Maybe, in all truth, you would, too.
Written by Guest Contributor Maggie Herrington for EuropeUpClose.com. Photos by Maggie Herrington and Tony Midson
Maggie Herrington is based in Portland, Oregon and writes for newspapers, journals and online websites.