Here, we have a region that brings together all that is best about France; coastlines and countryside, culture, cuisine and oodles of traditional French charm.
It’s a menu that translates as ‘must visit’ for tourists, a great area to explore and one that rarely disappoints.
Meandering seaward through the Charente-Maritime towns of Saintes and Rochefort is the river Charente, miles longer than either the Thames or the Severn, and once a busy commercial arterial route.
Nowadays the river is a favourite for boating holidays and leisurely day trips on a gabare, the region’s traditional flat bottomed boats. Travelling inland to the equally delightful department of Charente, the river joins the dots on the map that represent the historic towns of Cognac, Chateauneuf, Jarnac and Angouleme.
So, drifting gently upstream our starting point is Angouleme, www.angouleme-tourisme.com, a city that makes it first appearance as a first century BC Gallo-Roman town and a strategic fortified town down the ages. Its impressive ramparts have survived to provide scenic walks overlooking the river Charente.
Today, Angouleme is best known as the capital of the comic strip. In January 1974, it hosted the International Comic Strip (Bande Dessinée) Festival and murals started to appear on gable walls throughout the city.
In 1976, Georges Prosper Remi, better known as Hergé of Tin Tin fame to you and me, was a guest at the festival and it has never looked back. A statue commemorating his support is now located in the centre of town.
Next stop Cognac, a modest town where the original economy was based on salt. Times change and so did tastes; Cognac, thanks to the Ugni blanc grape (better known locally as Saint-Emilion), is now home to some of the world’s biggest brand names in the drinks market – Hennessy www.lesvisites.hennessy.com, Remy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier.
Excellence is achieved by double distilling the brandy in copper pot stills and a two-year ageing process in French oak barrels from Limousin and Tronçais. Cognac’s tourist information office, www.tourism-cognac.com, will be happy to make a distillery tour booking for you.
And on to Saintes, another favourite with the Romans, who made it their capital of Aquitania, and left behind two historic gems. The Germanicus Arch (circa 18/19AD), is an imposing and well preserved monument dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus and adopted son Germanicus. It stands a short walk from the bustling city centre to the south bank of the Charente.
A little further out of town (and well worth a visit) is Saintes’ Roman amphitheatre, one of the biggest and best preserved in France. Once capable of accommodating crowds of up to 15,000, who came to see gladiators fight to the death, the structure is still clearly defined and wonderfully accessible to visitors.
The church of St Eutropus in Saintes, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, displays magnificent columns and carvings. Open daily from 9am to 7pm – entrance free.
History merges comfortably with the busy cafes, restaurants and shops in Saintes (www.saintes-tourisme.fr) which is also home to one of the best known music festivals in Europe (July).
To the north of Saintes is the magnificent Chateau de la Roche-Courbon in Saint-Porchaire worth a visit for the views of the building alone. What it lacks in fortifications it more than makes up in elegance and guided tours are available all year round. The chateau also features an exhibition of the prehistoric history of the area in the keep, prehistoric caves in the grounds, walks and gardens.(www.larochecourbon.fr)
From countryside to coastlines. Travel up the Charente-Maritime coast and you arrive at La Rochelle, a port with stunning harbour settings and a history as long as your arm. But is probably best know these days for the daredevil divers who fling themselves off the Saint Nicholas tower into the sea 90ft below.
The 2016 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series at La Rochelle attracted 70,000 people who packed the harbour area for the spectacle. A more sedate tour of the town, where 14 markets of one sort and another are held weekly, will reveal parks, spires and excellent restaurants.
If it’s sunshine, beautiful beaches and outdoor pursuits you are after then the Ile de Re (30km long and 5km wide) is the place to go. Linked by bridge to the mainland (toll 16€) it comprises ten villages, criss-crossed by cycle tracks and tailor made for the perfect family holiday.
Further south the pretty artisan village of Talmont-sur-Gironde was built in 1284 by Edward 1 of England. A member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The most beautiful villages of France) Association, it is home to the impressive and atmospheric 12-century church of St Radegonde, perched on the edge of a cliff.
Like its famous brandies, the more you explore the Charente regions the better they get. I am looking forward to revisiting for Exploring More in the future.
This trip was made travelling independently by car. At Exploring More we like to give credit where it’s due and provide information that may help other travellers plan ahead. We recommend the following travel companions.
Chilston Park Country House Hotel near Maidstone reserved through Booking.com. Our first stop en route to Charente-Maritime. Excellent value, a very comfortable Mews executive double room and great breakfast. Extra convenient for the Channel Tunnel.
Channel Tunnel: In spite of all the headlines the Channel Tunnel delivered another effortless and trouble free experience going there…and coming back.
Best Western Central Hotel – Tours: An overnight stop in France before taking our holiday property in Charente-Maritime. Good value at 86€ for the night and right in the centre of town.
Hotel d’Anjou – Angers: The return journey overnight stop in the wonderful city of Angers. The hotel was very handy for secure overnight parking and provided good accommodation near the centre of town.
- 2016 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series photograph with thanks to Red Bull