The Charente in Winter
Celebrating the uncelebrated
The Charente is a peculiar region, often victim of falling between surrounding regions and being akin to neither one nor the other. Aficionados have long learnt to view it as a gem in its own right and to embrace all that it offers, and at all times of the year
The fact is it remains a firm favourite with lovers of the underdog and fans of the unflashy. It may not have the largest, most dramatic and shoutiest of attractions but it is celebrated for what it is, not for what it isn’t.
Indeed local folklore has it that when God finished his exalted work creating the stupendous châteaux of the Loire Valley, he then chilled out by scattering the Charente with a selection of smaller castles. These are all the more beguiling than their magnificent northern cousins; less well known, more understated. They are certainly less crowded with tourists.
Setting the scene
The Charente department is in the southern Poitou-Charentes region (now part of the Nouvelle Aquitaine since the recent re-classifications). The wider region sits broadly south of the Loire Valley and north of Bordeaux, nudging borders with the northernmost Dordogne (Périgord Vert).
So all too often visitors will drive straight through, intent on getting to the coast, or fixated with immersing themselves in the heart of the Dordogne to the south
Away from the coast, inland Charente is a peaceful region with much to offer and plenty of cultural experiences. Naturally there is no dependence on the seasonal attractions of the sea and the beach to entice tourists so it is the picturesque little villages, the lesser known castles and intriguing abbeys that draw in the visitors. Out of season it is a paradise for walkers and cyclists, offering gently rolling countryside with big views and bucolic surroundings.
The weekly markets are blissfully devoid of tourists and the winter brocantes, flea markets selling all kinds of bric à brac and ephemera, seem to be stocked with quirky little curios, not tourist tat.
Angoulême The town is often passed by but has an attractive centre and lots of historical interest. The Sunday market is a real winter treat, especially as the café on the main square is usually open (along with the patisserie!).
Poitiers The regional capital is full of history, oh-so-French boulevards and cosy cafés for chocolat chaud. Nearby Futuroscope is a hyper-modern theme park of the moving image – action rides, vast screen cinemas and lots of technology. There’s always something to inspire and surprise here.
La Rochelle In winter or summer, the historic centre of this elegant city is delightful, and the port area is a bustling place of an evening with the 14th century St Nicolas tower standing sentinel over the Vieux Port.
Ile de Ré Across the bridge lies this little island, famed for its white sand beaches and scores of Parisians who flock here in summer. In winter this island haven is full of charm and not full of tourists. Ars-en-Ré and La Flotte-en-Ré are two of France’s ‘most beautiful villages’ – and that’s all year round!
Ile d’Oléron Just to the south, this larger island is low lying and famed for its oysters.
La Rochefoucauld A charming town with its own château (hardly one of France’s most majestic and no less appealing for that) and a little cobbled stone bridge over the river.
Cognac Connoisseurs and non-believers alike are drawn to Cognac with its startling white stone buildings and whiff of romance. Who can fail to be moved by the notion of the ‘Angel’s Share’, the small percentage of brandy that is lost forever through evaporation and which disappears in the skies above the town.
Marais Poitevin This is a strangely beautiful, and often eerie, place. A watery network of canals and waterways that thread through the marshes, it is ideally explored by hiring a small boat.