The Charente is one of four départements making up the Poitou-Charente region, together with Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne. Situated in the south of the region, just one département away from the Atlantic coast, the climate is mild and temperate, with a countryside that moves from vineyards and fields to rolling hills and forests, with hills and gorges in the east and south together with many rivers and lakes which provide the backbone to the region.
The Poitou-Charente is one of France’s most prolific regions for megaliths and archaeological sites and it has also been subject to many changes of political and dynastical allegiance over the centuries. On the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henri Plantagenêt (Henri II of England) in 1133 they united England, Aquitaine, Anjou and Normandy under a single rule, serving as an underlying cause of the Hundred Years’ War two centuries later.
The region has one of the richest heritages of Romanesque art and there are many ‘must see’ monuments and buildings including Angoulême’s Cathedral St Pierre, the towering belfry at Lesterps Abbey, the murals at Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, the west front of Church St Jacques at Aubeterre and the magnificent château at La Rochefoucauld to name just a few.
The Charentais are traditionally considered by the rest of France as laidback (and some unkind souls may even say lazy) and one of the region’s symbols is the snail. They are often stereotyped by their most famous products – Cognac and the Charentaise slipper, however with almost all his food products available fresh from the rivers, fields, the nearby Atlantic or woods, the Charentais is mostly content with his lot.
Within the département there are six Pays de Charente plus the capital Angoulême (where 65% of the region’s population live within the environs) and these separate ‘countries’ make sightseeing day trips easy to plan. The six areas all have distinctive features and each one has plenty to see and do through the year.
Angoulême and Entre Touvre et Charente
With excellent transport links, a wealth of history plus the annual international comic strip festival, Angoulême attracts visitors from around the world. Established by royal charter in 1204, the city has grown from a 10th century castle on top of a rock overlooking the Charente river and now extends down into the river valley itself – an impressive sight from the old town walls. The Entre Touvre et Charente area to the north of the city encompasses the aerodrome as well as areas redeveloped for commerce such as Gond-Pontouvre where large shops and outlets cover a hillside.
West Charente is dominated by Cognac, the second largest city of the region and one of the most popular tourist destinations in France, and of course the landscape is dominated by the vines which follow the contours across the countryside providing beautiful scenery all year round.
The South Charente has had many different inhabitants over thousands of years from Romans and Vikings to Spanish Saracens; the monolithic church at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne adds to the beauty and interest of this village classed as ‘one of the most beautiful in France’. In the north of the area, Barbezieux is in the heart of Petite Champagne country and surrounded by châteaux, chapels and Romanesque abbeys for your itinerary.
Horte et Tardoire
This lush district lies just 20km east of Angoulême and was named for the forest of Horte and the Tardoire river. It encompasses two charming towns Montbron to the north-east and Villebois-Lavalette to the south-west, as well as La Rochefoucauld, and stretches from the Périgord up to the Charente Limousine.
The Vienne and its streams make this area very popular with anglers and water sports enthuiasts alike, with many activities taking place on and around the Lacs de Haute Charente. With it bordering on the Limousin, it is no surprise that both the Limousin and Périgourdin dialects are still spoken here and Confolens provides a focus for the area so that with the many medieval churches and buildings there is plenty to see and do.
In the north of the Charente bordering on the Vienne, the countryside links both the rolling hills of the Charente-Limousine and the vines and open contours of the Ouest-Charente. Eight villages in this district appear in the list of the most charming in France, and with three main rivers and their streams, the area is also popular with anglers and canoeists.