POITOU-CHARENTES A QUIET GEM
Home to chic resorts, this western region boasts thriving towns, mysterious wetlands and secluded hamlets, says Annaliza Davis
Halfway down the west coast of France, Poitou-Charentes (now part of the newly-formed super region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine) encompasses the departments of Deux-Sèvres in the northwest, Vienne in the northeast, Charente in the southeast, Charente-Maritime in the west; and is also home to the famed Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron islands.
Poitou-Charentes is easily accessible from the UK, enjoys lovely weather (2,400 hours of sunshine a year) and boasts great landscapes – a boon for holidaymakers – while the broad range of property types and prices is an undeniable draw for savvy house buyers.
SETTING THE SCENE
Much of Poitou-Charentes is frequently overlooked, despite being one of France’s sunniest regions. Tourists tend to pass it by or use it for a quick stopover, while others head straight to La Rochelle and miss the appealing towns and picturesque sunflower fields inland.
Poitiers is the largest city in the region, with a population of some 90,000 and a large university, as well as historic architecture and a nearby airport. Picturesque La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast is not much smaller and has a strong economy based on the food-processing industry, a robust tourist trade and, of course, plenty of water-sport opportunities. Niort (population 60,000) is famous as a headquarters of insurance, financial and consultancy firms, as well as the surrounding tree-lined wetlands known as ‘Green Venice’. Finally, Angoulême (population 40,000) offers terracotta rooftops, elegant architecture, and a fascinating trail of comic-strip artwork painted onto buildings.
BRANDY, OYSTERS AND MUCH MORE BESIDES
For more indulgent treats, a true regional speciality is tourteau fromagé, a yellow sponge cake that’s dome-shaped and blackened on the outside (it tastes better than it looks) or the broyé du Poitou, a large butter biscuit for sharing, which you break up by hitting it in the centre with your fist. Surprisingly effective!
Green Venice: Le Marais Poitevin
THE CHARACTER OF POITOU-CHARENTES
This region is generally relatively flat, with gently undulating hilly areas inland, and vineyards to the south; but each of the four departments in Poitou-Charentes has its own character.
The top spot for visitors is the coastal Charente-Maritime, where you’ll find the charming and lively streets of La Rochelle and the fabulously chic Île de Ré as well as Île d’Oléron and Île d’Aix. Away from the hubbub of the coast, towns and villages are more tranquil, rustic and, as such, far more affordable to move to. Charente is the generally quieter and unspoilt home of Angoulême, Cognac (and its liqueur), and pretty nooks such as Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, where you’ll find an unusual subterranean church.
Of the two northern departments, Vienne’s biggest tourist attraction is Futuroscope, a vast theme park outside Poitiers, but the area also includes several castles and many villages filled with heritage sites. Finally, in the Deux-Sèvres, you’ll find most of the ‘Green Venice’ waterways, sleepy villages, acres of sunflower fields, as well as the busy town of Niort.
THE CLIMATE: WARM SUMMERS, MILD WINTERS
The mild oceanic climate of Poitou-Charentes brings long, warm summers, making it precisely the destination many of us are looking for! However, there’s considerable disparity between the coast and inland or higher zones, and great seasonal variation. The region can reach highs of over 36°C but Poitiers and Cognac can drop to -10°C.
PROPERTIES: AN OVERVIEW
Here, the big contrast is between large, lively cities such as Poitiers or Angoulême offering activity all year round, and the vast, open stretches of countryside. Sleepy villages seem pleasantly peaceful in the summer, but can feel remote and isolated off-season. Your choice will be affected by personal preference but also practical considerations such as the need for an income or access to schools, shops and airports.
You’ll find many cheaper properties that need renovating, particularly in rural locations, and many homes come with several acres of land and outbuildings. But you must be realistic about the time, cost and work involved in such projects.
Be sure not to buy on a whim when it’s sunny, without considering how it’ll look in winter. At the very least, drive back and see it in the dark: if you fall for a property on a rainy, grey day, imagine how much you’ll adore it in honeyed sunshine!
COULD MY HOUSE PURCHASE PROVIDE AN INCOME?
Your best bets for an investment property in Poitou-Charentes would be either a city apartment, somewhere with B&B potential or a gîte business. Naturally, city apartments need to be accessible for holidaymakers or students, while your B&B should have tourist appeal, whether that’s in a city or the countryside. Gîte businesses tend to be more rural and remote; although Futuroscope, one of France’s top theme parks, attracts around 1.8 million visitors a year to the area north of Poitiers and a tourist-orientated business in this area could be very lucrative.
DOES THE POITOU-CHARENTES REGION OFFER HOUSES UNDER €100,000?
It’s certainly possible to find properties for under €100,000 – and indeed under €50,000 in this region – particularly if you were to focus your search around, for example, Confolens, inland in north Charente. You’ll no doubt get more for your money there than in the more expensive coastal areas or the cities – which is good news if you’re looking for seclusion and quiet.
Île de Ré: Super-chic island life
Some islands are peopled with sturdy workers braving the tempests, but on Île de Ré, cod generally comes ready-filleted from a quaint fishmongers. The island doesn’t suffer from Monaco glitz but it’s a favourite destination for well-off Parisians and you sense that this is their edited version of island life. There are dunes, beaches, salt marshes and markets, but everything is so elegant that you suspect it takes hours for holidaymakers to achieve their casual look as they glide by on basket-fronted bikes. Whatever your opinion, it is an unforgettable place to visit.
There is no shortage of transport links, thanks to international airports not only in Poitiers, but also La Rochelle, Limoges and Angoulême-Cognac; while train connections from Paris bring you to Poitiers in just one and a half hours. By car, Poitiers is six hours from Calais (Angoulême or La Rochelle, seven hours), and around four hours from Saint-Malo (Angoulême, five hours; La Rochelle four hours).
WHAT ARE THE MAIN PROPERTY TYPES IN POITOU-CHARENTES?