Tourist attractions and what to do and see in Angoulême and its historic centre
Fall for the attractions of Angoulême’s winding streets, historic buildings and shopping. If you’re a tourist and visting for the first time, don’t be put off by the sprawling industrial zone that surrounds the Charente capital. Ignore the huge pre-fabricated buildings and garish signs on the plain and continue climbing until you reach the centre ville. As you will discover, the mood is very different up here with winding cobbled streets of the old quarter and, from the ancient city walls, magnificent views across the valley, the river Charente glistening in the sunshine. It has plenty of tourist attractions and things to see and do.
Walk around the town and you can trace its history. It dates back to the first century but became politically and historically important during the late Middle Ages. It was during this time that the city walls, called Les Ramparts were first built, as well as St Pierre Cathedral whose spire can be seen from miles around.
It has seen its fair share of battles, being at the heart of the struggle for power between the French and English during the 14th century and then during the French Wars of Religion two hundred years later. During the 18th and 19th centuries the many papermaking mills (now all but disappeared) brought the town great wealth. Today, reminders of these past days can be found in the older medieval style buildings and grander mansion with beautiful facades and thick wooden doors.
Also look out for something more modern – the 20 or so walls decorated with cartoon-style murals by a variety of artists and the 1000 or so street name plaques in the form of a speech bubbles. Angoulême is world-renowned amongst creators and fans of this creative medium, and hosts the Comic Strip festival every January.
A good place to start your exploration of the old part of the town is Les Halles, the covered market that’s an excellent example of 19th century metal work, with ornate scroll work curling around the roof and walls. Inside are stalls selling fresh produce from cheeses to meat, seafood and fresh fruit and vegetables. If you want to see the market at its bustling best, make sure you go in the morning. (Near the market is the tourist office where you can pick up a leaflet, in English, with a map of the old town including explanations of local torist attractions, what to see and where to find it.)
More shops and cafés can be found in and around Rue des Postes that leads to Place F Louvel, just past the town hall. Make sure you buy some brightly coloured macaroons or canellés (small pastries with a custard centre), both local specialities.
WHAT TO SEE
The view: walk along les Remparts for a view of the Charente valley. The best vistas are found from Rempart du Midi up to Place Beaulieu. St Pierre Cathedral: an impressive example of Romanesque architecture, whose spire can be seen from miles around. Originally built in the 12th century, seven hundred years later, Paul Abadie who designed the basilica of Paris’ Sacré-Coeur cathedral, added the two towers. It is most famous, though, or its detailed 12 century facade – make sure you see the depiction of the Last Judgement..
Cordelier’s Chapel: dating back to the 14th century, in the nave is the 350 year-old tomb of Jean-Louis-Guez de Balzac, one of France’s most celebrated writers, who was born in Angoulême.
Musée de la bande dessinée: devoted to the art of the comic strip – the annual festival on the subject is held every January in Angoulême – and its impact on the world, both culturally and politically, this is arguably Angoulême’s most famous museum. The musuem collection contains 8,000 original drawings and over 110,000 magazines, and as well as information on France’s comic heroes, including Tin Tin and Asterix, there are exhibitions of comics from around the world including the Marvel Comics and Japanese manga. Quai de la Charente; tel 05 17 17 31 00; www.citebd.org
Musée D’Angoulême: After years of planning, the museum recently underwent a â‚¬6.8 million facelift with the addition of a new wing, at the same time changing its name from Musée des Beaux-Arts to the grander Museum of Angoulême. Over three floors plus the crypt, it covers archaeology, artefacts from the Maghreb, Africa and Oceania, French paintings and sculpture from the 16th to 20th centuries plus the complete reconstruction of a 19th century salon, down to the carved panelling and parquet floor. 1 rue Friedland, Square Girard II, côté jardin; tel 05 45 95 79 88; La Musée d’Angoulême
Le Nil Paper Museum: Joseph-Bardou manufactured the famous ‘Le Nil’ cigarette papers (hence its name), and this museum which shows the history of the paper history both locally (Rizla had a factory here) and around the world is housed in his former paper mill. 134, rue de Bordeaux; tel 05 45 92 73 43
Musee de la Resistance et de la Deportation: the story of the French resistance during WWII both locally and nationally, using real life stories, documents and maps. 34, rue de Genève; tel 05 45 38 76 87; http://musee.delaresistance.free.fr/ It is now part of the local archives department and is not always open to the public; it’s best to give them a call first before visiting.
Vintage cars: during the third weekend of September, the old town is given over to vintage cars from all over the world who compete in Circuit des Remparts, fondly known as ‘Monaco without the sea’. A series of races is held over three days within the town and is great fun with loads of atmosphere. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the event – expect plenty of revving! www.circuit-des-remparts.com
WHAT TO DO AND SEE NEAR ANGOULÊME:
Cognac: The medieval town of Cognac with its narrow cobbled streets that are a mix of medieval stone as well as more elegant Renaissance facades. By the river are the many chais, old warehouses that have for many hundreds years stored barrels of maturing cognac, and through which you can take a guided tour.
Saintes: on the river Charente, is known for its Roman remains including a vast amphitheatre built for gladiatorial combats, and busy Monday market.
La Rochefoucauld château: in the town of the same name is this striking chateau. The oldest part of the castle dates back to the year 980 but much of it was rebuilt in the 11th and 18th centuries, the solid Romanesque square in sharp contrast to the fairytale-style turrets and elegant cloisters. As well as the dungeon, original kitchen and some living rooms – the latter containing family photos of the La Rochefoucauld family who still own the château. On the top floor is a dressing up room where children and adults can don garments from medieval times. Open all year round, every day except Tuesdays. Tel 05 45 62 07 42;
Villebois-Lavalette: a town set on a hill and dominated by a feudal castle first built in the 10th century – it is still possible to see the chapel, outer walls and round towers from this period. As with many castles in this area, it was added to over the following 300 years and from the top of this part of the castle you get fantastic views of the Dordogne valley. Open daily (closed for lunch) from May to September. Tel: 05 45 64 71 58 Also worth a look are the 300-year old market halls of this town that are some of the loveliest – and oldest – in this part of the world. Built in 1665, the oak roof rests on stone columns and the flagstones of the sloping floor have been trodden on for many centuries. Market day is on Saturday, with stalls selling local produce including honey, bread and oysters.
Tusson: the medieval village of Tusson is famous of being the place where Marguerite d’Angoulême, the sister of King of Francois 1st and known for her political influence and literary work, lived after she withdrew from court. The village’s houses, a mix of medieval and Renaissance, have been restored, and it’s also known for its pretty medieval garden growing vegetables, flowers, herbs and fruit.
Restored mills: the river Charente has long been an important part of life here, both as a means of transport as an energy source. Not car from Angoulême is the Horte-et-Tardoire valley where are a number of mills that have been restored to working use.
Paper: The Charente was once the epicentre of paper-making in France with the mills of Angoulême and its surrounds working continually to transform linen, cotton and hemp into paper and vellum that was used for official government documents and to make banknotes. Today the industry has all but disappeared although there are a couple of mills still making paper the traditional way with the paper used in the restoration of old books and documents. One is the Moulin Papier du Verger, Puymoyen, which has been a mill since 1589. The other, Moulin de Fleurac, is at Nersac on the banks of the Charente river which dates back to the 17th century. Both are listed historic monuments. Moulin Ã Papier du Verger is open Monday-Friday, between 4pm-6pm; tel 05 45 61 10 38 ; www.moulinduverger.com Moulin de Fleurac is open all the year although times vary; tel 05 45 91 50 69; www.moulin-de-fleurac.com
Moulins de Menet and de Chabrot, Montbron: both date back to the 19th century, making different kinds of flour. Today you can buy flour from both, and the Moulin de Chabrot bakes its own bread.
Moulin de la Chaume, St-Germain-de-Montbron: on the Bandiat river, this 17th century mill produces walnut and hazelnut oil as well as stoneground flour.
Moulin de la Pierre, Vilhonneur: the only mill in France to cut limestone using hydraulic energy.
Arboretum Jean Aubouin du Clédou: Created by the botanist in 1932, it stretches over 10 hectares. Take the trail created by the Office National des Forêts to see trees from almost 40 countries including the giant sequoia. La Mothe-Clédou, tel: 05 45 64 71 58
Tourist office: 7 bis rue du Chat, Place des Halles; tel 05 45 95 16 84 www.Angoulême-tourisme.com
Where to eat: search restaurants and cafés in Angoulême.
Travel: Poitiers airport is about an hours drive away. The TGV from Paris takes between 90 minutes and two hours.