Rent Gites, Bed and Breakfast
About the Region and What To Do
The Charente is probably best known for Cognac which takes its name from the town surrounded by the vineyards which have been producing this amber liquid since the 18th Century. Names like Martell arrived from Jersey and Hennessy from Ireland. The historic town of Cognac is entered via a 15th Century gateway with towers. The impressive Chateau de Valois where Francois 1st was born in 1494 still bears traces of the British prisoners who were incarcerated there towards the end of the 18th Century.
Scattered throughout the Charente are almost 400 Romanesque churches. Often modest and surrounded by fields, there are equally some impressive edifices as well as over 160 listed monuments including Châteaux ranging from the Gallo Roman period to the 19th century. The Chateau de Roche Foucauld, referred to as the ‘Perle d’Angoumois’ is perched on a rock overlooking the Tardoire and is an imposing sight. The town also has a very pretty Carmelite convent with a superb 14th century gothic cloister amongst other medieval buildings.
From April to November it is possible to visit cognac producers. Cognac is distilled from white wine and matured in oak casks for years to obtain its distinctive flavour. The area also produces the aperitif 'Pineau de Charente', said to have been developed to use up the surplus Cognac grapes, since the production is strictly controlled. This mixture of Charente grape juice and local cognac can be white, red or rosé. Besides these delightful temptations, the region grows the delicious Charentais Melons and the ubiquitous snail known in the Charente as ‘cagouilles' while elsewhere they may be called ‘lumas’.
The pretty medieval town of Confolens, with its half-timbered buildings is set on the banks of the River Vienne. Many of the roofs are black as a result of the fungus living on the Cognac casks. The Charente is a green and lush department which owes its vegetation to the Atlantic influence, and yet benefits from a sunny and temperate climate. The Charente River is navigable from Angouleme to Rochefort and offers boating enthusiasts 147 km's of waterways, without the need of a license, whilst 1,600 km's of rivers, lakes and ponds provide a vast choice for the fishing fraternity, whether they seek trout or carp.
Angoulême, the main town of the department has impressive ramparts with panoramic views of the town and the Charente Valley. Amongst the many buildings of architectural interest is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, an exceptional example of a Romanesque cathedral. This is one of many churches in the region which featured in the route of the pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela. The west façade is famous for the carvings of seventy-five biblical figures illustrating the Ascension and the Last Judgement. Many old houses date from the 16 and 18th centuries and only two towers remain on the town hall, once the castle of the count. There are five museums, one of which is the only one of its kind in France engaged in the promotion of comics and there is an annual comic exhibition.
The Dordogne varies depending on where one is. To the north, the area has the greenness, as well as the rainfall, of the Limousin. To the north-east, beyond Périgueux, there is a heath-like plateau that is a transition to the harsher surfaces of the Corrèze. To the south, the thick woodlands merge unobtrusively into the Quercy, while below Bergerac the gentle landscape melts into the areas to the south. To the east, the oaks gradually yield to the pines that characterise the Gironde region, while to the north-east the landscape rolls up into the open expanse of the Charente.
The result is a variety of landscapes. The combination of sand and limestone produces a golden stone in the Périgord Noir, which gives a particular warmth to the buildings, and reminds English visitors of the Cotswolds. Elsewhere in the region, the stone is a variety of greys.
From east to west, the Dordogne measures about 100 kilometres and is one of the most densely wooded, with 40% covered by woodland. The main activity is agriculture. The largest town is Périgueux, with a population of some 30,000. The population of the department as a whole, at about 380,000, is scarcely changed from fifty years ago.
High hills and dense woodlands are cut through by the Vézère and Dordogne rivers. The Vézère winds its way between the hillsides, providing some dramatic settings.
The Dordogne river is a more majestic affair altogether, flowing through a broad valley perfect for agriculture. Drama is provided by the rocky outcrops at the edge: the Château de Beynac towers above the river at one point, while, a few kilometres beyond, La Roque-Gageac huddles between the steep cliffs and the water.
Sarlat, is a small town with a population just below 10,000. Its ancient buildings have been extensively restored, and the town exists mainly on tourism, promoted by a series of festivals: two days of rock music in April, a little over two weeks of theatre in July and August, and a week of film in November. During the summer months Sarlat is thronged with well-heeled tourists. Outside the season it goes happily to sleep.
The Double forest covers an extensive area between Ribérac and Montpon to the southwest, and there are wooded hillsides to the north of the Isle valley, but in general this part of the Dordogne does not feel overwooded, partly because the lower hills provide farmers with more agricultural land, opening up the landscape, and partly because of the distinctive quality of the light. Although more than a hundred kilometres from the coast, there is a luminosity reminiscient of coastal regions, which is much loved by artists, and explains why so many have chosen this part in which to settle. The climate is also warmer and drier than other parts, although winters can still be very cold.
Essentially rural, the western Dordogne is characterised by small villages and market towns. Some of the villages to the north are dominated by fortified churches, dating from the time of the Hundred Years War, and now largely disused. The English have been moving in for three decades, and you are as likely to hear English in the streets of Ribérac and Verteillac as you are French. Further south, the English invasion has been encouraged by accessibility to Bergerac's airport, Roumanières.
Mareuil up to Nontron and across to Thiviers the region is different again, characterised by higher ground and a wetter climate, more than a metre of rainfall each year. Extensive woodlands and fields surrounded by hedgerows create an intensity of greens that explain why the writer Jules Verne first called it the Périgord Vert. The luxuriant vegetation creates a feeling of enclosure and remoteness. The region's rivers; the Dronne, the Bandiat, the Côle and the Isle - are here at their smallest, and have not cut out the wider valleys that can be found further south.
The main town, Nontron, has a mere 3,500 inhabitants. The area is probably the most underdeveloped in the Dordogne, but for lovers of rural life, far from cities, it has much to offer, and a number of English have happily settled here. A town of any size will be at least an hour's drive away, Nontron is 45 kilometres from Angoulême, 50 from Périgueux. If the Périgord Noir looks southwards to the Quercy and the Lot, the Périgord Vert looks north to the Limousin, the distance from Nontron to Limoges, a town of greater size than any of those in the Dordogne or the Charente, is 68 kilometres.