The castles and ancient fortified chateaux of Charente make a visit to this area a rich source of pleasure for lovers of history, art and architecture.
Two of the most famous buildings are Chateaux de la Rochefoucauld on the River Tardoise - so beautiful it is known as the ‘pearl of the Angoumois’ and the castle in Cognac where one of France’s most famous kings, Francis I, was born in 1494 and where Richard the Lionheart gave his daughter in marriage.
Now known as Chateau de Cognac, the latter has been the base for Distillerie Otard for 200 years and fascinating tours here combine royal history - see where English prisoners carved graffiti during the 100 Years War - with the history of the famous brandy including tastings.
Chateau de Balzac, built in 1600 close to the River Charente entertained Marie de Medicis and Richelieu as guests of French author Guez de Balzac (not to be confused with later writer Honore of the same name).
Chateau de Bayers is a fully restored twelfth and fifteenth century castle and Chateau de Peyras in Roumazieres-Loubert is worth a visit for its armoury - the Black Prince is said to have stopped there during the 100 Years War. Dominating the town of Chalais, the massive castle of Talleyrand-Perigord still has a working drawbridge.
The Charente region has been well known for centuries, producing grapes for France’s famous cognac. Since 1999, the owners have transplanted vines such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Colombard. Joel and Jean Luc Metayer provide tours and wine-tasting sessions. For more information tel: (00 33) 5 45 97 05 46
If you are seeking adventure, why not try the Aventure Parc at Massignac, on the shores of the lake at Mas Chaban. There are 4 courses of increasing difficulty where you can move from tree to tree using a variety of rope bridges, taggle ropes and aerial runways. There are 63 activities in the air in total.
For the more hardy of you, there is bungee jumping and for the under 8’s there is a mini park. All equipment is supplied and the activities are supervised. Snack bar and picnic areas on-site. For more information contact: (00 33) 5 45 24 07 43 or visit: www.aventure-parc.fr/lachautecharente
One of the best preserved and largest group of Gallo-Roman thermal baths in Europe can be found at Chassenon. After the conquest of Gaul, the Romans relied upon a network of ancient roads. This site is on one of these routes and the thermal sanctuary welcomed large numbers of people taking the waters. There are pools, a vast network of aqueducts, and hot and cold chambers. For more information contact: (00 33) 5 45 89 32 31.
The tumbling waters which feed into the River Charente from local streams and rivers are ideal for canoeing and kayaking. There are routes on Rivers Charente, Touvre, Dronne, Vienne and Boeme with main bases at Angouleme, Ruffec, Montignac-Charente and Aubeterre.
All the family can have a go at Montbron on the Tardoire or at Aubeterre on the Dronne, but a type of rafting known as ‘radelage’ practised on the Vienne is probably best left to those with some previous expertise.
The clubs at Jarnac and Angouleme hold prominent competitions such as the men’s pairs slalom and Jarnac has a school. Navigable rivers are graded and the Federation Francaise de Canoe-Kayak can give information on rivers and where guides are needed. Visit www.ffck.org
The department of Charente has 600km of rivers for trout and other first category fishing and 900km of second category coarse fishing rivers.
The department also has 265 hectares of ponds and lakes such as Lake Lavaud which allows shore fishing only for pike, perch, bream and pumpkin seed sunfish and Lake Mas Chaban which offers shore fishing only for pike, roach, perch, tench and carp. Both lakes are second category.
Permits are required and day permits are usually available. There is also night fishing for carp on Mas Chaban. The website of the Fish Federation of the Charente has more information but it is in French.
Tall white cliffs rising from woods of tall evergreen surround the Valley of Eaux Claires making it a favourite spot for climbers.
Chose from about 400 different routes - mainly short finger crack climbs - catering for beginners through to the more highly experienced. With climbs ranging from grades 3 - 9, the ‘great roof’ at 9A provides a formidable challenge.
Information (in French) is available on grades, training and availability of guides from the Federation Francaise de la Montagne et de l’Escalade (FFME).
Gardeners will find plenty to enjoy in the department of Charente. If you have an allotment, you may be interested to see what vegetables were available in France 800 years ago by visiting the reconstructed monastery garden at Tusson.
Another medieval garden of raised beds can be found beside the twelfth century church at Dignac and there’s an opportunity to buy old species of plants and vegetables at the Bandiat Gardens at Souffrignac.
Not surprisingly, water features prominently in many Charentais gardens. The arboretum of over 3,000 species at the Chene Vert, Chabanais is built around the River Vienne and the area of peat bogs and waterways on the River Osme at Saint-Fraigne is used as the setting for ephemeral gardens designed by ‘up and coming’ landscape gardeners.
The castle at La Rochefoucauld displays a collection of over 700 roses and perennials in a more traditional setting, whilst the botanical park of the Bois du Signe at Mansle is home to the fuschia collection of Louis XIV’s botanist, Charles Plumier.
Visitors using Charente’s rivers and streams will notice many old watermills dotting the river banks. The water quality proved ideal for grain milling and paper making in the past. Angouleme vellum was exported all over Europe in the seventeenth century with barges on the River Charente on hand to transport the finished products.
Moulin a papier de Fleurac still uses hemp, flax and cotton in eighteenth century processes and Moulin a papier du Verger in Puymoyen has been a working paper mill since 1589. Both are open to the public and the latter is now listed as a historic monument.
There’s bread baking on site at Moulin Neuf d’Echoisy, part of a site demonstrating rural life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the flour mill at Montbron has educational workshops. Many mills also produced oil and seventeenth century Moulin de la Chaume at St-Germain-de-Monbron on the River Bandiat still makes walnut oil from customers’ own fruit.
To find out more on this fascinating aspect of traditional Charentais life, visit the mill museum at Moulin de la Forge, Rancogne.
This pottery workshop provides individually hand made pieces, enamelling and pottery “cooked in the campfire” on site. Store opened every day from May till September. For more information contact: (00 33) 5 45 22 55 62