Visitors to Charentes will be blown away by its charms – but leave the brandy tasting until after lunch
“Roll up, roll up – welcome to the town where Rizla cigarette papers were invented,” it should read on the road signs outside Angouleme, but doesn’t.
Perched on a plateau overlooking a bend in the Charente river, 130km north-east of Bordeaux (35 minutes by the fastest trains), the town has other, less dubious claims to fame.
Its international comic books festival – all the street names are in cartoon speech bubbles – and the Circuit des Remparts classic cars rally have been crowd-pullers for decades.
Thirty-odd giant permanent murals of superheroes, other comic-strip characters including Tintin and Asterix, and scenes from history provide a walking trail for lovers of graphic art, guided by a free multilingual app.
In the treasury of Saint Pierre Cathedral, an extraordinary installation of coloured Murano glass by French contemporary artist Jean-Michel Othoniel has me mesmerised; so much so, it takes a combination of the caretaker jangling her keys and a gastric grumbling from my midriff to remind me the visit is over and Sunday lunch awaits.
The 19th-century Marche des Halles is the culinary and social heart of Angouleme, and among the stalls offering fresh local produce are several streetfood-style bars with seating areas. At busy periods, affect a bad back and a sympathetic teenager might slide along a bench and let you in – it works everywhere for me.
In Place New York, a plaque tells visitors that in 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed into the mouth of the Hudson during a voyage bankrolled by King Francis I (portraits show the French monarch had the head off Henry VIII – a fella who knew a thing or two about heads off).
The name that Verrazzano gave to the surrounding land didn’t stick, or US musician Gerard Kenny’s 1979 hit would have been called Nouvelle-Angouleme, Nouvelle-Angouleme (So Good They Named It Twice), which isn’t so easy to sing.
Wes Anderson’s 2021 movie The French Dispatch (see it on Disney+), which pays homage to The New Yorker magazine, was filmed in Angouleme and helped tourist numbers bounce back last year to pre-Covid levels.
For that reason, locals have forgiven the director’s joke in renaming their town Ennui-sur-Blasé (Boredom-On-Apathy) on screen. It helped too that Saoirse Ronan, who appears as a curly-wigged showgirl, sings France’s favourite lullaby, A La Claire Fontaine, to the kidnapped young son of the police chief.
In the four-star Le Saint Gelais hotel, staff remember the stars who stayed there as “tres charmant” – and big tippers – and autographed photos of Adrien Brody, Benicio del Toro, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Willem Dafoe, among others, adorn the walls.
Formerly the diocesan house, it’s a cosy first-night layover on my tour of Charentes in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region that proceeds to Cognac before ending in La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast.
Self-exiled Corkman Richard Hennessy established his liquor-making business in Cognac in 1765 after retiring from service with the Clare Regiment of the Irish Brigade in Louis XV’s army, and the family name is now synonymous worldwide with excellence.
Among the brand’s fans was James Bond. In the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 007 (George Lazenby) survives a bobsleigh crash unscathed – he was shaken, not stirred – and tells a playful St Bernard dog to stop messing and “go and get the brandy. Five-star Hennessy, of course”.
A tasting tour of the riverside distillery is best left until after lunch as they pour with abandon – when you sell 70 million bottles a year, you can afford to be generous with the measures.
It’s a mere hop, skip and a slight stagger from Hennessy’s stone archway entrance to where the sightseeing boat La Demoiselle awaits passengers for a lazy 90 minutes on the water.
Although early October, it’s sunglasses and T-shirt weather as a kingfisher whizzes along a stretch of riverbank, its iridescent blue and orange plumage like petrol in a puddle.
A heron stands so still it appears stuffed, and will be after plucking its fill of minnows from the shallows. Fortunately for the mallards squabbling nearby, their young, which hatched in the summer, are now too big a beakful for herons, which are partial to a duckling dinner.
A cabin cruiser like those for hire on Lough Erne and the Shannon glides past, with a French family enjoying a mid-afternoon meal on deck.
Cognac is one of three bases on the slow-flowing Charente where no-experience-needed captains and crews can board their floating accommodation for a weekend or longer on the 170 navigable kilometres from Angouleme to Rochefort, where the river meets the sea.
It’s on that sea a few hours later that I go for an evening cruise out of La Rochelle with skipper Bertrand de Rancourt on his 14-metre yacht, Kelone, and as dusk descends we’re treated to the most glorious sunset.
(One of my travelling buddies was so impressed by the spectacle that he booked flights and a hotel to return with his partner the following weekend as a birthday treat.)
La Rochelle, where the Nazis established a U-boat base, has been no stranger to invasions down the centuries, and was the last French city liberated by the Allies at the end of World War II.
These days, the invaders are year-round tourists with taste and wealthy Parisians who own most of the €1m-plus waterfront apartments to which they decamp for the summer.
The main visitor attractions are the Saint Nicolas Tower, the Chain Tower and the Lantern Tower, which guard the entrance to the inner harbour and together are listed as a national monument. Paris has the Eiffel, but these three beautiful big bruisers are an eyeful.
A wander around the main market will provide all the charcuterie, cheese and fresh-from-the-oven baguettes you’ll need for a picnic lunch on a bench by the beach – or try a few fat oysters that were harvested that morning.
In the evening, a stroll through the narrow streets of the historical centre where German jackboots used to stomp offers endless opportunities to dine on a bistro terrace and reflect on time spent experiencing France at its friendliest and most photogenic.
Passing a bus stop on my way to late bar La Calhutte for some last-night pints, I notice seven numbers in big coloured circles, like lottery balls, on the timetable and jot them down to add to my EuroMillions slip. Never ignore an omen.
To date, they’ve cost me nearly €130 and yielded a grand total of zilch (ignore omens), but when they do come up I’ll celebrate by opening a bottle of brandy – five-star Hennessy, of course – and calling round all the estate agents in Charentes.
Flights: Ryanair (ryanair.com) has seasonal flights from Dublin to Bordeaux (from €19.99 one way) and La Rochelle (from €24.99).
Hotels: Angouleme: 4* Hotel Le Saint Gelais (hotel-saint-gelais-angouleme.com, standard room for two from €115). La Rochelle: 3* Hotel Saint Nicolas (hotel-saint-nicolas.com/fr, from €230).
Restaurants: Angouleme: Les Sources de Fontbelle (sourcesdefontbelle.com); Marche des Halles (marche-halles.fr); La Cour (restaurant-lacour.com); Le Jardin des Arceaux, Hotel Mercure (restaurantsandbars.accor.com); Cognac: Le Bistro de Claude (bistro-de-claude.com). La Rochelle: La Yole de Chris (christophercoutanceau.com); L’Ardoise des Cloutiers (lardoise-des-cloutiers.fr).
Hennessy distillery visit: Tour and tasting from €15. See hennessy.com
Sunset cruise La Rochelle: Three-hour private charter prices for one to 11 people range from €360 to €480 (with full complement, from €32.72 each). See kelone.fr
More information: See angouleme-tourisme.com, atlantic-cognac.com, tourism-cognac.co.uk, holidays-la-rochelle.co.uk
NB: Tom was a guest of Atout France