What to see and do in Angouleme, Charente, France

Written by on May 23, 2019 in Poitou-Charentes

Woman sits on a bench admiring a wall mural in Angouleme in Charente, France

Angoulême is located on a limestone plateau overlooking the Charente River. Thanks to its perched position, the city is nicknamed the “balcony of the southwest” France. When you stand at its edge looking over the surrounding countryside – you’ll know exactly how it got that name.

Its location has always made it highly coveted, the Romans, taking it for themselves, fortified the hilltop town against would be conquerors and it’s certainly had a turbulent past.

Nowadays, it has a vibrant, dynamic feel. It’s the capital of the department of Charente in the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine (formerly Poitou-Charentes) and there’s plenty to keep visitors happy.

Wandering in Angoulême

In Angouleme, a wide avenue flanked by tall trees offers stunning views from its hilltop perch

The upper town of Angouleme is a great place to wander, with plenty to see and do – though it is hilly. It’s quite different from the lower part and has more to offer tourists.

There are elegant squares, tinkling fountains and grand buildings. Styles range from medieval to Renaissance and it’s got a rather Parisian look in some parts with a neo-classical style. It’s not that surprising really as Angoulême got a makeover in the 19th century from Paul Abadie, the French architect and restorer whose work included the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Paris.

The view from the city walls over the surrounding countryside really brings it home to you that this is very much a city within the countryside.

From the ramparts in 1801, 72 year old local man and keen inventor, General Resnier marked a milestone. He became the first (authorised) man to achieve significant flight with wings. Leaping out from the Esplanade de Beaulieu, he managed to fly 300m before crash landing below, a plaque marks the spot on the ramparts. Apparently he hoped to find a way for Napoleon to invade England by air – that would have been quite a sight

The Ninth Art flourishes in Angoulême…

Angouleme is the comic capital of France as seen at the incredible Comic Museum

And, what you might ask is the 9th art? Well in France, art is broken into categories such as architecture, literature, painting – and the 9th art is comic art. Comics are taken seriously in France, they are accepted as a respected art form. Each year the Comic Museum of Angoulême holds a comic festival that attracts more than 200,000 visitors. The town is also the street art capital of France and you can hardly turn a corner without spotting a wall mural, speech-bubble street name or statue honouring a comic artist.

I asked Jean-Pierre Mercier the scientific director at the Comic Museum, which goes by the full name of La Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image, why the French revere their comics so much. “It’s hard to put your finger on” he muses. “When I was a kid, adults hated comics, but kids loved them. Being told that they were bad for us made them even more attractive! But it’s more than that. Many publishers hired real artists which added something very special. They were about politics, religion, morals but overall about art, and, I think, coinciding with the culture of the teenager in the 60’s, comics became much loved and still are in France. Comics are part of our culture. In fact, 5,000 new comic books are published every year in France.”

Amazing Street Art

Fantastic wall murals in Angouleme, street art capital of France

The comic book vibe isn’t just restricted to the museum in Angouleme – it has well and truly spilled out onto the city’s streets.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to a town where the street art is so amazing you find yourself stopping in your tracks this much to stand and admire it.

Trompe L’oeil fans will be in seventh heaven as walls everywhere are covered in riveting artworks. Even the street names have had a makeover, they’re presented speech-bubble style.  You can follow a trail to see all the walls – it’s truly unique. Don’t miss New York Sur Charente, a mural on an 11-storey residential building by French artist Nicolas de Crécy, who studied comic art in Angoulême. It depicts New York City’s skyscrapers along the Charente River on which are boatloads of French people emigrating to America. See it at 15 bis rue de la Grand Font.

It’s not the only NY/Angoulême connection. French King Francis I sponsored Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano. He “discovered” a bay near New York City which he called “New Angoulême”. If you think his name sounds familiar you’re right, Verrazzano Bridge is named after him. And New Angoulême is now Manhattan…

Discover New York Square in Angoulême – in homage to that early trip, and there’s also a JF Kennedy Square.

Cathedrale Saint-Pierre

Otherworldly art installation at the Cathedral of St Pierre in Angouleme, such as giant glass beads and stained glass windows

Most Cathedrals have artworks of some sort inside, paintings, sculptures, statues. But Angoulême’s Cathedral of Saint Pierre is rather more curious. There’s been a church here since the 4th century, But, the current version dates to the 10th century with extensive modifications when it was restored in the 19th century. My friend Cecile who works at the Tourist Office in Angoulême had given me a list of must-sees and top of it for her was the Cathedral “Tresors”, so I joined a tour. Enter through the wide Romanesque style doors (which is quite unusual as most medieval churches in France are Gothic) and you’ll discover a very bright white stone interior. Inside is cavernous, and all that gleaming white gives it a slightly sterile feel. Nothing uncommon in that.

I followed the guide through a small wooden door, up a stone spiral staircase and into a room with a quirky art installation made from glass. Certainly strange I thought to myself. But then we moved on to another set of rooms the guide called “The Room of the Fabulous”. And, it is an incredible sight.

The art installations in this cathedral were created by artist Jean-Michel Othoniel. A room created of glass and metal which houses the treasures which gave this exhibition its name “Le Tresor”, the treasury. Ancient religious relics, including some rather gory body parts of saints, crowns embellished with jewels and diamonds, altar art, candles and more. It is quite simply dazzling.

Book a guided tour at Angouleme Tourist Office, 1 Place de l’Hôtel de ville, or online here on the Angouleme Tourism website

The Museum of Angoulême

Next door to the Cathedral in what was the former episcopal palace, is the Museum of Angoulême. It’s a great place to discover the history of Charente. It looks quite small from the outside but it has a surprisingly good collection. The area is very rich in fossils so there’s an excellent line up of fossils and skeletons including a dinosaur. I loved the beaux arts sections, the paintings and objets are exhibited in rooms that look like 17th century salons. There is an enormous collection of African and Oceanic art donated in 1934 by a collector by the name of Dr L’Homme.

All this culture is bound to make you hungry and there’s plenty to satisfy here…

What’s on in Angoulême

View from the top of Angouleme showing the countryside below, rivers, vineyards and small villages...

There’s plenty going on year round. Major events include the Salvage dealers market the 3rd Sunday of each month (excluding July and August) from 08h-18h. The January Comic festival and in September the legendary Circuit des Remparts car race. Collectors Cars transform the city into a literally rolling museum and a feel good atmosphere prevails.

Practical Information

The train station is located in the lower town which is buzzing but not so touristy. You can access the high town by bus or on foot by ramps and stairs. Trains to Paris take from 2 hours.

Stay at: Mercure Hotel de France (3 star but I’d rate it higher). Perfectly located, lovely rooms and friendly staff.

Tourist Office: www.Angoulême-tourisme.co.uk

For more things to do in the area: www.atlantic-cognac.com

Related Articles

Top ten things to do in Ile de Ré

Small enough to drive from one end to the other in around 30 minutes, Ile de Ré has an intimacy that’s alluring but never leaves you feeling restricted. Despite its size, the landscape appears to unfold for miles. Expect fields of flowers, vineyards, salt marshes and the most glorious coastline plus the prettiest little villages. […]

Continue Reading

10 best things to do in La Rochelle

La Rochelle is a historic port town in the west of France, off the Atlantic coast in the department of Charente-Maritime. It’s the perfect little city for a weekend break and a great base from which to explore the area. Rich in culture, architecture and gastronomy, there’s loads to see and do here… Top things […]

Continue Reading

Where to eat out in La Rochelle

For a small city, La Rochelle packs a mighty gastronomic punch. The streets are filled with bars and bistros, cafés and restaurants spilling out onto cobbled streets and lining pretty squares. Most visitors head for the old Port, Vieux Port, and who can blame them. The restaurants here have fabulous views over the port and […]

Continue Reading

What to see and do in Saintes, Charente-Maritime

Saintes in the Charente-Maritime department, Nouvelle Aquitaine (formerly Poitou-Charentes) has been a market town since time immemorial. The Romans called it Mediolanum Santorum – the Market Town of the Santones people. If the Romans returned today, they’d certainly recognise some of the buildings. And, they’d surely appreciate the truly spectacular market that still takes place […]

Continue Reading

Camping guide to Poitou-Charentes (Nouvelle-Aquitaine)

Poitou-Charentes (Nouvelle-Aquitaine) in the southwest of France is one of the country’s most popular camping destinations. It’s no wonder, with a diverse landscape incorporating four departments that take in some of the best beaches and most glorious countryside in France, this is a region that makes for very happy campers says Finán O’Donoghue, CEO of […]

Continue Reading

Subscribe

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed

Comments are closed.

Top