Charente

Chillac-chateau-with-sunflowersSituated in Southwest France the departements of the Charente and the Charente Maritime have been ruled by the Romans, Moors and English at various times through history and the invaders often stayed behind, creating extended farmsteads for themselves (“Maines”) or fortified fifedoms such as Montmoreau, literally “Hill of the Moor”, which might refer to either a person from the wider Roman empire, or a Moor from north Africa.

Berneuil_141114_32As these invasions washed through the gently rolling landscape, the inhabitants continued with their daily lives. The local black Chicken from Barbezieux was prized by the Romans for its white eggs and flesh, and from the fields of limestone-flecked soil the romans derived the word Champagne, which is still used today to define the best areas for growing grapes for Cognac production (though it is perhaps better known for its application to the limestone-flecked terroir around the northern french city Rheims and the drink that comes from there). The limestone retains moisture through the long hot summers (the Charente benefits from a microclimate giving it as many house of sunlight as the mediterrean coast) and makes it possible to grow not only grapes but also sunflowers, and the landscape is a harmonious blend of woodlands, pastures and fields of sunflowers, wheat or maize.

sunflowers-and-poplars--01bInland around our base, the southern Charente is a sparsely populated area (1186km2 with a popluation of 29 persons/km2 as compared to 135/km2 for rural Sussex, for example) typified by small villages and hamlets of old stone houses and romanesque churches, many of them situated in strageic positions on the high ground overlooking the surrounding landscape.

The gently shelving sandy coastline to the west is shielded from the wilds of the Bay of Biscay by the isles of Oleron and Ré and the broad estaury of the Gironde, and protects inland wetlands such as the Marennes, famed for its oysterbeds but equally a bizarre landscape of twisted stunted trees, water channels and islands of reclaimed pasture.

20110715_DSC0007Along the sheltered coast fish are caught by dropping square nets from cabins supported on stilts above the water, but one part of the coast is exposed to the westerlies and is known as the ‘Wild Coast’, with windswept dunes and sun-bleached driftwood.

Nets-2006-10-29-15Enjoying wealth derived from the production of Cognac and a stream of pilgrims following the route to Santiago de Compostella, many of the villages retain their dressed stone architecture (nearby Aubeterre is one of the “Plus beaux Viallges de France”) and even the larger towns such as the local capital Angoulême retain well preserved fortified historic districts crammed with merchants houses and narrow cobbled streets. Even the great City of Bordeaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its perfectly preserved architecture.

Having spent 12 years living in the Charente I am currently in the process of moving back to the UK, so this tour is currently on hold until I find another base from which to run it. Please use the form below to register yourt interest in future trips to this destination.

 

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