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In profile: Angoulême

In profile: Angoulême

Over three thousand years after it was first settled by man, Angoulême still presents a striking outline, rising assertively above its limestone ramparts to survey the vastness of the fertile plains of la Charente and l’Anguienne which surround it. Draw closer, though, and it soon becomes clear that this is in fact not one town but two: the historic ville haute – referred to locally as ‘le plateau’ – and the larger ville basse, home to the sprawl of the industrial and commercial activities which have made this the administrative capital of the Département de la Charente...

 Angouleme Charente France visit


Traffic movements aside, it’s a convenient arrangement, allowing full rein to the dynamism of local industry, while preserving an architectural and cultural heritage which attracts increasing numbers of visitors. Its history is a long one, stretching back at least to the Iron-Age. The site was later home to the Gallo-Roman settlement of Iculisma, which was seized by Visigoth invaders in 507 and subsequently attacked by both Norman and Viking forces.

The ruling Counts of Angoulême included Richard Coeur-de-Lion and King John of England, who married Isabella of Angoulême in Bordeaux in 1200.

She was crowned Queen of England the same year in Westminster Abbey, and went on to play a key role in sometimes uneasy Anglo-French relationships. In 1360 the town passed to the Plantagenets, then re-taken by Charles V in 1373. Less than twenty years later Angoulême passed to the Royal House of Orléans and in 1515 was elevated to the status of Duchy. Attacks by Protestant forces in 1568 during the Wars of Religion left their mark, before the Duchy passed once more to French rule, the last of the line of Dukes of Angoulême passing away in 1844.

Below the town is the ancient port of l’Houmeau, whose quays date back to the Middle Ages, when they shipped commodities like timber, stone, textiles, eaux-de-vie and salt down the Charente to the Atlantic. Traffic increased significantly as paper mills proliferated on the riverbanks, and when the foundries of nearby Ruelle began casting canon for Rochefort’s naval arsenal and naval dockyards in Bordeaux and La Rochelle. In 1788 Ruelle’s works became the Fonderie Royale de la Marine and the site today develops modern weaponry including guided missiles.

angouleme-charente-franceThe paper and armaments industries brought great wealth to Angoulême, but river traffic declined once the Paris -Bordeaux railway opened in 1853. Now the line is itself about to be upstaged by the Ligne à Grande Vitesse Sud-Europe-Atlantique, which will bring Angoulême to within just 1hr 35min of the capital when it swings by in 2016, and which has already spurred major construction projects locally, including a shiny new Médiathèque sited near the facelifted Gare SNCF.

 

See the sights in Angouleme...

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre

This Romanesque giant was begun in or around 1101 and consecrated in 1130, at which time its six-stage northern tower had an even taller southern counterpart, largely destroyed when the town was seized by Huguenot forces in 1568 during the Wars of Religion (only the base survives). The cathedral’s appearance was altered radically - and controversially - during the 19th century by Paul Abadie, architect of the Basilica of La Sacré-Coeur in Paris, who employed his trademark touches here, including enlarging the central cupola and topping it with an octagonal lantern stage beneath a tall stone dome. Fortunately his alterations to the west front spared the dazzling tour-de-force of statuary and bas-reliefs which are the great building’s crowning glory. 

Hôtel de Ville

This grandiose creation, completed in 1865 and set round a square courtyard, replaced the ancient chateau of the Counts of Angoulême. Architect Paul Abadie (whose father transformed the nearby cathedral) adopted a neo-Gothic style to harmonise with the chateau’s two historic towers which he retained – the high poly-gonal donjon (the Tour de Lusignan) dating from the late 13th century and the rounded 15th century Tour de Marguerite de Valois in which François I’s celebrated sister (who married Henry II de Navarre) was born in 1492. Known popularly as Marguerite d’Angoulême, her statue is in the adjoining gardens. You can visit the summit of the donjon, for panoramic views of the city and to see a vaulted upper room retaining inscriptions by English prisoners of war. Details from the Office de Tourisme. 

Les Halles

The town’s arresting 19th century market hall stands on the site of Le Châtelet, a 13th century fortress which finally served as a prison. The present symphony of iron and glass was completed in 1888 and each morning hosts a lively market which is deservedly popular with local residents.

angouleme-les-halles-france

Murals

Not surprisingly, the centre of the Bande-Désinée was not slow to realise the value of murals to enliven facades around the town, from quite subtle details tucked away where you least expect them to large-scale works whose trompe-l’oeuil qualities can fool you into thinking momentarily that you’re looking at the real thing. The interior of the Quick fast food outlet opposite the Hôtel de Ville is adorned with US gas station murals by Ted Benoit. Clearly, this is one city with a sense of fun.

angouleme-wall-murals

Les Remparts

The plateau ramparts visible today date from the 9th-13th centuries and enclose an area of around 25 hectares, although the section just west of the Hôtel de Ville was demolished when the town began to expand towards the Champ de Mars.

Impasse Marengo, off what is now Rue Hergé, shows where the walls were breached. Follow ‘Tour des Remparts’ signs to explore the fortifications – along the way you’ll pass the Tour Ladent, from which 72 year-old General Guillaume Lesnier de Goué successfully launched himself off the Rempart de Beaulieu in 1806 to flight-test a pair of wings he’d designed. In so doing the Angoulême-born pioneer achieved one of the very first manned flights. On the southern ramparts is Raoul Verlet’s stirring monument to assassinated French President Sadi Carnot. Some 25,000 people attended the unveiling in 1897.

Angouleme-remparts-charente

Vieux-Hôtels and more

For evidence of the town’s long-standing prosperity, look no further than the facades of Vieil Angoulême’s hôtels particuliers (private mansions), the oldest being the Hôtel Saint-Simon, a Renaissance survivor from 1530 tucked away in a courtyard off Rue de la Cloche-Verte. Rather more assertive is the 18th century neo-Classical Hôtel des Bardines, in Rue de Beaulieu. Its architect was perhaps Jean-Marie Vallin de la Mothe, who worked at St Petersburg. Rather later, and less immediately obvious, is the dazzling stained-glass ceiling of the Crédit Lyonnais building constructed in 1895 in Avenue du Général de Gaulle and today listed as an historic monument.

 

 

PRACTICALITIES...

SHOPPING

The main shopping area is the pedestrianised Rue Hergé where you’ll find most of the popular national clothes shops and a few independent stores. Don’t miss the Biscuiterie Lolmède on Rue des Arceaux, where you can buy delicious macarons. Continue down to Champ de Mars shopping arcade for larger stores like Zara and H&M. Beyond the busy Carrefour de Lille lies the Galeries Lafayette department store and various independent shops on Rue René Goscinny.

Our own favourite street begins in Place de l’Hôtel de Ville – be sure to gaze in the window of the sumptuously decorated Chocolaterie Duceau. Carry on into Rue des Postes and you’ll find a selection of tempting specialist shops such as the Brûlerie du Valois, a salon du thé which also roasts coffee and stocks a large selection of teas and chocolates from around the world. Beyond the upmarket clothes shops, artisan pâtissiers, delicatessen, bookshop and interiors shop you’ll reach the calm of Place Francis Louvel, where you can linger next to the fountain at one of the shady restaurant tables near the neo-Classical Palais de Justice.

 

MARKETS

Halles Centrales, 16000 Angoulême; Every morning 7am - 1pm
Place Victor Hugo, 16000 Angoulême; Tue - Sun, 7am - 1pm

 

RESTAURANTS

Angoulême offers a vast choice of places to eat. Many of them line the narrow streets between Place Francis Louvel and Les Halles. In fine weather there’s a cheerful buzz of conversation among the restaurant terraces and around popular bars like Le Chat Noir and Le Blues Rock Café on Place des Halles - a great meeting place with live music outdoors on Thursday evenings during the summer months. There’s something to satisfy most tastes from an American-style diner, authentic Italian, Indian cuisine at its best, plus contemporary and traditional French regional dishes. Here’s our selection:

 

LE TERMINUS

3 place de la Gare, 16000 Angoulême; Reservations +33(0)5 45 95 27 13; le-terminus.com

Situated opposite the Gare SNCF, this smart contemporary-style restaurant is popular for its reasonable prices and use of fresh local ingredients, a speciality being fish sourced fresh from the daily market. Lunchtimes are busy, so reserve to avoid disappointment.

 

LA CANTINE

6 rue Massillon, 16000 Angoulême; +33 (0)5 45 69 13 84; lacantine-angouleme.com

Situated in the heart of the foodie quarter, with a small pavement terrace plus large upstairs dining room and friendly service.

 

ANGOLO L’ITALIA

43 Rue de Genève, 16000 Angoulême; +33(0)5 45 90 51 74

The Italian chef is particularly known for his seafood dishes, though there’s plenty more to choose from, with vegetarian-friendly options.

 

AU JARDIN DU KASHMIR

15 Rue Raymond Audour, 16000 Angoulême; +33(0)5 45 95 03 03

Missing a good curry? Here you’ll find authentic flavours and good value set menus. Vegetarian choices.

 

LA CUISINE DE GRAND-MERE

52 Rue de Genève, 16000 Angoulême; +33(0)5 45 92 71 34

Charmingly decorated with an air of yesteryear, both in ambiance and cuisine, plus meals your French grandmother used to make. Traditional and regional menu.

 

CHEZ MEGANE ET BASTIEN

40 Rue de Genève, 16000 Angoulême; +33(0)5 45 95 58 88

Friendly 50’s American diner theme with ’States-sized’ portions to match.

 

GETTING THERE BY TRAIN

TER services into Angoulême operate from Royan, Saintes, Limoges, Poitiers and Bordeaux (TGV services from Poitiers or Bordeaux are even quicker). voyages-sncf.com. The station is about 10 minutes’ walk from the plateau, or you can catch one of the regular buses from outside the station. Buy a single ticket on the bus (1.30€). Véolia operates services from outlying towns into the city, all of which terminate at the station. Bus info: stga.fr, vtpc.fr

 

WHERE TO PARK

Multi-storey car parks are all signed as you enter the city - Les Halles and Hotel de Ville parks are convenient for restaurants and Vieil Angoulême, while the Parking Galerie Champ de Mars is close to the shopping streets. Alternatively, you can park free on the shady Place de Beaulieu on the western ramparts, for a great view - and it’s just a short walk into Vieil Angoulême. All around the ramparts are pay and display spaces, Bvd du Docteur Emile Roux is particularly convenient.

 

TOURIST OFFICE

7 bis Bue du Chat, Place des Halles, 16007 Angouleme; +33 (0)5 45 95 16 84; angouleme-tourisme.co.uk. There are two brochures you can download in English to help you discover the city - a walking tour of monuments in Vieil Angoulême, and another to discover the famous murals.

 

 

Diary dates....

LM angouleme-17372

BD Fever

Between the 30 January - 2 February 2014 the 41st Festival International de la Bande Déssinée will erupt in the heart of the city, which each year attracts around 200,000 devotees of the strip cartoon from throughout Europe. It’s the world’s second-largest such event (after Tokyo’s Comiket) and if it sounds an unlikely passion, then you have to be there to see for yourself what it’s all about. All the big publishing houses are in town, as are their star artists, shipped in to illustrate personalised dedications on copies of their latest volumes, newly-purchased by adoring fans. There are also multiple-category prizes awarded to the year’s best cartoonists, plus the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême lifetime achievement award.

Petrolhead Heaven

Late-September finds the southern ramparts transformed into a Monaco-style street-circuit, while the heart of the town becomes a showcase for lovingly-restored exotica from the golden age of motoring. The Circuit des Remparts was launched in 1939, and while today the events are theoretically ‘demonstration’ runs, the competitive spirit is as strong as ever, to the obvious delight of the crowds who come to soak up the sights, sounds and smells. It’s not every day you get see things like pre-war Bugattis battling it out on the track at close quarters, but that’s just part of what Angoulême serves up each year, along with a Concours d’Elégance and a Touring Rally around the Charente countryside.

 

MUSEUMS

LA CITE INTERNATIONALE DE LA BANDE DESSINEE 

121 Rue de Bordeaux, 16000 Angoulême; +33(0)5 45 38 65 65; www.citebd.org. Open Tue to Fri, 10am to 6pm, Sat, Sun and public hols, 2pm to 6pm. Free entry first Sunday of every month (except July and Aug).

MUSÉE D’ANGOULÊME 

1 Rue Friedland, Square Girard II, (access through the gardens), 16000 Angoulême; +33(0)5 45 95 79 88; www.angouleme.fr/museeba. Open 10am to 6pm (closed 1 Jan, 1 May, 1 Nov, 25 Dec), free entry.

LE MUSEE DU PAPIER ‘LE NIL’

134 Rue de Bordeaux, 16000 Angoulême; +33(0)5 45 92 73 43; www.angouleme.fr/museep/
Open Tue to Sun, 2pm to 6pm, free entry.

 

FIND OUT MORE

We’ve barely scratched the surface - there’s a whole lot more to discover. These links will help you: 

www.jaime-angouleme.fr/en/ - independent site, and home of a smartphone app to help discover the town.

www.angouleme.fr - official site, for news, what’s on and more.

www.toutenbd.com/murs_peints - guide to some of the major murals

www.bdangouleme.com - official site of the International BD Festival

www.circuit-des-remparts.com - all about the classic motor racing event.

 

Published in Living Magazine December 2013 © All rights reserved