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Take a Walk on the Inside - Victor Hugo, Angoulême

Take a Walk on the Inside - Victor Hugo, Angoulême

In the first of an occasional series on getting off the beaten track, Helen Millar extols the delights of Angoulême’s Victor Hugo, a quartier most people pass by...

When I moved to Victor Hugo my Cousin Bob sniffily told me that it was like moving to [the northern UK town of ] Huddersfield. My son, bright boy, promptly piped up, ‘have you ever been to Huddersfield?’ Which of course he hadn’t. And it’s the same with this part of Angoulême. Many people zoom into town down the rue de Périgueux, park up and do the tour of the plateau. But we here in Victor Hugo are on the half-plateau - still elevated, still full of desirable houses but put together on a more human scale.

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The quarter is bounded on one side by the rue de Périgueux and the distinguished 19th century military barracks that run parallel to it, and on the other side by Boulevard de la République which runs down to the station and the rue de Montbron that heads out of town. All roads, I can hear you think, that you’d prefer to avoid. But leave the car and walk ‘inland’ towards Place Victor Hugo. Of course my Cousin B lives in the middle of a field in the Dordogne, picture postcard land. And as I march him round the area he refuses to see anything  much to write home about! Until we reach Victor Hugo market (never to be confused with Les Halles, the covered market!). It’s bigger, better, yet cheaper. Here Cousin B brightens considerably.

The market gradually revs up during the week; Friday and Saturday are good, but it’s really a Sunday morning market hugely frequented by the gourmand French. And how they spend! Queues form for roast meats and home cooked plats de jour.  The main alley is dressed to kill with fish stalls, cheese stalls, wine and of course anything special that’s in season – greengages and melons in summer and now chestnuts, mushrooms, walnuts and pumpkins. Clustered around the market periphery are the specialist local producers. The mushroom man,  variety and price no object; the farmer whose eggs are always doubles; the young greengrocer who’s taken over  from her boss, popular with us housewives because she’s making a go of things - it’s an act of solidarity.  And the market breathes solidarity, it’s a local thing. On Sundays the shops are open too and buzzing. We've one of the few remaining traiteurs that still runs a shop, its counters heave with prepared delicacies. And again queues form early. Never separate a Frenchman (or my Cousin Bob) from his Sunday lunch.

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You can see why retirement flats in the area sell at a premium. If all else fails you can stagger down to the market for a plat du jour and pig-out knowing that at least you’ve eaten well.

But before lunch why not call into the church? It’s welcoming, lively and full. L’Église du Sacré-Coeur, whose towering cross can be seen from one end of the market, is not a pretty place until you walk inside and see the stained glass windows. Dark and threatening one side, light and hopeful on the other, totally of their time, installed in 1957 in the wake of war. There was allied bombing here in Angoulême, hundreds died but there’s a constructive feel to this community.  The congregation comes and goes, no need to get here at the beginning or to stay ‘til the end. The priest is wise enough to wrap things up in good time to catch the last of the market.

There’s always a good sprinkling of soldiers and their families.  Because discreet as the army is, it plays a very important part in this community. The streets that radiate from Place Victor Hugo are lined by houses built in the late 1800s for the artillery regiments. Officers and men were all allocated houses to suite their status. Glance up at the roof of the large house close to the beginning of rue Monlogis and you'll see the statue of a 19th century soldier.

The smaller parallel roads have other quirky houses and stables that were once used by the washerwomen and grooms who serviced the barracks. So if you’re shopping for a house, there’s usually a property to suit all purses. And don’t be put off by the closed shutters and doors, and blank facades. Behind them there are spacious homes and deliciously large walled gardens and courtyards. Families move here from Paris and Marseilles to take advantage of the ample schools and if they feel homesick it’s only a 300 metre walk to Galeries Lafayette and a mere 100m to Intermarché.

The Parisian proprietor of La Cigalière, a shop for natural perfumes, sings the area’s praises. It’s just a brisk walk to the station she says, regular trains to Saintes, Royan, La Rochelle, Cognac, Bordeaux, in fact anywhere, even her beloved Paris, all topped off by the bonus of the two euro bus that leaves regularly from the station for Perigueux!  She’s a city girl like me and is delighted to find how central we are here.

Then there’s our delectable Restaurant L’Aromate, which overwhelmed by success now only caters for groups of twelve or more at lunchtimes - Tuesday to Sunday.  But we’ve made up a group of friends so we're in. Cousin B blusters a bit about lost business opportunities but that’s the point. The young couple want family time. They do very well on the hours they work, so why work more? It’s perfectly in keeping with the ethos of the area: a relaxed family life.

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Cousin Bob's last day starts with a distant chorus of soldiers singing while they work and the day proper gets going with the church bells, the shouts of competing groups of school children, a bit of traffic, but nothing much.  It ends with a last linger in the garden and amazingly, a South Seas serenade from the church hall next door. It’s the Polynesian group who often play in church. Totally surreal!  And then I pitch Cousin Bob back out of the door for his trip back to, what’s that place called? Personally I can’t understand why anyone would want to live elsewhere. And after three years I speak French, sort of, and after 40, Cousin B doesn’t. Nuff said really! But I have invited him back for our state of the art vide grenier on 1 May – it’s good to share. 

Helen Millar organises the English-language slot on RCF Accords (www.rcf.fr). In the UK she was one of the original writers on EastEnders.

 

First published in Living Poitou-Charentes October 2012 © All rights reserved

Location (Map)

Place Victor Hugo, 16000 Angoulême, France