If you’re dreaming of moving to France and you’re not sure where to go, consider Charente! Located in the southwest France, it’s part of the super region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, which was formed in January 2016 when the previously single regions of Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes joined together. The area is named after the Charente River. It’s a land of forests and rolling hills, verdant vineyards, historic villages and waterways. It’s also one of the sunniest parts of France with around 25% more sunshine hours than the UK.
There are three main towns in Charente, the biggest being the department capital Angoulême. From its hill side perch it borders Dordogne and is famous for its annual International Comics Festival. It’s not a big city, with a population of around 42,000, but there is an impressive range of shops, excellent restaurants and bars. There are also several museums, including the enormous Musée de la Bande Dessinée. It’s dedicated to all things comics and cartoons, plus there’s an extraordinary art installation by contemporary artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, known as the Trésor de la Cathédrale at Angoulême Cathedral.
The second main town, Cognac, attracts the most visitors to the department, thanks to the production of the double-distilled eau-de-vie to which it gives its name. The medieval quarter is criss-crossed with winding narrow cobbled streets and ancient buildings. There are plenty of shops and restaurants and people from towns all around flock here for shopping and the Tuesday-Saturday market in the covered halls, though the most popular market in the area is just over the border in Charente-Maritime at Saintes, famous for its Roman ruins.
Café and shop lined Place Francois Premier is the heart of Cognac. The French King in whose honour the square is named, was born just a few hundred metres away in a chateau on the edge of the Charente River, now home to Baron Otard Cognac.
There is a newly renovated attractive harbour area, several museums and the annual Blues Festival is a key event.
Finally Confolens (top photo), which borders Limousin, is a sleepy “City of Art and History”. The medieval town nestles in a largely rural district, with an emerging tourist market.
What to love about living in Charente
Throughout the department, night markets, festivals, brocantes (flea markets) and antique markets are a regular feature in summer months. It’s a great area for walking and cycling with a dedicated 290km path along the Charente River called “Flow Velo”. The route runs from Dordogne to the Ile d’Aix and the 110km Charente section takes in major towns as well as dozens of pretty villages, such as Bourg-Charente, Saint-Simon and Bassac, which pepper the river banks like a luscious dot to dot.
Wine – and slippers!
Charente is speckled with vineyards, the most prestigious are in Grand Champagne (no relation to the area of Champagne in the north). Cognac is the most famous product of the department; surprisingly 98% of production is exported, though that’s not to say the locals don’t enjoy a drop. Each July there’s a 3-day Fête du Cognac with plenty of tasting opportunities, gastronomic specialities, music and dancing.
Though not as celebrated as Bordeaux, Charente’s vines produce fine wines (red, white and rosé), as well as local favourite, Pineau des Charentes, a sweet aperitif.
The area is also famous for its production of slippers called Charentaise. Originating in the 17th century they were made from leftover material used for Louis XIV’s French Royal Navy uniforms and felt from the paper mills of Angoulême. They’re still popular, especially the tartan designs.
Despite its many charms, most tourists head for the Atlantic coast beaches of neighbouring department Charente-Maritime leaving Charente appealingly quiet by comparison.
Why live in Charente?
Charente is served by excellent motorways with easy access from the ports of Brittany and Normandy and it is around seven hours’ drive from the port of Calais. Closest airport La Rochelle offers flights to the UK and Europe, as do Bordeaux-Merignac and Poitiers airports a little further afield. Trains stop at several towns and the fast track LGV service connects Angoulême to Paris in just 1.5 hours.
For property buyers Charente really does offer excellent value, property prices are stable and suit all budgets with a wide variety of styles from rustic properties to city townhouses and apartments and for British buyers in particular, prices seem positively cheap in comparison to the UK. Property prices in Charente-Maritime cost almost twice as much on average.
According to data from INSEE, the National Statistics Agency of France, some 148,000 Brits are officially registered as living in France (post Brexit). More than a quarter of them live in Nouvelle Aquitaine. And Charente is the third most popular department (after Ile de France (Paris) and Dordogne).
Expats in Charente
Amy Pasquet from Virginia, USA, is married to French Cognac producer Jean of www.cognac-pasquet.com. They live with their young children in Baignes-Sainte-Radegonde, Grand Champagne. “I love that Charente is not very touristy. It still seems off the beaten path. We are able to walk everywhere in the village, to the school, boulangeries, shops and the market. The vineyards and landscape are lovely. The pace of life is not frenetic, but I can get to the centre of Bordeaux in just 45 minutes from here”.
Charente used to be a honey pot for second home owners. However in recent years it’s become just as popular with younger expats.
The sort of place you never leave
Nicki and Richard Waldeck arrived in Charente from Brighton in 2004 for “a year off” but never left. Nicki, says “Charente is a great place to live with friendly people who are welcoming of expats”. They first live in the village of Courbillac, 20 minutes from Cognac and Jarnac. The latter was the birthplace of former President Francois Mitterand and home to Cognac producer Couvoisier, Napoleon’s favourite eau-de-vie. The couple were lured by the facilities combined with a tranquil country lifestyle. “When our sons hit their teens, we decided we needed somewhere that wasn’t too rural. This area is perfect for all of us” says Nicki.
A large proportion of the British expat population in the region are retired or classified “inactive” according to INSEE, the National Statistics Agency in France. But this couple are busy running their property management business Charente Assistance (www.charenteassistance.fr) providing home and garden maintenance services.
“We fell in love with Jarnac for its bridge over the River Charente. And the Courvoisier chateau which dominates the main square. On our days off, it’s a great place to have lunch, relax, catch up with friends and watch the world go by. There is a calm but historic feel to Jarnac. It doesn’t feel too touristy. But at the same time it has that buzz that happy holiday makers bring. It’s just so French!”
Where to buy in Charente
The couple are typical of British buyers who tend to look for properties in the surrounding villages rather than in the centre of Charente’s towns. With 404 communes in the department – there’s a lot of choice. Charentaise style houses are always popular. These traditional stone properties often have coveted features such as exposed beams and an enclosed courtyard to the front.
Small towns such as Ruffec, less than 30 miles from Angoulême, with its vieux-quartier (old town) and a good choice of shops and restaurants plus train service, are popular. If you’re after a bargain this area has much to offer. There are charming villages and hamlets sprinkled throughout a landscape of vineyards and natural beauty spots. In the area around Ruffec pretty little towns such as Verteuil-sur-Charente with its 10th century chateau, Villefagnan and Nanteuil-en-Vallée offer potential for properties at a good price. Ideal for those who want to establish a base in a good area of France at a low price.
Aubeterre-sur-Dronne in the south of the department is another favourite with expats and officially one of the most beautiful villages in France. The prices are higher here and in the summer months it can get very crowded.
Louise King, local agent for Leggett Immobilier (www.frenchestateagents.com), has lived in Charente for 12 years. “I chose this area for the fantastic weather. Plus it’s an easy drive to the beaches. And there are particularly good travel connections for the UK”. Louise says that as her children were young at the time, it was important to have facilities year-round for them, whilst ensuring an unhurried country lifestyle.
“This area is excellent for retirees, families and holiday home owners. There’s lots to do, even in Winter which is important to consider. There are plenty of bargains but prices are predicted to rise because fast connecting trains to Paris are expected to increase the attraction for French second home owners. Charente offers the best of southwest of France. Great weather and laid-back pace of life – combined with great value property prices. All in all, it’s perfect”.