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Off the beaten track in Charente

Charente is a land of fresh air, little traffic, tranquillity, and beautiful countryside. And let’s not forget the wildlife such as deer, wild boar, red foxes, barn owls, bats, and badgers, to name but a few. The department of Charente is situated in the South-eastern area of the Poitou-Charentes. Now known as the Nouvelle Aquitaine, it’s a little slice of paradise in rural France. It lies to the northwest of the better-known region of the Dordogne.

In the summer this area is simply glorious. Fields of sunflowers turn everything a beautiful shade of yellow and seem to go on for miles. The warm balmy evenings are made for drinking apéritifs and watching the sun set. Life really doesn’t get much better.

But to properly showcase Charente in all its historical glory we need to go deeper. Further than places such as Angouleme, the capital city of the department, or Cognac, the brandy region known worldwide. We need to look at the other lesser-known towns and villages. The ones steeped in history where you feel like you’ve stepped back in time and into a bygone era.

These places have stories all of their own dating back to Roman times. And in some cases, even the mythical tales of the mediaeval Knights Templar. For our trip back in time we’ll be taking a virtual walk through five beautiful towns in the heart of the Charente.

The Market Town of Ruffec

Sat on the Lien River Ruffec is a picturesque market town dating back to Roman times. Walking up into the heart of the town you’ll see the bustling market square where weekly markets are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Here you can sit and enjoy coffee and cake watching the world go by.

However, Ruffec is steeped in history and where the Office de Tourisme now stands was the old citadel and stronghold. The keep which dominated the town from the late 900’s, formed a part of the fortifications protecting Ruffec from outside attack.

As you look down, you’ll see Place du Piolet, a pretty little square that looks innocent enough. However, during the Revolution it was the site of the Guillotine. Many noble bourgeois and peasants met their death in that square, as Ruffec was a hotbed of violence during this time.

But what really fascinates me is how Ruffec got its name. Now there is some debate over which of these is true, and unfortunately there is no definitive proof for either. I’ll let you be the judge.

The first tale comes from the fact that In Roman days Ruffec sat on the outskirts of a deep forest, Forêt de Ruffec. This forest was home to a special kind of red oak known as Chêne Rouvre. Both words are Celtic in origin, and it’s thought this is where Ruffec may have derived its name.

But it could easily have been from a Romanised Gaul named Rufus, who was said to have owned property in the area. The name itself literally means red headed man. Redheads were not common amongst the Romans, so it’s thought his land was nicknamed “Red-Headed one’s place”.

Which one do I think is more feasible? Personally, I’m rooting for Rufus the red headed one.

The Ancient Town of Aigre

Sitting on the old Route Royale d’Espagne, Aigre is a town with a long and eventful history. Surrounded by many small streams and rivers, these were probably responsible for its name in early times. Agria, as it was known in the 12th century, meant “at the water meadows”. It’s even rumoured that Marie de’ Medici, the second wife of King Henry IV of France, stayed in Aigre in 1619.

As you look above the town, in the direction of Cognac, you’ll see huge sweeps of beautiful countryside, thick with vines. The views are superb, which probably encouraged the Romans to build the magnificent theatre at Les Bouchauds.

But it is on the banks of the river Aume running through the town, where Charles Gautier founded his Cognac distillery in 1644, in the watermill. His grandson Louis Gautier went on to develop the Cognac trade around 1700 with Jacquette Brochet, daughter of Aigre winegrowers. Moving onto more modern times in 1992 their X.O. Gold Cognac was voted the world’s finest.

The secret to their success? Apparently, the water that laps at the cellars of their warehouses imparts a special aroma, bouquet, and smoothness that can’t be found elsewhere.

True or false? Who knows but it’s a story that Cognac Gautier are still convinced of and will happily tell all who listen.

The Mediaeval Town of Nanteuil-en-Vallee

Pronounced “Nan – toy” this pretty village is a favourite with tourists as it’s recognised as one of France’s ‘petite cité de caractère’ or ‘small town of character’. It’s a real mix of houses with some half-timbered and some in stone. Many have been renovated but haven’t lost their original charm.

You’ll also find not one, but two churches, along with a wonderful manor house (the Manoir de Aizecq) that dates to the 16th century. And as if that wasn’t enough you can still see the old village washhouse, bread oven, and stone fountain. The latter being the source of water for the village until well into the late 20th century.

But that isn’t all there is to this beautiful village. It’s also home to the 12th century Benedictine Abbey of Notre-Dame de Nanteuil, which has enjoyed a chequered history. The current remains were built on the ruins of the original 8th century abbey, which was founded by King Charlemagne back in 780. If walls could talk it would tell many stories.

Pilgrims travelling the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain would stop off here to rest. There were many rest points like this all within 1 mile or so of each other to help weary travellers make the journey.

Burnt to the ground once by the Normans and twice by the English it was finally dissolved by the bishop of Poitiers in 1770. Then destroyed completely during the Revolution.

Legend has it that Charlemagne brought back a piece of the Holy Cross to Nanteuil, and his corpse was buried in the Treasury, which forms part of the Abbey. We’ll never know the truth behind this legend, but it certainly has me intrigued.

The Fairy-tale Village of Verteuil

If it’s a little bit of French magic you’re after, then a trip to Verteuil should definitely be on the list. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped right into the pages of a children’s storybook. The Chateau dominates the landscape from nearly every angle and looks like something out of a fairy tale.

Originally built back in the 12th century it was rebuilt by the well-known Rochefoucauld family in the 15th century. Until recently, it was open to the public and even hosted weddings and private events. However, it was sold to Austrian businessman Georg Thaler in 2021, and is now a private residence. Luckily that doesn’t stop you admiring from afar and appreciating the structure and architecture.

But that’s not all that Verteuil has to offer. Sat on the riverbank is an ancient moulin (mill) which has been converted into a restaurant. With picturesque views that literally take your breath away, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy a glass of wine or have lunch.

As you cross the bridge and walk towards the main square, you’ll see the Rue du Temple on your left leading to the Church of Saint-Médard. This street used to be extremely muddy due to animals being herded up there. So to make sure the ladies attending church didn’t get their dresses dirty, a set of steps known as ‘Chemin des Dames’ was built for them to use. These elevated them above the dirt and kept them clean as they made their way to church.

For me though, it’s the more recent stories that have me hooked. During World War II Verteuil was occupied by the Germans and this saw many families turn on each other. The village was split between those supporting the Resistance and those who supported the Germans.

One tale I was told by a local resident was that of a Jewish family hidden in the cellars of one of the houses just off the square. They’d been hiding there for several months undetected, but somehow word got out. The Gestapo raided the house, luckily though someone warned them just in time and they managed to escape. You can still see the butt marks of the rifles where they’d smashed them on the wooden floor to make sure there was nobody hidden underneath. I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been for the family, and those hidden away beneath.

The Historical Town of La Rochefoucauld

If it’s history you’re after then my final offering is a visit to La Rochefoucauld, ‘the pearl of the Angoumois’. For over 1000 years the La Rochefoucauld family, part of the French nobility, have been the owners of The Chateau de la Rochefoucauld.

Standing above the Tardoire River its illustrious history is on display throughout. The salon libraries contain over 18,000 volumes, and the Treasure Room has a collection of 250 family letters dating back to the 17th century.

As you explore further into the chateau, you’ll be treated to architecture spanning seven centuries, including the renaissance spiral staircase, said to be designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself. This magnificent structure was commissioned by Anne de Polignac with her husband François II de La Rochefoucauld around 1520. It earned the chateau a place in history with the staircase being one of the greatest achievements in the French Renaissance. As you make your way down the 108 steps, its beautifully twisted centre will take your breath away.

The kitchens, which you can still see, are absolutely huge with many massive pots still on display. They give you some idea of just how many servants would have been required to run a chateau of this size.

The dungeon, the only section left from the 11th century, was built to showcase the family’s power against that of the Count of Angoulême. A little fun piece of trivia highlighting how politics and architecture combine in the history of the chateau.

But my favourite part by far is the dress up area. Here you can choose a mediaeval costume and relieve times gone by becoming a character from history.

Kylie Lang is a copywriter, quiz funnel strategist and blogger at Life in Rural France. She moved to the Charente just over six years to live the rural life and has never looked back. Ever wondered which part of SW France you’re best suited to? Take the Living the French Dream Quiz

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