Angoulême is located on a limestone plateau overlooking the Charente River. Thanks to its perched position, the city is nicknamed the “balcony of the southwest” France. When you stand at its edge looking over the surrounding countryside – you’ll know exactly how it got that name.
Its location has always made it highly coveted, the Romans, taking it for themselves, fortified the hilltop town against would be conquerors and it’s certainly had a turbulent past.
Nowadays, it has a vibrant, dynamic feel. It’s the capital of the department of Charente in the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine (formerly Poitou-Charentes) and there’s plenty to keep visitors happy.
Wandering in Angoulême
The upper town of Angouleme is a great place to wander, with plenty to see and do – though it is hilly. It’s quite different from the lower part and has more to offer tourists.
There are elegant squares, tinkling fountains and grand buildings. Styles range from medieval to Renaissance and it’s got a rather Parisian look in some parts with a neo-classical style. It’s not that surprising really as Angoulême got a makeover in the 19th century from Paul Abadie, the French architect and restorer whose work included the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Paris.
The view from the city walls over the surrounding countryside really brings it home to you that this is very much a city within the countryside.
From the ramparts in 1801, 72 year old local man and keen inventor, General Resnier marked a milestone. He became the first (authorised) man to achieve significant flight with wings. Leaping out from the Esplanade de Beaulieu, he managed to fly 300m before crash landing below, a plaque marks the spot on the ramparts. Apparently he hoped to find a way for Napoleon to invade England by air – that would have been quite a sight
The Ninth Art flourishes in Angoulême…
And, what you might ask is the 9th art? Well in France, art is broken into categories such as architecture, literature, painting – and the 9th art is comic art. Comics are taken seriously in France, they are accepted as a respected art form. Each year the Comic Museum of Angoulême holds a comic festival that attracts more than 200,000 visitors. The town is also the street art capital of France and you can hardly turn a corner without spotting a wall mural, speech-bubble street name or statue honouring a comic artist.
I asked Jean-Pierre Mercier the scientific director at the Comic Museum, which goes by the full name of La Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image, why the French revere their comics so much. “It’s hard to put your finger on” he muses. “When I was a kid, adults hated comics, but kids loved them. Being told that they were bad for us made them even more attractive! But it’s more than that. Many publishers hired real artists which added something very special. They were about politics, religion, morals but overall about art, and, I think, coinciding with the culture of the teenager in the 60’s, comics became much loved and still are in France. Comics are part of our culture. In fact, 5,000 new comic books are published every year in France.”
Amazing Street Art
The comic book vibe isn’t just restricted to the museum in Angouleme – it has well and truly spilled out onto the city’s streets. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a town where the street art is so amazing you find yourself stopping in your tracks this much to stand and admire it.
Trompe L’oeil fans will be in seventh heaven as walls everywhere are covered in riveting artworks. Even the street names have had a makeover, they’re presented speech-bubble style. You can follow a trail to see all the walls – it’s truly unique. Don’t miss New York Sur Charente, a mural on an 11-storey residential building by French artist Nicolas de Crécy, who studied comic art in Angoulême. It depicts New York City’s skyscrapers along the Charente River on which are boatloads of French people emigrating to America. See it at 15 bis rue de la Grand Font.
It’s not the only NY/Angoulême connection. French King Francis I sponsored Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano. He “discovered” a bay near New York City which he called “New Angoulême”. If you think his name sounds familiar you’re right, Verrazzano Bridge is named after him. And New Angoulême is now Manhattan…
Discover New York Square in Angoulême – in homage to that early trip, and there’s also a JF Kennedy Square.
Most Cathedrals have artworks of some sort inside, paintings, sculptures, statues. But Angoulême’s Cathedral of Saint Pierre is rather more curious. There’s been a church here since the 4th century, But, the current version dates to the 10th century with extensive modifications when it was restored in the 19th century. My friend Cecile who works at the Tourist Office in Angoulême had given me a list of must-sees and top of it for her was the Cathedral “Tresors”, so I joined a tour. Enter through the wide Romanesque style doors (which is quite unusual as most medieval churches in France are Gothic) and you’ll discover a very bright white stone interior. Inside is cavernous, and all that gleaming white gives it a slightly sterile feel. Nothing uncommon in that.
I followed the guide through a small wooden door, up a stone spiral staircase and into a room with a quirky art installation made from glass. Certainly strange I thought to myself. But then we moved on to another set of rooms the guide called “The Room of the Fabulous”. And, it is an incredible sight.
The art installations in this cathedral were created by artist Jean-Michel Othoniel. A room created of glass and metal which houses the treasures which gave this exhibition its name “Le Tresor”, the treasury. Ancient religious relics, including some rather gory body parts of saints, crowns embellished with jewels and diamonds, altar art, candles and more. It is quite simply dazzling.
Book a guided tour at Angouleme Tourist Office, 1 Place de l’Hôtel de ville, or online here on the Angouleme Tourism website
The Museum of Angoulême
Next door to the Cathedral in what was the former episcopal palace, is the Museum of Angoulême. It’s a great place to discover the history of Charente. It looks quite small from the outside but it has a surprisingly good collection. The area is very rich in fossils so there’s an excellent line up of fossils and skeletons including a dinosaur. I loved the beaux arts sections, the paintings and objets are exhibited in rooms that look like 17th century salons. There is an enormous collection of African and Oceanic art donated in 1934 by a collector by the name of Dr L’Homme.
All this culture is bound to make you hungry and there’s plenty to satisfy here…
What’s on in Angoulême
There’s plenty going on year round. Major events include the Salvage dealers market the 3rd Sunday of each month (excluding July and August) from 08h-18h. The January Comic festival and in September the legendary Circuit des Remparts car race. Collectors Cars transform the city into a literally rolling museum and a feel good atmosphere prevails.
The train station is located in the lower town which is buzzing but not so touristy. You can access the high town by bus or on foot by ramps and stairs. Trains to Paris take from 2 hours.
Stay at: Mercure Hotel de France (3 star but I’d rate it higher). Perfectly located, lovely rooms and friendly staff.
Tourist Office: www.Angoulême-tourisme.co.uk
For more things to do in the area: www.atlantic-cognac.com