Andy Duncan offers his top 10 things to see and do to forge a lasting passion for Poitou-Charentes
Whenever I hear the name Poitou-Charentes, my first thought is always sunshine’. This region, halfway down the western coast of France, basks in more than 2,000 hours of annual sunshine, which has such an influence on life here; from the sparkling waters and glamour of La Rochelle, to the vineyards (bearing fat, juicy grapes) that stretch seemingly for eternity across the golden-tinged landscape around Cognac.
Across the four departments of Charente-Maritime, Charente, Vienne and Deux-S�vres, there is so much to do, it is hard to pick a top 10. But pick I must, so here is my selection of the things you must do and see if you visit the region. Be warned though, whether you’re heading over here for Valentine’s Day, or at any other time of year, it is hard not to fall utterly in love with the place.
Venice is rightly regarded as one of the most romantic places in the world. But if you want to treat a loved one to a unique romantic experience, then the Marais-Poitevin is a must (it’s a spellbinding location all year round). Spanning the departments of Deux-S�vres and Vend�e in Pays de la Loire, this extraordinary world of criss-crossing waterways, fens and meadows is known as La Venise Verte (Green Venice), and it is a fascinating place to visit.
One of the best ways to enjoy the surreal, verdant landscape is by hiring a punt (with or without a guide) and making your way along the water, over which trees arch to form a green roof. Cycling is another magical way to explore the area and, in towns such as Niort, you can find restaurants, caf�s and hotels.
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Hugging the coast, Charente-Maritime is blessed with a diverse range of beaches. Indeed, the region’s coastline and the islands just off it boast around 100. At the southern end of �le de R� (one of a series of islands off La Rochelle’s coast, known as the French Hamptons due to their popularity with Parisians and other French holidaymakers), you’ll find Le-Bois-Plage-en-R�. It’s a very popular beach, with seven kilometres of fine white sand and shimmering azure water. St-Martin-de-R�, the major town on �le de R�, is also well worth a visit.
Elsewhere, there are family-friendly beaches at Royan (with Grande Conche being a particularly fine example). My personal favourite is the wild beauty that forms the C�te Sauvage. Starting from La Palmyre, just north of Royan, the 30km of beaches have a spectacular untamed quality, dominated in places by a vast forest of oak and pine. As well as a breathtaking spot for sightseeing, it is also a major magnet for surfers.
Of course, Poitou-Charentes is the home of cognac, which is one of the most famous brandies in the world. The drink has been made in the medieval Charente town of Cognac, and the second distilling town of Jarnac, since the 17th century.
Cognac itself is a beautiful place to visit, with cobbled streets, graceful Renaissance fa�ades and the aroma of brandy wafting through the air. A visit to the cognac houses (including such celebrated names as Hennessy, R�my Martin and Courvoisier) is a must. Here you can learn all about how cognac is distilled and enjoy a tasting too. The vineyards, which span around 80,000 hectares, are a spectacular sight and really capture one of the key qualities of France – that remarkable ability to transform nature’s bounty into something delectable and world-renowned.
This ability is also displayed with the region’s goat’s cheese. In a country that is all about fierce local pride, the goat’s cheese of Poitou-Charentes has garnered a mighty reputation right across France. Indeed, staggeringly, the region produces two thirds of France’s goat’s cheese and possesses about one third of the total number of goats in France. If you try just one variety (though you’d be hard pushed to limit it to one), the AOC-protected chabichou would be my recommendation. One of the first cheeses ever made in this proud nation of turophiles, chabichou is rich, firm and creamy and goes beautifully with white wine, while more mature varieties are perfectly complemented by red. You could also enjoy it with another regional speciality, pineau des Charentes – an ap�ritif made with grapes.
A visit to the regional capital of Poitiers will yield many delights. Situated in the department of Vienne, Poitiers boasts an international airport and a host of attractions to enjoy when you get there.
A walk through its ancient streets reveals an abundance of historical delights. Indeed, you can follow the Chemins de Notre Dame, with three coloured routes marked on the pavement (starting at Notre Dame La Grande church) and informative signposts along the way. Notre Dame La Grande church itself is a stunning building. Adorned with beautiful Romanesque sculptures, its white stone seems to shimmer in the sunlight. For an intriguing and highly effective blend of old and new, on summer evenings, and over Christmas, it also has a laser light display that recreates the colours of the cathedral during medieval times.
Other historical highlights of the city include St-John’s baptistry, which, dating back to the fifth century, is claimed to be the oldest example of Christian architecture in France, and St-Hilaire’s church, a World Heritage site on the Santiago de Compostella route.
Blossac Park and the Botanical Gardens are also worth a visit and you can enjoy a range of guided tours where you can find out all about the city’s 2,000-year history.
From the old to the new. While you’re in Poitiers, a visit to the theme park, Futuroscope, just 10km from the capital, makes for a spectacular day out. Opening for the season from 11 February this year until 2 January 2012, there are more than 25 fascinating experiences, where you can journey to other worlds and travel into the future. Using state-of-the-art technology, the attractions include Arthur, the 4D adventure’, a bizarre but compelling race through a fairytale world that is touted as “the first leisure park attraction from Luc Besson”. There is also Deep Sea 3D’, which plunges visitors into a virtual sea. It is a colourful and mesmerising experience.
Charente river valley
For a change of pace after the brightly lit ultra-modernity of Futuroscope, head south to follow the Charente river and its glorious valley. Indeed, travelling down this river, as it winds its sinuous course west from the borders of Charente and Haute-Vienne to the sea at Rochefort, is a beautiful way to relax and to take in the stunning landscapes of the south of the region. You can hop aboard a cruise boat from Jarnac, Cognac or Saintes or, if you fancy a more traditional experience, you could take in the sights of the valley from a gabarre (a flat-bottomed boat originally designed to transport large loads down the river). You can even hire your own boat from various places.
The river is around 225 miles in length and you can navigate your way downstream for a 100-mile stretch from Angoul�me to Rochefort. Along the way, you can take in the golden splendour of the cognac vineyards, and undulating verdant landscapes that are steeped in history.
There is a particularly fine Romanesque heritage in the Charente valley too. Poitou-Charentes became a key thoroughfare for the Santiago de Compostella route in the Middle Ages and, as a result, many churches and chapels were built here. Highlights include the octagonal St-Michel-d’Entraygues church. In Angoul�me, you’ll find the majestic cathedral of St-Pierre, which has a stunning sculpted fa�ade.
Over in Vienne, the medieval market town of Chauvigny is listed as a Plus Beaux Detour de France town (one of only 70 in all of the country), and boasts five medieval castles. These date back to the 11th and 15th centuries, and occupy the highest point of the town in the old quarter. Fittingly, for Valentine’s Day, a visit to the nearby Jardin des Rosiers � la Puye is so much better than a bunch of flowers. At this English botanical garden, there are 350 different types of roses.
For a dash of glamour, the coastal town of La Rochelle is a fascinating destination. There is great shopping here – the town is packed with boutiques – and it also boasts the largest marina on the European Atlantic coast. But it’s not all about the glitz. The town is steeped in history, with the old harbour being its fulcrum, and the spectacular St Nicolas Tower and the Tower of the Chain looming imposingly over the port entrance. The La Rochelle Aquarium, meanwhile, has 12,000 marine animals (including 20 species of shark), and offers fascinating tours.
Relatively undiscovered by Brits, this town enjoys a dramatic location atop a cliff, looking down over the River Thouet. It is dominated by the magnificent 17th- century ch�teau with its imposing 110-metre fa�ade. There are plenty of other historical attractions in the town, including 12th-century ramparts and the Cath�drale St-Medard. On the River Thouet, near Thouars, there are also stepping stones – it is a beautiful spot and the perfect place for a romantic picnic.
Of course, if you find that you want to turn a passing holiday romance with Poitou-Charentes into something longer-term, then there is an 11th item on my list: buy a property here.
One of the most striking qualities of Poitou-Charentes, for me at least, is how, when you get there, you are totally immersed in a different culture and way of life that is bathed is glorious golden sunshine. Yet, for all that, it is remarkably easy to get to. So, whether you want a get-away-from-it-all bolthole for holidays, or something more permanent, yet different, and from which you can still easily see friends and family from the UK, it is ideally positioned.
By road, you can travel from any of the major ports to the region via Paris or Rouen. The port of St Malo is just four hours away by road and Kate Ryle, of Papillon Properties, notes that: “Most Channel ports can now be comfortably reached in five to six hours, with autoroute nearly all the way from Poitiers.” Indeed, the A10, the main motorway between Paris and the west and south-west of France runs right through Poitou-Charentes.
By air, the region is served on an almost daily basis by the airports at Poitiers (from Stansted, Birmingham and Edinburgh airports) and La Rochelle (Stansted, Gatwick, Birmingham, Southampton, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow). Just across the border, there is also Limoges airport in Limousin. These major towns also boast good TGV links that hook you up to Paris and the Eurostar.
Property-wise, the region boasts a rich variety of styles, with Kate Ryle saying: “The region offers the buyer a wide range of styles, from stone farmhouses and barns situated in rural hamlets, to elegant townhouses close to shops and markets, and modern-style bungalows on the edge of many towns and villages. Typical architectural styles are the long�re and stone Charentaise farmhouses – full of creamy exposed stonework, old oak beams and flagstone flooring.”
The maisons Charentaises are traditional, stone properties that often have a cellar and outbuildings. Joan Jenkins, owner of Actous Immobilier, also points out that there is further potential, as they ”normally have an attic above with possible conversion possibilities”.
Other styles include farmhouses, which often have outbuildings and a courtyard. The large manoirs in the region usually boast good gardens and are great for families. There are also lots of fine half-timbered properties in Poitou-Charentes.
It is largely these old, character properties that attract the Brits. Sonia Sovimo, of Sovimo Immobilier, observes that the farmhouses of the region “have a lot of character and they are easy to convert without modifying the outside structure. This is why the Brits like them.”
Kate Ryle, meanwhile, adds that “many of our buyers are looking for something they can’t find, or can’t afford in the UK. Detached country houses with at least half an acre of land and outbuildings have always been popular, as are village houses within walking distance of shops”.
Having said that, Kate has detected a new trend, adding: “Perhaps due to the financial pressures on buyers, more recently there has been a move towards practicality and living costs. Therefore, more modern houses – equipped with double-glazing, insulation, and which are easy to heat and maintain – are becoming increasingly sought-after. Last year, some of our clients spent a lot of time looking at lots of renovated properties, only to decide that, to get exactly what they want, they would buy a plot of land and go down the new-build route.”
This is a development that Joan Jenkins has also seen. She observes that: “Property trends have varied considerably over the past 10 years, and we find that more and more people are looking to buy newer-style properties. This is mainly because the maintenance of these properties is easier. Having said that, we still have lots of people who will only buy stone properties, where there are character beams and fireplaces.”
Claire Halford, of Agence Beneteau, notes a parallel trend towards a different kind of pragmatism. While noting that “most buyers are looking for a stone house in the country on a good-sized plot,” she goes on to day that “people are being more cautious about buying acres of land, as they realise it is another thing to upkeep. We are also noticing, recently, a greater number of buyers looking to live near the main towns, such as Ruffec”.
The region’s popularity with British buyers is a relatively recent phenomenon, with Joan Jenkins and Kate Ryle saying that it really started in earnest around the turn of the millennium. “When we moved here in 1998,” says Joan, “there were very few British people.”
Today, it is a very popular location, whether for a holiday home or for a permanent patch of France. Sonia Sovimo estimates that 40% of her clients buy permanent residences in the region, with the other 60% going for holiday homes. Joan Jenkins says that most people are “buying to live here full time these days”. Meanwhile Claire Halford reports of “an interesting mix of buyers. Many have already retired, but some are purchasing now for their future retirement in maybe five years’ time”. She also notes that younger families with children are heading for a new life in the region, “wishing to take advantage of the less materialistic lifestyle and greater freedom that comes with living in the country.”
Kate Ryle adds another type of property purchaser to the list, saying “some British buyers, already established in the region, approach us looking for investment opportunities such as rentals”.
Those looking to make a bit of extra money through holiday lets could do worse than looking to buy in Poitou-Charentes. Claire Halford says: “The demand for holiday lets does not seem to have suffered too badly in the downturn. Most good places will have summer fully booked by February.” She also adds that, for family lets, “a good-sized swimming pool is essential”. Kate Ryle observes that what you get out of owning a holiday let depends on what you put in. “The established businesses that have invested in providing good-quality accommodation, are well advertised and that offer their guests a genuine taste of the local area and its many attractions are always fully booked well in advance.”
The Brits are coming over with a range of budgets. “Those looking in a small village or town for a house with two bedrooms have budgets of under €100,000, while those wanting the rural idyll are hoping to achieve it for around €200,000, with fees included,” says Kate Ryle. Sonia Sovimo says: “These character properties are generally sold for between €50,000 and €100,000, which is now the budget of British clients.”
Claire Halford and Joan Jenkins meanwhile paint similar pictures, with Claire saying you can get a barn or old farmhouse to convert for under €60,000 and a stone house in good order for under €200,000. Similarly, Joan puts renovation projects in the €50,000 bracket, “but for a reasonable, habitable house, you would expect to pay between €130,000 and €150,000”.
Looking at the broader picture of property prices in the region, it is unsurprising to note that, according to figures from the Notaires de France, Charente-Maritime is the most expensive of the departments. With its seaside glamour and good links, the average price of a resale house here is €191,700. The second highest is Vienne, which, at €132,300, is nearly €60,000 lower.
Deux-S�vres is still the cheapest of the region’s four departments for most property types. Admittedly, it doesn’t boast a coast or a rich brandy heritage and it is arguably the least accessible, but it does have many attractions, not least of which is the Marais-Poitevin (but then, I’m biased, as I could never tire of that enchanting, verdant wonderland). Here, you could pick up a resale house for an average of €108,100.
One interesting blip in the property price pattern for the region is that new apartments in Deux-S�vres are more expensive than those in Vienne – €2,710m2 compared with €2,530m2.
Joan Jenkins, offers an explanation for this apparent anomaly saying: “This will probably be because of Niort. Generally, new apartments are only built in towns. Niort is more blue collar’ and attracts more office-based jobs. In fact, many of the large insurance agencies have their head offices in, or very close to Niort. Poitiers, in Vienne, meanwhile, is more of a student town, while Angoul�me is more touristy.”
Compared with its neighbours, Poitou-Charentes may be more expensive than Limousin, but Joan Jenkins puts this down to Poitou-Charentes’ famous sun-kissed climate. It still compares very favourably to the arguably more famous Aquitaine, which nuzzles up to its southern border. The average price of a resale house in Aquitaine is €202,400, compared with the Poitou-Charentes regional average of €154,200.
Kate Ryle points out that Poitou-Charentes has been “perhaps unfairly called the poor man’s Dordogne’” before going on to list the attractions that have made Poitou-Charentes so popular with Brits in recent times, including the transport links and, of course, that climate.
As has been the case right across France, the region’s property market was hit by the economic downturn, which is good news for those looking to buy there now. Joan Jenkins says: “House prices dropped sharply in the downturn, but then the prices had gone up very quickly before. Prices are now very reasonable and you can pick up a good bargain.”
Kate Ryle estimates that some properties dropped in value by nearly 30% while, by Sonia Sovimo’s reckoning, prices in and around Confolens have dropped by as much as 50% since the start of la crise. Claire Halford notes that “house prices seem to have stabilised now. There are plenty of great properties at really great prices. Serious sellers are being very realistic with what they hope to achieve”.