Interested in buying in Charente?
Posted on 3rd August 2017
Sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean in the west by its sister department, the Charente Maritime, and protected to the east by the Périgord and the Limousin, the beautiful department of the Charente lies just to the north of the world famous Bordeaux vineyards. Its varied landscape never ceases to please with lush river valleys, ancient forests and hills covered in extensive mosaics of green vineyards interspersed with cheerful fields of sunflowers. Henry IV of France described the river Charente itself as the most beautiful river in his kingdom – fit for royalty, no wonder then that the Charente continues to be one of the most popular destinations for tourists and house-hunters alike.
But there is far more to the Charente than its scenery. There is an extremely rich history to discover, starting with the pre-historic monuments and ongoing archaeological digs, right through to modern times with Jean Monnet (one of the founding fathers of the EU), Francois Mitterrand (President of the Republic) and Ségolène Royale (the Socialist candidate in the 2007 French presidential election, becoming the first woman in France to be nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party). In between there is a fascinating history to explore. The Romans occupied the area and made their mark leaving behind amphitheatres, roads, temples and a vast triumphal arch in Saintes, just over the border in the Charente Maritime. Ownership passed to the English crown when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II. It took 250 years and the 100 Year War before the King of France could reclaim it.
Enough of history – modern Charente has been forged by its greatest product – Cognac. The department is almost exclusively run on the stuff – the vines grow the grapes whose juice is distilled not once but twice, the few factories that there are make the bottles, the corks, the packaging and so on, and the local population tend the priceless vineyards. The great success of the industry created fabulously wealthy “Cognac barons” whose châteaux can be seen the length and breadth of the department, although the most successful had their estates along the river valley. After a catastrophic disease that killed off the vines in the second half of the 19th century, the industry has re-established itself and is now up there with the world’s top luxury products. Affiliated with cognac is another beverage – Pineau des Charentes – a delicious local aperitif based on grape juice and “eau de vie” (literally “the water of life”) – the fruits of the second distillation in the production of Cognac.
To accompany the fine drinks available, the Charente does not disappoint on the food front. The Charente is acknowledged as producing some of the finest goat cheese in France and the butter from its neighbour even has its own protected status (AOC) just like wine – “le beurre d’Echiré” is said to be the best butter in the world. Jarnac is truffle capital of the region with the mysterious truffle-market held from December – February. As you would expect, there are little auberges and restaurants scattered about and the larger towns have some very fine restaurants with sprinkling of Michelin stars. With the coast being so close, seafood is regularly on the menu and oysters, far from being a luxury, are farmed locally near Royan and are practically an everyday essential with most markets selling them fresh from the sea on a Sunday morning to have as the hors d’oeuvres for Sunday lunch (and an absolute must for the Christmas meal). For the more adventurous, the Charentaise snails (cagouilles) can often be found as an option on the menu – not cooked in garlic butter like the rest of France, but with a delicious sauce of vinegar, red wine, herbs, spices and sausage meat.
Talking of snails, the snail is the department’s emblem and it can be seen all over – from stone carvings on gate posts, to little garden ornaments. It reflects the slower and more relaxed pace of life enjoyed by its inhabitants. “Le quart d’heure Charentais” (the Charentais quarter of an hour) is a widely used expression as it is generally acceptable to be up to 15 minutes late for a lunch or dinner invitation. One of the department’s towns, Segonzac belongs to the Cittaslow movement, whose goals include improving the quality of life in more urban areas by slowing down its overall pace. With the pace of already slow in the Charente, it may come to a standstill in this pretty little town!
Whilst the other towns in the Charente may not belong to this movement, they do run to a slower rhythm and timetable with which the British are perhaps unfamiliar: Monday closures, two-hour lunch breaks (perhaps three in the height of the summer heat) and very restricted Sunday trading all add up to a different way of life that can take a little getting used to. But the towns are beautiful: historic Cognac, birthplace of Francois Ier, Jarnac, birthplace of Francois Mitterrand, and the hilltop capital, Angoulême, balcony of the south-west and host to the “Circuit des Remparts” (an annual classic car race around the old city ramparts) – they all have old stunning white limestone houses with terracotta roofs, ancient churches and ultra-modern civic buildings, riverside restaurants and well-tended public gardens. The architecture reflects the wealth of the towns with large townhouses, avenues, covered markets and café-ringed squares with statues and fountains.
Outside the towns, the villages reflect the generally agricultural heritage with houses and farmhouses set around the village square or down a quiet lane. Beyond the villages are the larger farms and the châteaux.
There is a house to suit all tastes and every budget. At the more modest end are the quirky village houses that create unusual homes full of character. There are also the little townhouses with their small courtyards or walled gardens which make great lock-up-and-leave holiday homes. Next there are the larger village houses – perhaps a longère designed with all the living accommodation on the ground floor or a small “fermette” with its outbuildings arranged around a courtyard. The larger farmhouses or vineyard owners’ houses include the typical “Charentaise” – an imposing and elegant double-fronted stone house over two or three floors with a distinct symmetrical look. This is the style of house that really defines the local architecture and has become emblematic of the area. Next come the maisons de maître – the local manor houses with smooth, dressed stone walls and slate roofs – a real status symbol. Finally, we have the châteaux – ranging from the medieval “château fort” or castle to the more fanciful renaissance châteaux with their tall towers and formal gardens. There are properties to suit all budgets too. Village houses and small town houses can sell of as little as 80,000 or 90,000 euros. Larger townhouses in desirable locations can command over 600,000 euros. A fermette or larger village house would sell for 150,000 – 300,000 euros dependent upon its location and condition and the typical Charentaise would could come onto the market anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 euros, sometimes more. Water mills vary in price, from 200,000 – 700,000 euros and you should expect to pay 1,000,000 or more for a genuine château. For the average price of a detached house in the UK (currently around 425,000 sterling) there is an amazing choice – from a manor house to a gîte complex, an ultra-modern glass and chrome villa on the coast to a restored house with landscaped garden on the edge of Angoulême.
Fantastically accessible, there are five regional airports serving the area (with both low cost and national airlines operating from them), along with the high-speed TGV to Paris (and on to the UK) and major road links to Paris, Bordeaux and beyond. With all this you would be forgiven for thinking that property prices would reflect the Charente’s desirability, but you would be wrong. The Charente offers some of the best value-for-money properties currently available in France with average prices well below the national norm.
The department’s tourist board sums it up: The Charente has its secret: nothing is excessive and passing travellers frequently stop here, seduced by its sweetness, its quality of light, its unspoilt nature and its white stones reflecting the sunlight… why don’t you do the same?
Interested in buying in Charente? Visit Charente Immboilier on stand 60 at the French Property Exhibition at Olympia London on 16-17 September who can answer all your questions about the region. Don’t forget to register for free tickets here.