Balanced on a rocky ridge above the Charente River, Angoulême is a stone-built city made all the more beautiful by its vertiginous slopes. The old walls that once barricaded the upper town were pulled down in the 1700s to form terrace paths and boulevards blessed with distant views of the Charente and the Anguinne Valleys.
And if you happen to be a comic book fan, the city will be right up your alley: In January you can come for the second-largest comic festival in Europe, where international masters of the art-form have given talks and accepted awards. And the rest of the time there’s a centre with a museum for comics and graphic novels, and outdoor murals all around Angoulême by some of France and Belgium’s best-loved artists.
Lets explore the best things to do in Angoulême:
1. Angoulême Cathedral
Sitting high on a terrace with wide open views across the Anguienne Valley the cathedral was begun at the start of the 12th century and the initial work was finished less than 20 years later.
At the entrance you’ll want to take a step back to behold the richness of the sculpture on this western facade.
There are more than 70 sculptures and reliefs vying for your attention, but if you look at the upper central portion, above the window you can make out an unusual image of the Ascension of Christ, with Jesus appearing in the midst of the clouds.
2. Musée d’Angoulême
In the Episcopal palace right next to the cathedral is the exceptional museum that recounts several thousand years of the Angoulême area’s history.
So on the ground floor you’ll peruse artefacts like the grisly but riveting severed skull of a Bronze Age woman or the awesome Agris Helmet that was found in a cave in the Charente Basin and held as a masterwork of Gallic Celtic art, dating back 2,500 years.
On the first floor are the museum’s Oceanic and African primitive art collection, numbering more than 3,000 pieces and donated by a leading anthropologist in the 1930s.
And then on the top floor you can study painting and sculpture from the French, Dutch and Flemish schools.
3. Upper Town
While exploring the highest and oldest neighbourhood in Angoulême it’s interesting to see the contrast between the northern and southern areas.
The northern part has a tangle of narrow cobblestone streets hemmed by exquisite stone mansions and more rustic houses with wooden shutters.
To the south though, at spots like Avenue Georges Clemenceau, you’ll notice where the ramparts and compact street system were removed in favour of straight tree-lined roads demonstrating the splendour of 18th and 19th urban design in France.
Both areas are superb for sightseeing on foot.
4. Angoulême International Comics Festival
At the end of January every year the third-largest comic festival in the world pulls in hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city.
Stores around the city open their doors for the event, which has been going since 1974 and builds up to an awards ceremony in which a list of prizes like comic of the year and the Grand Prix for lifetime achievement are handed out.
This has been won by Mœbius, Hergé and other luminaries.
If you’re a comic or graphic novel aficionado you can stock up on some new titles and attend Q&As with international stars of the art-form.
And if you’re an artist yourself you can come for some inspiration and a bit of networking.
5. Musée de la Bande Dessinée
The big events during the festival happen at the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image, a big complex that has a library, cinema and a congress centre.
But for the rest of the year you can come for the Comic Museum (Musée de la Bande Dessinée). There are retrospectives for a host of international artists, from Charles M. Schulz to Hergé, as well as some depth about the French trailblazers like Goscinny and Uderzo who created Asterix and also DC and Marvel.
The museum goes into detail about the technical aspects of composing comics and graphic novels, the different kind of art and lettering and uncovers the history and origins of the art-form.
6. The Ramparts
The upper town was surrounded by walls from the days of the Roman Empire, and these were expanded and modified over the next 1,500 years.
The last changes were made in the 1600s, but once the defences became obsolete in the 1700s the walls and gates were pulled down to allow Angoulême to expand along boulevards.
What is left are scenic terraces with paths and gardens.
The Rempart de Bieulieu was the first to be adapted into a walkway and has cast-iron gas lights every few steps and astounding panoramas of the Charente.
7. Paper Museum
Papermaking was big business in the Charente Valley because of the outstanding water purity, and a piece of this history is maintained at a former mill on a river island.
This facility shut down in the 1970s and had been running since 1887. Nothing was removed when it closed, so you can check out a lot of old industrial machinery, including the working water wheels powered by the river.
This factory churned out cigarette paper and has even kept the rollers that created the watermarks on each sheet.
There are broader exhibits about the story of industrial papermaking in the 19th and 20th centuries, with documents, first-hand accounts and black and white photography.
8. Hôtel de Ville
When you’re exploring the upper town on the rocky promontory you’ll appreciate how difficult it would have been to conquer this place.
What made things a lot harder for attackers was the Château d’Angoulême, a fearsome castle that is now incorporated into the city’s town hall.
The remaining buildings from the medieval period are the keep and polygonal tower, from the 12th and 13th centuries.
The tower is claimed to be the birthplace of Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of King Francis I. In the middle of the 19th century Paul Abadie, best known for renovating the Notre Dame in Paris, helped turn the site into the town hall.
9. Circuit des Remparts
In mid-September the streets of the upper town turn into a race track to commemorate a legendary post-war event.
In the 40s and early-50s the Circuit des Remparts was a Grand Prix tearing through Angoulême and driven by the most famous names of the era like Juan Manuel Fangio, Raymond Sommer and Maurice Trintingant.
The course was very quick with three hairpin turns, but didn’t last long as an official race.
In 1983 the event was revived as a heritage race with vintage Bugattis, Ferraris and Jaguars, and uses the exact same course as in the halcyon days after the war.
Fans of classic cars and motor sport won’t want to miss this weekend of nostalgic racing action.
10. Église Saint-André
In the 1860s Paul Abadie also had a hand in the renovation of this church, which was worse for wear after centuries of turbulence in which it was damaged by the Hundred Years’ War, French Wars of Religion and the Revolution.
This has left Saint-André with an eclectic mixture of styles, but a lot of the oldest parts are still visible inside.
The arches in the narthex (near the entrance) are Romanesque, having been completed in the 1100s, while there’s a lot of beautiful old furnishings to see.
The pulpit and altar date to the 1600s and there’s a large set of Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
11. Street Murals
Angoulême decided to harness its reputation for comics and illustration by commissioning 20 murals on the sides of buildings around the city.
Painted by artists like François Walthéry and Florence Cestac, these images permeate every neighbourhood and are labelled on a special trail that you can download.
The project has been going for nigh-on 20 years, and every addition is a big event.
But the first mural went up much earlier in 1982 on Bouelvard Jean Moulin.
This one depicts everybody’s favourite comic characters, from Batman to Tintin and Lucky Luke, and was what inspired the city to commission more.
12. River Activities
When the weather’s good the Charente River starts to look pretty tempting, and there are a few ways of enjoying the waterway as it meanders below Angoulême’s promontory and through unblemished farmland.
Canoeing is always a family favourite, and there are a few hire companies competing for your business in the city.
If you go upriver you’ll soon arrive at the Baignade Vindelle, a supervised natural pool in the river.
This spot is particularly inviting, with banks shaded by vegetation and a handful of activities for kids to get involved with.
And if you’d prefer to stay dry you’ll also be able to hire your own motorboat for up to three hours, going wherever you please.
13. Chapelle des Cordeliers
Now attached to a retirement home, this chapel used to be the church of the Convent of the Cordeliers.
The building took shape when the order settled in Angoulême in the 13th century, and there are traces of the original cloister remaining.
In the nave is the tomb of Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac the 17th-century libertine and author whose satirical essays caused a stir in contemporary French society.
As for the interior decoration, there are tapestries and paintings from the 1600s and 1700s, as well as very old chest of drawers and bronze bowl on display.
Not far west of Angoulême is the town of Cognac, which you don’t need telling is the home of the highly distinguished variety of brandy.
All the world-renowned houses like Martell, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin and Hennessy are here and only too happy to show you around and talk you through their stories.
Martell for instance has been distilling Cognac for more than 30 years now.
On a typical visit you’ll take a tour of the vineyard, go into the distillery and peruse memorabilia in the brand’s museum.
And let’s not forget the tasting session, which can include two or more varieties and usually comes with a little something to eat.
As is the case in a lot of western France there are quite a few pig farms scattered around the Charentais region.
In the past many families would have their own pig, which would provide food for several months.
So lots of recipes like boudin à la viande (blood pudding) and grillon (pork pâté) hark back to this time.
The city’s covered market is where to go to discover and buy the best local food.
The building is a stunning late-19th-century metal and glass structure built where a castle-turned-prison used to stand.
If you’re on the hunt for something to take home as a gift there’s a clutch of independent chocolateries and the Biscuiterie Lolmede is cherished for its macaroons, flavoured with pistachio or cognac.