Where we live: Poitou-Charentes

Things to do, dishes to try and a run down of property prices

Poitou-Charentes is a region of contrasts. Slate roofs and and white stone abound in its two northern departments, Vienne and the Deux-Sèvres, with warm reds and bright shutters to the south in the two Charentes, inland Charente and Charente-Maritime.

The north, with its rolling pastureland, woodland, hedges and stone walls is culturally closer to the Vendée but visually closer to Touraine.

Poitiers, the largest city, is an ancient university town, famous for the battle in which the Francs finally defeated the Moors and pushed them back over the Pyrenées (732 AD).

To the south, the two Charentes are culturally closer to the Limousin in the east and Aquitaine to the south. With the exception of La Rochelle, its major cities of Angoulême, Cognac, Saintes and Rochefort, all sit on the Charente.

For centuries local trade, especially the cognac from the vineyards that stud its sunny slopes, depended on the navigable river. At Rochefort, Louis XIV launched his warships into its waters.

The coastline is a separate world and suffered badly when Tempête Xynthia hit earlier this year – a huge rebuilding operation has been started to give the tourism industry vital help, but visitor booking have remained strong.

With its many islands, the estuary of the Gironde and the banks of the river Seudre with their oyster villages, Charente-Maritime is ideal for sailing and swimming.

The Seudre and the two Sèvres rivers that flow through the Marais Poitevin to the Baie de l’Aiguillon, create a salt marsh, ideal for oyster-farming and it is why the area has more bird sanctuaries than elsewhere in France.

Poitou-Charentes has also produced its fair number of recent national figures: François Mitterrand was born and is now buried in Jarnac. France’s first woman prime minister, Edith Cresson comes from Châtellerault.

Former Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin is from Poitiers, and the woman who nearly made it to President of the Republic in the last elections, Ségolène Royal, is president of Poitou-Charentes.

Social life balanced between communities

A VERY balanced social life is what David and Beryl Brennan have enjoyed in the Deux-Sèvres since they arrived in 2002.

David says that as soon as they started to look at moving to France he started conversation classes in the UK and they have “stood me in good stead”.

When he closed his business and took pre-retirement, they set up a chambres d’hotes business near to the air and ferry ports and when they eventually sold up they stayed in the area.

David said: “The poor exchange rate sent me to the employment centre ANPE and, since January 2009, I have been working as a personal chauffeur for an elderly man who can’t drive any more.

“So I’m speaking a lot more French and I simply love the job, it gets me out of the house.”

Beryl, who had done French at college, said they chose the area “the Deux-Sèvres reminded us of Suffolk and we have close friends in the Vendée.”

They got involved in French life through a local dog club. “We were the only non-French, that’s the way we wanted it, and we made a lot of French friends. “Through the chambres d’hôtes, we also made friends with the English who came to buy properties in the vicinity, so social life is very balanced between the two.”

Beryl says that the expats who have been here a while are well integrated. “We have two gardening clubs, one English and one French, but with joint activities and a joint show. Last year they grew runner beans. The judge was very funny to watch when he saw them in the same class as the haricots verts.

“This year, we’re trying our hand at some of their weird tomatoes.

“Our community is scattered, not like to the south or east. Here, only a couple of dozen properties are British owned, so this makes fitting in a lot easier.”

Further south, Ron and Hazel West, after several years running chambres d’hôtes too, have retired to a small fishing port on the Gironde, in Charente-Maritime.

Ron grows all their vegetables, rears chickens and bakes bread, while Hazel works half the year in local vineyards.

The area is excellent for their pastime, bird watching. Hazel said: “We are active in LPO 17 (League pour la Protection des Oiseaux). We volunteer on projects such as the Atlas of Nesting Birds, checking storks, owls and harrier nests.

“It enables us to share a common interest and do something useful with our leisure time. It’s fun and it gets you out in the fresh air.”

Time to be realistic with variable property prices

Property values vary considerably in Poitou-Charentes, with housing in the Deux-Sèvres and Vienne slightly cheaper and the most sought-after properties in the south of the region. Charente-Maritime and Charente both enjoy an attractive microclimate, with days of sunshine equal to the Cote d’Azur.

Charles Miller, of Cabinet Charente Immobilier, in Jarnac, also sells in the north of the region, around Chef-Boutonne and Civray but does most of his transactions in the south. He estimates he now has a 50% British and a 50% Eurozone clientele: “We have top market Americans looking for places in the sun; Russians, too, but they want mortgages, which we can’t arrange.

“British buyers’ budgets have gone down and their expectations have gone up,” he says.

“Theoretically, this is a buyers’ market but the French don’t go in for quick sales. They’ll sit on a property for years if need be.”

Many clients are looking for houses in the €250,000-300,000 bracket, but, he says, they want them in perfect condition. “This is just not realistic. It’s mostly retired or pre-retirement buyers these days.
It is hard for young people to find work. On the other hand, young French couples are looking for good town houses.

“You can get a two-bedroom town house with no land in Jarnac from upwards of €80,000.”

The magnet for British clients in Poitou-Charentes is the handy transport. Richard Dannreuther of Euro Immobilier Charente, says: “You are close to Limoges, Bergerac, Poitiers, and La Rochelle airports. There’s going to be an LGV station, on top of the ordinary highspeed TGV trains. “People can live here and commute to work four days a week in the UK. And you can’t beat the rolling countryside.”

He reckons his clientele is now 40% French, compared with 20% two years ago.

“They are looking for tastefully restored old properties, and go for those done up by the British.”
British buyers are down 20% but he thinks “they’re back, after a year off with the poor exchange rate, but it’s hard to find decent properties under €150,000. For some reason, that’s the magic figure;
many won’t go above it. But these are hard to find and the days of tithe houses and barns are over.”

Don't miss these...

1. Taste the specialities
Fill halves of Charentais melon with red or white pineau, a grape juice and brandy apéritif. Tuck into Marennes-Oléron oysters (huîtres des claires) a mou-clade (mussels in creamy curry sauce); or Deux-Sèvres goat cheese. For dessert, try tourteau fromager, a blackened cheese cake or a broyé du Poitou, brittle shortcake – smash it (broyer) with your fist. Free cognac tastings.

2. Explore Futuroscope
This year’s attractions at the futuristic theme park outside Poitiers include Arthur, the 4D Adventure, by film director Luc Besson and giant views of Van Gogh’s works. (See main paper p.18-19 for more theme parks.)

3. Check out a music festival
Enjoy fine jazz at the Châtellerault jazz festival which runs until June 5. It is time to book if you enjoy July’s Francofolies in La Rochelle or to get classical music in Saintes’ Abbaye aux Dames. July also has three nights of free concerts and fireworks on Royan beach.

4. Take to the water
Explore the Marais Poitevins canals; there is a big floating market in July in Vanneau. Go canoeing on the Charente or cross to cycle Ile de Ré or jump in the breakers on the Ile d’Oléron. For the family, splash in the lagoon at Les Antilles, Jonzac’s aquatic centre.

5. Go back in time
THE Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route crosses Poitou-Charentes. Church carvings and frescoes at St Savin, east of Poitiers, Notre Dame and St Hilaire (Poitiers), St Hilaire (Melle), Aulnay, Saintes and Talmont. La Rochelle has shopping galore, a fabulous old harbour, and a wide choice of seafood restaurants.

Did you know?

Napoleon sailed to exile from here
Napoleon spent his last week on French soil on the island of Aix in August, 1815 before the British took him to St Helena. The house he lived in is a museum and contains his bed. The island is a heritage site with no cars: great for walking, cycling and bathing. Get there on the Fouras passenger ferry.

Angoulême’s Cité Internationale de la BD et de l’Image is one of the world’s largest strip cartoon museums and is in its 37th year. It expanded last year from a simple museum to a cultural centre with exhibitions, a festival and plenty of activities, plus a bookshop and an excellent restaurant offering vegetarian dishes overlooking the Charente. France’s oldest breed of donkey. The shaggy brown baudet du Poitou is used as a stud donkey to produce mules. It nearly died out after World War II and by 1977, only 44 were left. A French national stud farm campaign means they number about 350 now. See them at the Asinerie Nationale du Baudet de Poitou at Dampierre-sur-Boutonne, near St Jean d’Angély.

Bressuire hosts traditional Highland Games
Started in 1991, the games are held in the castle and collaboration with Scottish towns has seen it evolve into a unique event, equal parts sporting, music and Celtic festival. Held on June 12-13, the Association pour les Jeux d’Ecosse en France is for the first time part of the World Series, with nine sporting events.

Cognac loses alcohol to the angels
The “Angels’ share” is the name given to the fumes that evaporate from cognac casks during the ageing process. The oldest brandies are stored in “Paradise”, where, of course, angels live. The alcohol fumes encourage the growth of a fungus that blackens all the walls of the town of Cognac.