Enjoying the beauty of La Charente
- A somewhat strange name for a wonderful cycling route! The course connects “les departements” of La Dordogne with La Charente and La Charente-Maritime, or 290 km from Thiviers in the Parc Régional du Périgord-Limousin along the river Charente to Fouras-les-Bains on the Atlantic Ocean (and officially by ferry to l’île d’Aix. )
- First the main conclusion: If you were ever in doubt whether multiple-day cycling is a thing for you, then you should try this route or certainly the stretch from Angoulême to Fouras, 200 km along the Charente. Indescribably beautiful – so, we won’t try to – and blissfully quiet!
- There is a French guide book on it which can be ordered on www.chamina.com
- We describe the route from East to West as arriving at the ocean is always more satisfying and Fouras is so much more picturesque than Thiviers! Also, less elevation in that direction – as far as there is climbing on this route…
- Thiviers can be reached by train from Bordeaux; also, from Angoulême. You can train back from Fouras (from Saint-Laurent-de-la Prée, 7 km by bike): first to Chatelaillon-Plage (an attractive beach town!) then to Bordeaux, then to Thiviers. (French TER trains are well designed to board with bicycles (the entrance of the train is flat, unlike Belgian trains; English…?) – but avoid rush hours!)
- The GPX can be downloaded from the route website; note that it still indicated the old route in the summer of 2022! The signs now usually follow a nicer and easier road (often closer to the Charente). We will write about the route according to the layout of the 9 GPX stages, so each part about 30km.
- We cycled for 4 days from Thiviers to Fouras (also because we had already cycled a few stretches some time before we did the whole trail); 5 or 6 days seems ideal to us, maybe with an extra day in Cognac, Saintes or Port d’Envaux (and an extra day staying in Fouras with a crossing to Ile d’Aix), see conclusions.
- In Thiviers we spent the night in Chambres d’Hôtes la Sablière (120€ with breakfast). Very good! Alternative: Hotel de France et de la Russie (was fully booked). Dinner at Restaurant Le Saint-Roche. Good. (See conclusions: you could also leave in the afternoon from Thiviers and spend the night in St Jean-de-Côle.)
Stage 1: From Thiviers to Nontron: 31km and 366m elevation
The route starts at the station in Thiviers. After some meandering through the city a converted railway takes you all the way to Saint-Pardoux-La-Rivière. But after about 5 kilometers you should definitely leave this “Voie Verte” for Saint-Jean-de-Côle which is about 2 km from the route. This visit to one of the most beautiful villages in France could be accompanied by lunch in the cozy “le Temps des Mets”.
This first 20km would be a bit too easy as a first stage: after Saint-Pardoux follows some rolling work to digest the lunch a bit faster with a final uphill to Nontron. This city wasn’t inviting enough for a longer stop.
Stage 2: From Nontron to Marthon: 26km and 300m up
You cycle through interesting Javerlhac, but both les Tilleuls and le Bar du Centre didn’t make any effort to be friendly. Two more climbs follow to St Martin-le-Pin and to La Chapelle-Saint Robert, both idyllic picnic spots (you have to bring your own picnic, though; both come also with siesta spots!). From Souffrignac the road gets smooth again and on former railway.
Marthon is no big deal; everything was also closed. And Hotel Les Glycines is for sale.
We stayed in B&B Maison les Buis in Feuillade (2km below Marthon, follow the D111 and then the D163), a long term but magnificent project by a Lithuanian/English couple. 90€ with breakfast; dinner (vegetarian) is possible on request. Recommendable!
Stage 3: From Marthon to Angoulême: 25km and a 200m climb
Some Voie Verte and varied routes bring you to Magnac-sur-Touvre, after which the outskirts of Angoulême soon present themselves with the usual commercial and light industrial monstrosities that as a cyclist, you want to leave behind as quickly as possible.
The indications are not always that clear but once you have reached the Charente and found out how to follow it in the southerly direction (do not cycle to St.Yrieux-sur-Charente!) you will arrive at the museum of la Bande Dessinée (comic strips) where Hergé is greeting you and where some food trucks can actually reward you for your quest with various lunches or coffee with cake and this on the banks of the Charente.
We will not elaborate on Angoulême, probably not fair to the city, but we usually avoid cities on our bike rides.
Stage 4: From Angoulême to Chateauneuf-sur-Charente: 25 km and from here on only bridges or riverbank heights as elevation.
This stretch has some magnificent stops along the river!
If you would start from Angoulême (from the station), it is best to look for the museum of la B.D. At the station there should be a sign for the route, but we did not find it. Anyway, the route from the station runs for a while on green colored asphalt… and north to where you cross the tracks.
From the museum the route runs smoothly, all the way to the ocean…!
Note: the signs now keep you close to or all along the river and this until Sireuil, contrary to the previous GPX trail (which was still not updated in mid-2022!); so, you don’t pass by the towns of Fléac, Linars and Trois-Palis anymore! Also pay attention to the signs as the ones for the “Tour de la Charente” look very similar to those of La Flow Vélo!
Before Fléac you pass La Guinguette for a stop; also, the charming l’Ecluse de Fleurac has everything for a longer break and siesta (there is also a pop-up restaurant)! In Sireuil, the Charente becomes navigable again for pleasure boats. Here you leave the river for a short distance on the D7 to Champmillon and then the D72 to Saint-Simieux.
Saint-Simieux is charming and deserves some exploring: first around the islet with the mill and on the other side of the river on the terrace of the friendly “Les Gabariers”. Weekly music concerts are also organized here!
The route continues to Chateauneuf which did not really appeal to us.
Stage 5: From Chateauneuf-sur-Charente to Cognac : 36 km.
Lovelyl! With plenty of inviting overnight options. (See below)
These 36km seem to be just laid out for you with smoothly rolling fine gravel and sand and this along a river that is gliding through picture perfect scenery and along idyllic villages.
Well worth a stop: Angeac (the Church), Saint-Sigismond (Saint-Simon), Graves St-Martin, Bassac,…
Soon after, a row of castles is announcing Jarnac as the hometown of François Mitterrand.
The route brings you then back to the river and to Cognac – in earlier days you cycled through Bourg-sur-Charente and then up via the domain of Grand Marnier and around the Golf of Cognac … Now you stay in the welcoming shade along the river.
Cognac is quite likeable, especially along the riverbank on le Quai des Flamands where there is always a good whiff of brandy in the air (Hennessy)!
In terms of location (seems to us) recommended places for an overnight stay on this stretch: La Cascade de Saintonge, Le Moulin de Bassac, The Riverside Retreat (at the bridge of Bassac), Les Ombrages (Vibrac). And in Cognac: Hotel Quai des Pontis (we stayed there for 110€ incl breakfast; Very good!).
Stage 6: From Cognac to Saintes: 38 km
Wonderful sunflower fields, neat vineyards, storks foraging in meadows, a river that takes its time…
In Salignac, around le port de Lys, you will come across “L’université de la Paresse”, an amalgam of garden and terrace furniture whose owners take their name seriously and don’t make any effort at all as just to live up to their name. They have the best ice cream of the region on the menu (l’Angélys). But whether that turnover will be enough to continue to preach “la paresse”…?
Those of Les Clapotis in Rouffiac do still make some effort…
A great idea for lunch, on the other hand: the lovely simple but good Amaryllis in Courcoury.
In Chaniers you can take “le bac” – as an experience alone worthwhile – to cross the river and go swimming or cooling off in a protected section of river along the campsite.
Saintes is best known for its Romanesque Abbaye aux Dames and among classical music lovers for its annual festival in it; name and fame to a large extent owed to Philippe Herreweghe. See Festival de Saintes – Abbaye aux Dames. This festival offers a unique and total experience of classical music in high-quality concerts, in a charming setting and in a blissfully simple atmosphere. Ideal for relaxing and unwinding. And in between concerts, some biking along the Charente makes for the perfect holiday!
When in Saintes walk also via the Arc of Germanicus to cross the river and visit the old town: there are some charming little alleys around the Basilica Saint-Pierre and then continue further to the well-preserved Roman amphitheater and the crypt of the Basilica of Saint-Eutrope!
To stay, Les Chambres de l’Abbeye are highly recommended, as well as Les Saveurs de l’Abbeye for dinner. The campsite of Saintes is also well located and has caravans for rent!
Stage 7: From Saintes to Saint-Savinien : 26km
In beauty this stage is on par with the one between Chateauneuf and Cognac with Port d’Envaux as an absolute pearl! So beautiful that we’d better keep it quiet!!!
In good weather you should take this tiny harbour town as rest day with some strolling along the river to appreciate the architectural wealth that trade has brought in previous centuries, some swimming, some oysters of Oleron under a willow tree and finally dinner on the terrace of Auberge de la Charente- l’Amaranthe (booking needed! Open Wed to Sunday)! There are also a few B&B in Port d’Envaux. (Les Armateurs and Logis des Chauvins)
The route remains fun after Port d’Envaux (the last part to Saint-Savinien is actually a diversion via Le Mung) with the beautiful castle of Panloy as the highlight and the arrival in Saint-Savinien satisfactory. This town is not a hoot, but charm content will one day make it… Le Saint-Savinien is a good hotel/restaurant there.
Stage 8: From Saint-Savinien to Rochefort: 39km
From Saint-Savinien, the Charente is less protected from the tides of the ocean, becomes noticeably wider and its course rather chaotic with more space allowed for flooding. That is why from here you mainly follow canals that have been drawn through the estuary with typical marsh land and grazing Limousin and Charollais cattle.
Tonnay Charente takes you through past industrial glory, followed by a long boring stretch along the D739. After going on this D-road, you enter Rochefort where you have 2 options: either straight through the city – the less attractive option – or left (at café Le Cargo; not so clear; you have to decipher a panoply of sign boards!!)) onto the quays of the Charente.
You will pass the Arsenal with the Musée de la Corderie (rope making) and – when she is not traveling – La Hermione, a replica of the frigate of General de La Fayette with which he came to the aid of the American colonists fighting against the English Crown, helping the US to become finally independent in 1882 ….. but for this support Louis XVI incurred huge debts becoming an indirect cause for the French Revolution..!)
Highly recommended in Rochefort: Hotel Roca-Fortis and restaurant O’Gabier.
And so, you’re already on:
Stage 9: From Rochefort to Fouras: 27km
At Le Pont Transbordeur (the old but still impressive goods and vehicle transport bridge) with some inviting terraces in the vicinity, turn right towards Vergeroux.
Continue through marsh land until just before St Laurent you leave the Vélodyssée (EV1) that ran with you and turn left towards Fouras.
This is surprisingly a fairly quiet and beautiful town along the sea with a fortress that protected the city, a beautiful and busy promenade (La Grande Plage) with several restaurants (we tried Le Bel M for lunch and liked it!) and a cozy old center with cute little shops. Walk or bike as well along Avenue du Bois Vert where you can go down to the beach in various places along elegant old houses! And definitely a must to taste “les fruits de mer” in restaurant l’Océan, close to the ferry pier.
From here you can also take a ferry (20 minutes) to île d’Aix (which we did not do…)
- The most important conclusion we made already in the introduction: this is a route that can get you completely relaxed in a week’s time by enjoying the peace and calm of a wonderful river embedded in a region that fortunately has not been discovered (yet) by hordes of tourists. Even in summer the region remains a pleasant hustle and bustle.
- If we would do the route again and truly enjoying the ambience rather than the biking : by train or car to Thiviers: depart from Thiviers but find a place to sleep in St-Jean-de-Côle, day 2 to Les Buis (Marthon/Feuillade), Day 3 in Bassac, Day 4 in Saintes, day 5 in Port d’Envaux, day 6 in Rochefort, day 7 in Fouras.