Our Little Black Book...
You can't beat a personal recommendation when looking for somewhere to go for a day out, a good cup of coffee or even a day of pampering. So we've started to compile our Little Black Book of great addresses. These are all recommendations, based on first-hand experiences - if you know somewhere that's worth listing, do share it! Get in touch...
Cistercian Abbaye de Fontaine Vive, Grosbot, near Charras, Charente
Visit this beautiful Cistercian abbey, built during the 12th, 17th and 18th centuries, including the lovely garden which features century old trees and an organic potager. Afterwards have afternoon tea in the cloister courtyard. 2013 opening: May 8 - 12; 18 - 20; 25 & 26, 31. June 1 ^ 2. Every day from July 18 - August 30, noon-6pm, except Mondays.
Jardins du Chaigne, Touzac, Charente
Absolutely beautiful gardens, from the French garden that complements the 19th century manor house to the fruit garden, potager, water garden and much more. From the lovely flowers, magnificent chestnut trees and sweeping views of the surrounding vineyards, this award-winning garden is an extra special place. Read more...
The beach at Rivedoux Plage, Ile-de-Ré, Charente-Maritime
Ile-de-Ré beaches are all rather nice but this is a favourite. Not just very pretty, it's also a great place to see kite surfers. You can also walk out to see the oyster beds when the tide is out. It's on the right after you cross the bridge (on the left is the nudist section...)
The church at Ligugé, Vienne
We especially love it on a hot summer's day. Pop in for Vespers and enjoy the Gregorian chanting by the monks; as you do so watch the lozenges of light from the stained glass windows moving up the walls as the sun goes down. The church (as opposed to the ancient abbey), is a modern building, very simple, with plain cream walls and abstract stained glass windows. Says our recommendee: 'I don't regard it as a religious experience, just a spiritual one that is very calming and peaceful.' This video might make you feel a bit giddy, but the sound is beautiful.
Domaine de Boisbuchet, Lessac, Charente
Deep in the Charente countryside is an unlikely place to find cutting-edge modern design but this 150-hectare estate with its lake, river and woodland holds regular summer workshops with some of the big names in modern architecture and design. Many of these names build signature pavilions which can be seen by taking a tour of the Architectural Park during the summer months – they range from a traditional Japanese guest house to the mosyt recent creation, a large bamboo pavilion. Das well as the park, visitors can see the annual exhibition held in the unrenovated and atmospheric chateau. Have a light lunch or afternoon tea in the renovated mill. For reservations and more information: www.boisbuchet.org; email@example.com or 05 45 89 67 00.
The spa at Le Clos Saint Martin Hôtel, Saint Martin de Ré , Charente-Maritime
Once a barn, now a gorgeous Clarins spa. Relax on a heated treatment bed and enjoy a massage, scrub and/0r wrap. Afterwards relax in the bar or take a dip in the heated swimming pools. 87 cours Pasteur, Saint Martin de Ré; tel 05 46 01 10 62; www.le-clos-saint-martin.com
Hotel Particulier La Chamoiserie, Niort, Deux-Sèvres
A luxury boutique hotel – think chandeliers, a sweeping staircase and large beds - that's big on charm and service. 10 Rue de l'Espingole, Niort; tel 05 49 78 07 07; www.hotelparticulierniort.com
A beautiful countryside drive in the Deux-Sèvres
An easy drive of 25 kilometres or so in which you can stop and admire at least three châteaux, two beautiful churches, and an old roman bridge. Find a restaurant to eat at at the end of the drive or pack a basket or goodies and stop at the picnic spot by the river Thouet that's about half-way through.
You can drive it in reverse too, and as the route more or less follows the new cycling path of La Vallée du Thouet so it is possible to do it on two wheels too.
* From the N147 in La Ferrière (it's on the Poitiers to Parthenay road), turn off, direction Thenezay, and fork left to Oroux.
* In Oroux you can stop and admire, or even visit during the summer, the 15th century Château d'Oroux (tel 05 49 95 32 69) which has recently been renovated (and is also a Haras equine stud) before driving on to the 15th and 16th century Château de Maurivet (tel 05 49 63 01 28). Both are very different from each other but fine architectural examples (telephone to check summer opening hours)
* Drive on to Lhoumois where you can admire La Roche Fâton which dominates the river Thouet. This 16th château has remained in the same family and was important during the Vendée revolution. Only the outside is open to the public but it's still worth the stop.
* In the valley below this château is Le Gué du Flais where there are stepping stones that cross the river Thouet. Stop for a picnic, and try leaping from stone to stone - if you feel energetic!
* Drive on to Gourgé and admire the roman bridge and the 10th/11th century church at the top of the town.
* You could then continue on to St Loup and visit this beautiful old medieval town and its XVII château and gardens.
* In Airvault further up the river, there is an abbatiale and wonderful old museum full of local history, as well as an underground fountain, outside market and timber houses.
Café des Bains Chez Bob, St Palais-sur-Mer, Charente-Maritime
This place was described to us as being 'awesome and the place to be and be seen'. What more can we say?! Except that it's also perfectly placed for a great view while you tuck into a hamburger or sip your tea or coffee. Try for a table outside in summer... 8 Rue Bains, Saint-Palais-sur-Mer; tel 05 46 23 11 10
Galerie XXIV, Angoulême, Charente
Part cafe, part gallery, part shop. Situated in the winding streets of Angoulême's old town, this tranquil spot is a lovely place for a light lunch or cup of tea or coffee (and a delicious slice of cake, it has to be said). While you're there, take a look at the artwork or bag yourself a little vintage number from the boutique. 24, Rue de la Cloche Verte, Angoulême; www.galerie-xxiv.com
La Commerce, Ars-en-Ré, Charente-Maritime
On the Ile de Ré, another great people-watching spot – with good food and very family friendly. Take a table outside in summer; in winter head indoors for a cosy, warm atmosphere. The owners travelled the world and the décor reflects this; the interesting collection includes an El Paso saloon mirror with a bullet lodged in it! The menu is extensive from flambeed rock lobster to Tex Mex. We particularly love the cheesecake. On Sunday mornings, browse the market that's just around the corner. 6 Quai de la Pree; tel 05 46 29 41 57; www.cafcom-ars.com
D'Jolly, La Rochelle, Charente-Maritime
A fab place for tea and cakes. Close to Galerie Lafayette - so pop in after shopping – it has the most delicious chocolates and desserts and it's impossible to choose. It's also great for light lunches. 16 rue Chaudrier, La Rochelle; tel 05 46 41 26 95
A BITE TO EAT
Café de la Comédie, Ruffec, Charente
Small brasserie/bar in the centre of Ruffec in the Charente, opposite the mairie square. Laurent is the charming owner who employs a chef that uses local, fresh food daily. He has a set menu, but the daily blackboard has extra dishes, freshly cooked while you wait. Prices range from euros €4.50 - €9. Place d'Armes, Ruffec; tel: 0971538883
Hotellerie Saint-Jean, Saint-Jean-de-Thouars, Deux-Sèvres
Feast your eyes on Thouards chateau and also feast on delicious food such as gigot steak of lamb served with compote of dried fruits. It may not look like much from the outside, but within is a different story! 25 Route de Parthenay, Saint-Jean-de-Thouars; tel 05 49 96 12 60; www.hotellerie-st-jean.com
Bar André, La Rochelle, Charemte-Maritime
The place to go for a fish supper! This restaurant, which opened here back in 1947, is renowned for its fish dishes and it never disappoints. 5 rue St Jean du Pérot, La Rochelle; tel 05 46 41 28 24; www.barandre.com
Le Bistrot du Boucher, Poitiers, Vienne
'One of our preferred eateries for taking friends, as the food and ambiance are always excellent, reasonably priced and with great service,' says our recommendee. 'It never varies. Booking essential for the evening.' 31 rue Carnot, Poitiers; tel 05 49 03 37 02
La Cueillette Fabulette, Soyaux, Charente
Pick your own vegetables and flowers at this boho pick-your-own place near Angoulême. Collect your wire basket and then get start gathering the lovely tomatoes, carrots, lettuces, courgettes, potatoes, raspberries, herbs and more. Flowers include cosmos and zinnias. The shop is stocked full of delicious regional produce. 43 Route de Saint Marc, Soyaux; tel 05 45 93 95 30
La Demeure des Roses, Verteuil, Charente
A wonderful and atmospheric gift shop, situated by the side of the Charente bridge. Unusual gifts and bedlinen plus the owner, Virginie Stefani, is an excellent artist and many of her pictures are on display and for sale. 1 Rue temple, Verteuil; tel 05 45 30 13 97
Ernest, La Rochelle and La Martinière at St. Martin de Ré, Charente-Maritime
The place everyone raves about – and an institution. This is the place to come for absolutely delicious ice-cream. Flavours incluide black chocolate with nougatine, melon, strawberry and pineau, and lemon and basil. http://www.ernest-le-glacier.com. 15-16 and 18 rue du Port, La Rochelle. Tel: 05 46 50 55 60.
Confiserie Leclerq, Niort, Deux-Sèvres
More a trailer than a shop - watch these delicious sweets being made in front of you. The shop has been in the family since 1897. Place de la Bréche, Niort.
With thanks to Samantha Best, India Bottomley, Sandie George, Susie Kelly, Simone Phillips, Julia Salvat