Whilst looking for a bit of late September sun, I snapped up a rural cottage in Pitou-Charantes which happened to be a bit of a bargain. I hadn’t been to France in years, and whilst there are plenty more exotic and exciting places to visit – it’s hard to see past it as a relaxing, warm break that doesn’t involve having to take a flight from the UK. Not to mention the wine, cheese, bread, crepes and croissants- France is home to some of the world’s most delicious cuisine (in my humble opinion). Pitou-Charantes is a region in the mid-west of the country, with an average high of 18 degrees as early as May and as late as October, although if you are looking for wall to wall sunshine to top up your tan, you’ll probably need to head further south. That said, we spent time sunbathing in over 25 degree heat at times during our week-long visit and even the cloudier days were still warm enough to sit outside.
We could have spent all week at our country cottage, nestled in a tiny hamlet of only ten houses. It is surrounded by aging stone farm buildings with beautiful shutters, it’s flaking blue paint somehow still clinging on – making them seem even more beautiful. The grassy banks lining the gravel roads and neighbouring gardens are full of fruit trees dripping with ripe prunes, apples and pears. If you want peace and tranquility, look no further than rural France. Endless rows of sunflowers greet you as you drive past field upon field, with prominent church spires appearing on the horizon in nearly every direction. Our arrival was observed only by a small tabby cat peering at us from on top of a wall- probably wondering what the commotion was all about in a place that receives virtually no traffic. Other than hearing the occasional plane or train in the distance, we heard nothing. Absolutely nothing.
If the solitude and quietness gets a bit monotonous, here is just a taste of some of the attractions in the area;
Sample food at a local market
No trip to France would be complete without taking in some local flavours, and what better way to experience them than at a market offering local produce. Rural France is full of small-holdings and the French are particularly proud of their cuisine, so expect to find many varieties of cheese, freshly baked breads, pastries and cured meats among many other delicious foods. We visited the Tuesday morning market in Lezay, about fifty minutes from Poitiers and said to be one of the best markets in the area. There was plenty of fresh food on offer from local sellers and quite an array of less conventional items such as lawnmowers, clothes and even tartan slippers! This particular market seemed to draw an older crowd and also quite a few English ex-pats, but this didn’t detract from the experience for us. There are several markets in the area to choose from, but if visiting Lezay be sure to get there early as things tend to wrap up fairly swiftly around midday. Even if you’re not buying, this is a lovely way to spend an hour or two and experience a little French culture. There is also a great little ‘Bric a Brac’ stall round the corner selling books, antiques and cakes- all in aid of animal rescue.
La Vallee des Singes (Valley of apes)
Open from February to November, the valley of apes makes for a wonderful afternoon out. At 19 euros per adult (13 euro for kids) you really get your money’s worth. The park is home to 34 species and houses over 450 monkeys across 16 acres, and the best bit- none of them are in cages. Watch the monkeys come and go, happily swinging through the trees in what is a very refreshing environment compared with your typical zoo. They are fed at certain times throughout the day, bringing much excitement to your visit- be prepared to be amazed at how close you will get to some of these magnificent creatures. Most impressively, the gorillas, which were only separated from us by a moat about three meters wide- I exaggerate not. There was gasps as the stocky silverback gorilla strutted over towards the bank to take his pick of fresh vegetables, delighting onlookers in the process. Don’t forget to bring your camera as you will have plenty of photo opportunities, particularly in the lemur enclosure where the residents are quite happy to pose for a photograph! There are a couple of café’s onsite and a few picnic benches too.
Nanteuil and Verteuil
A visit to these two lovely old villages has got to be on the hit list for your stay in Pitou-Charantes. A very pretty twenty-minute drive separates the two villages which can easily be explored on foot in an afternoon. Take a walk through the arboretum in Nanteuil, a quiet wooded sanctuary perfect for a picnic on a sunny afternoon, or explore the lanes lined with quaint stone houses. Verteuil is not your typical village; the quiet streets and pretty stone houses are a familiar sight, but the magnificent 15th century castle which towers over the attractive neighbouring architecture perhaps less so. Being so small, it would be easy to walk round Verteuil in less than thirty minutes but why not linger over a cup of speciality tea or an ice cream by the mill overlooking the River Charante? A visit to this café was a real highlight of our week here, we sat and soaked it up for as long as we could – next to a classic fiat 500 and a resident cat who had fallen asleep on some cushions.
Take a day trip to a city
La Rochelle and Bordeaux are interesting cities to visit if you have time and can bear to tear yourself away from the serenity of the countryside. I haven’t personally been to Bordeaux but I’m told that it is an amazing city to visit. I can however, vouch that La Rochelle is quite delightful and you can easily spend a day there soaking it all up.
Most transactions at Lezay market are done in cash, but only carry what you think you’ll need as there are pick-pockets about, as we unfortunately discovered the hard way. If you are likely to find viewing animals in small cages upsetting, I would probably avoid the indoor area as we saw many rabbits, geese and guinea pigs in very tiny cages.
We booked our cottage in France through cottages.com which has a wide selection of cottages throughout the UK, France, Italy and Ireland. Consider visiting outside of peak season for more competitive prices.