Quintessentially French

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Writing a blog continually surprises me, but what I love most of all is the spontaneity of it. Just when I think I have everything in order and going to plan, with the next post happily laid out in my mind, everything changes; a few unintended photos catch me by surprise and the whole thing loses its original direction and I find myself freewheeling down a completely different road. This blog post started out about one thing and it sort of metamorphosed into something quite the opposite.

I had a meeting inland early Tuesday morning and I thought I would stop and take a walk with my camera on my way back (for the planned blog post) as it was such a fantastic day and a spring sun was scurrying across the sky. It was only when I got home that I realised that most of the photos I’d taken that morning were nearly all centred around one location, Port D’Envaux; this is a charming village on the banks of the Charente, midway between Rochefort and Saintes. It’s a pretty place that we have visited several times in the summer months as it’s one of our favourite places to hire kayaks and spend an afternoon on the water. Then of course, it’s very different and a much busier place where discerning visitors look for somewhere authentic and rather special.

However, in March it is not quite so frenetic, and I’d had a chance to take some pictures of scenes and buildings I’d not really seen before. Once the children were in bed I did a little more research about the village, and, as is becoming rather a bad habit, stayed up fascinated until at least 1am reading about its history.

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As a result, I realised that there was a lot more to discover and as the youngest girls finish school at 11.30am on a Wednesday, I picked them up and headed straight back to Port d’Envaux before I had to collect the other two children closer to lunch .

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In March, all is quiet and it’s a wonderful time to wander through somewhere old or new, and see that what a place may lack at this time of year in the way of floral beauty and trees heavy with green foliage, it more than makes up for with beautiful and interesting architecture. In the case of Port d’Envaux, this is augmented with the sense of solid contentment that the village projects as it sits proudly on the banks of the River Charente. For the first time I took the children through the streets on foot, stopping and looking at our surroundings instead of heading straight for the water and the kayaks (via the homemade ice cream stand which is open in the holiday season!).

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The River Charente is one of France’s most important waterways, and it is nearly 225 miles long. It was once an important and vital trade-route for cargo going both upstream (salt) and downstream (Cognac in particular). The river rises in the Limousin and meanders down through Angoulême, Cognac and Saintes before emptying into the Bay of Biscay at Rochefort. It reached its peak of importance during the 19th century, and merchants involved in the river-trade grew powerful and rich, which provides an explanation for the fabulous houses and properties we can still see today in Port d’Envaux and other towns along the river. As well as salt and cognac there were other goods plying back and forth on the barges, notably paper and iron products from the smelting industry. Easy access to coastal shipping routes at La Rochelle, Rochefort and Royan all helped the area flourish until the arrival of the dreaded phylloxera which destroyed the regions vines in the 1870’s, resulting in a population decline aided by the growth of France’s overseas empire and the manpower needed abroad to run it. In the 20th century the river silted up with a lack of use and it is only relatively recently that the majesty of its flow is slowly returning to its former power.

 

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Today, Port D’envaux is a small village of just 1200 permanent residents, but it really does have everything one needs, including a baker, a small but extremely well-equipped corner shop, a post office, and an elementary school.

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There’s also a good restaurant with both indoor and outdoor dining

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and a beautiful park leading down to the river which provides plenty of ‘nautical’ activities in the warmer months.

 

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The village even boasts an imposing château. The first known records of Château de Panloy appear in 1409 when it was most likely a water-mill, but it was not until 1770 that it was rebuilt from ruins in the form of the Louis XV style château that we see today. It came into the possession of the Marquis de Grailly through marriage in 1785 and has remained in the family ever since. The Château is open to the public from April through November and if you really want to feel like a Marquis or Marquise it has two delightful guest-rooms where you can stay on a chambres d’hôtes basis. In the summer months they have several musical performances in the gardens which stretch down to the river and this August the British Westminster Opera Company will perform for three days. I am not a huge opera aficionado, but a picnic on the lawns of a beautiful chateau under the stars listening to opera, hopefully on a warm and balmy summer night, sounds like a perfectly wonderful evening whether I am a fan or not – I suspect we shall certainly be going and introducing the children to opera!

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46 thoughts on “Quintessentially French

  • It looks absolutely charming.
    Yesterday I also happened to be out and about in an area I hadn’t been to in a while. I decided to look for a château where we’d dined some years ago; I found it, in a sad state, apparently abandoned. I almost stopped to take pictures. You’ve inspired me to go back and do it!

    • I always find it a little bit dispairing when things are just abandoned and let go, but the truth is these old houses and chateaux cost a fortune to maintain and the younger generation don’t always want to take on that burden, and whilst I think it is very sad I also can see their point of view. Of course this might not be the case with the abandoned chateau you talk of, who knows what circumstances cause people to leave places, I just hope it was nothing tragic.

      • When we were there, it seemed to be run by an extremely elderly and eccentric lady. I imagine that she died and either had no heirs or, more likely, the heirs are fighting over what to do with the place. I visited a place in town when we were looking to buy: +400 m2 for €165K. A steal? My back-of-the-envelope calculation for its five apartments (not to mention the shop space on the street level or fixing the roof) was €750K-$1M. And so, it is still empty, two years on.

      • It was obviously priced sensibly knowing the work that was required, thank goodness you didn’t jump in blind thinking you had snapped up a bargain, as I am sure you know renovation costs are high in France.

  • What a lovely post, following another line of thought sometimes brings the most amazing results. This is such a charming little village. It is rather difficult to find this kind of charm and architecture in the US. Its pastoral ambience makes it almost story book. Thank you for sharing, would love to see it in person. Enjoy a lovely Spring.

    • Hi Lucy, isn’t it a charming village, you can see why I just had to write about it and change all my well thought out plans! I agree there is not this ancient architecture with so much history in the States, but you still have so many utterly charming towns and villages and so much diversity all in one country. I hope you get to visit one day and that Spring is in the air for you too, Susan x

  • Words fail. I just take such joy in reading your blogs with photos…with my breakfast coffee. ….some Havarti cheese with toast…and ” bon maman” jam from France . …( I save the glasses ) . Thank you .

    • Hi Jacqueline, thank you as always, you say the nicest things and always put a smile on my face. My “go to” jam if I don’t make my own is always Bon Maman and like you I keep the jars, I have a pantry full of them, ready for this year’s jam making I hope! Susan x

      • Oh you had me wondering what I had missed there, I was thinking I had missed a comment but I couldn’t see how I had! Now I understand we’re talking about lids not kids! Yes I do use them again. I wash them thoroughly and put them in the dishwasher on an intensive wash as well. After I make jam I always place a circle of parchment paper over the top of the jar and then screw the lid onto that, so the lid actually doesn’t touch anything. Susan x

  • Oh, thank you for the tour! You truly make me want to get on a plane right this minute! this is the France I want to see…though I must see Paris, the villages of France such as this is the true France……
    Thank you
    Nancy
    wildoakdesigns.blogspot.com

    • Hi Nancy, well Paris is of course a must, just because it is Paris, but then do get off the beaten track, there are so many incredible places to see and to discover. Any plans for a visit in the near future? Susan x

  • I love the stone of charentaises houses! Royan is one of our family vacation spot (Pontaillac beach), and driving from Lyon, when we see the first houses with this peculiar color stone it’s the sign that we are nearing our destination!

    • I know that feeling only too well, that tingling excitement when you are nearly “there” when t he scenery changes. Pontaillac Beach is our favourite “town” beach, I love the big Atlantic beaches, but we all also love Pontaillac especially before the real crowds arrive, in May and June it is divine. I’m itching for summer now just thinking about it! Susan x

    • Hi Ali, oh how funny I always think of him as Mr Google! But where would we be without him, so much information at our fingertips. This is such a lovely village and Crazannes next door is fabulous too, look up the Chateau de Crazannes and also the Chateau Roche Courbon. I highly recommend both of them! Susan x

  • Wonderful blog again… I do love to read them as I know France really well including the region where you live and I miss it terribly. Tell me are your children growing up French? I assume they are bi-lingual but do they have French minds or English?

    • Hi Barbara, what a great question, yes they are all bi-lingual and I think they are dual nationality in terms of how they think – bi-national but that’s not a word, but it describes them perfectly. They are English with English traditions at home, but I know when we are in French friends houses, or when they are at school they totally switch into French mode with French customs. I truly believe they have the best of both worlds and they respect both countries customs. So glad you are enjoying the blog and so happy to have you following along. Susan X

  • Susan…You had me at the first photo :). I couldn’t take my eyes off that beautiful house at the end of the road. Immediately a story line popped into my head (and I am not a writer, per se) about who lived there and what was going on in the village, but then I took the rest of your photo and story tour through this ethereal village and simply sighed. Loving your rambles and twists and turns in the French countryside, planned or otherwise. You have such a good eye and great instincts for a story.

    A good friend who has been in a long recovery from illness hopes that when she is well enough we can come to France for a vacation. The other day she mentioned that Paris might be too loud and busy for her but that she would like to drive out and stay somehwere in the countryside. I immediately said I know a great place to go because of a blog I read…and clearly, you are doing a terrific job of providing places to add to an itinerary! One day…

    • Hi Mary, what a lovely comment, it’s such fun to imagine stories about places. I feel very fortunate to be able to share so many photos of our part of France. Please pass on my very best wishes to your friend, I really hope she will be able to come and visit France with you and please tell her, I would love to meet her and help you plan an itinerary. Big hugs to you both, Susan x

  • Wonderful place – I bet there is a great deal of history in that village. I bet a great Poldark type series could be made there, and bring all of that history to life….. thank you for the visit!

  • Oh, I loved the photos – such familiar architecture, after living in Poitiers for a year. Great reading and viewing – thanks.

  • These are so beautiful; they make me France sick! I can’t go at the moment either. I’ll just have to gaze at them for a little while. And sigh.

    • What an enchanting village. It is so picturesque and tranquil, especially beside the river. I haven’t been to that part of France, but it will be on the travel list.

      • Hi Sally, I am so glad you are going to add the Charente Maritime to your travel list, I promise it will not disappoint, for the architecture, the people, the beaches, it has it all! Susan x

    • Hi Andrea, well at least you have an end goal! The weather is incredible down here at the moment, like an English summer’s day, and yet there are no tourists, France at it’s best! Susan x

  • Saw the first picture, starting packing my bags.
    Not really, but wishing. Lovely pictures, charming village. I, too, like the color of the Charentaises stones.

  • Hi Susan, beautiful pictures. Always enjoy your posts. You said the village has an elementary school – what grade does it go through? How far away is the middle and high schools? Thanks for all the history. I’d love to go to France someday!!

    • Hi Mary, thank you. The elementary school will go up to and including the equivalent of 5th grade in the States, just like an Elementary school there. The nearest Middle school, known as College and High School known as Lycee in France would mostly likely be in Saintes or in that proximity, which is about 15 minutes away. Have a lovely weekend Susan x

  • I googled around until I found the Westminster Opera (the UK one; there’s also one at a college in the US). Your performances are going to be of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore — the elixir of love!! As with most operas, the plot is laughable, but the music is sublime. Enjoy.

    • Thank you Emm, I had looked them up briefly but that was as far as I had got! You have saved me a job, if it is a beautiful warm evening I doubt the plot will matter too much, it will be all about the ambience, I’m excited already!

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