But Angoulême… Still yes?
Unless you’re an avid cartoon fan (I’ll explain more about this later), Angoulême may be somewhat of an enigma. A sign-post flashing past, the “Is it worth us stopping by?” question fleetingly hopscotching through your thoughts.
Well, to save such indecision, I’ll answer your question for you. Yes, indeed it is.
Angoulême is the capital of the Charente department in France’s Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, the so-called ‘balcony of the southwest’, challenging its neighbours to proffer a more appetising view across the Charente river. It is a city of adorable cobbled streets, hidden cake shops and cafes, and, as the May flowers blossom, a city of few tourists.
Rewind to January, and for a week at the start of each year Angoulême is alive with avid comic book fans gathering in their hundreds of thousands for the International Comics Festival. Indeed, the city, long associated with paper, printing and animation, is affectionately known as the ‘Cité de l’Image’. This is a city of character, of charming streets filled with religious heritage, the cartoons spray-painted on the sides of buildings a colourful reminder that the city celebrates its past as much as its present.
And there’s no better place to stay than Hotel Le Saint Gelais. Once a retirement home for priests, then a private residence, it is now a boutique hotel mere metres away from the stunning Église Notre Dame D’Obézine.
After a brief passport-loss panic at reception (a sign I really should sort out my handbag), we were shown to our room, a spacious mezzanine overlooking the sun-kissed front lawn, blushing with spring roses. Each of the 7 rooms and 5 suites differs in size and shape, bold interior-design visions fusing soft curves and sharp angles - think voluptuous bathrooms, open-plan bedrooms and beds poised to whisk you into your post-digestif dreamland. A little tip – if you’re after the best room, make sure to ask for the hotel’s suite with a balcony. This room is an absolute delight. With windows overlooking each side of town, Angoulême’s rustic beauty beams in. Request breakfast on your balcony overlooking the rooftops and revel in your moment in this beautifully unspoilt city.
Although breakfast wasn’t abundant with options, it was satisfying. A self-service start to the day with fresh bread, eggs, yogurt and cereals. Dinner, however, was another matter completely. Azzis Zermane is the resident chef in the hotel’s L'Algorithme restaurant and he is absolutely worth putting on a pavlova pedestal.
It was a Tuesday night, the restaurant a thrumming hub of diners. After a day exploring, that ended with a sickeningly romantic sunset over the vineyards, two pairs of tired feet were seated. Shortly afterwards, our richly delicious starters of seared fois gras in Japanese broth with crispy potatoes were served. This was a starter to make you forget whole heaps of aches and pains. Slow-cooked chicken breast with grilled shrimp followed, the meat so succulent and tender that you just knew hours of preparation had been devoted to this dish. And dessert – whatever you do, dig into the black cheesecake with red fruit confit. There’s a reason why this restaurant is so popular and why this chef is so well-known. Monsieur Zermane, merci. Thiebauld was our sommelier for the soir - a bundle of energy, smiles and recommendations. Spending an evening in this restaurant, with this team, is without doubt a reason to ‘cheers’.
The restaurant and the bedrooms bring the outside in. From the nature-inspired carpets and curtains, to the monochrome branches on the restaurant’s wallpaper upon which hang signed photos of Hotel Le Saint Gelais’ most high-profile guests. But, A-list or not, you can be sure to be welcomed here. To sip wine on the terrace, to indulge in a gourmet dinner, to rest tired heads and over-worked minds in a city often over-looked on the tourist trail.
This is no Bordeaux, or Cognac or Paris. This is Angoulême, serenely confident in its own tranquil beauty.
As we left, we were bid farewell with a “Thank you for staying in our home”. And, for those few days, that’s exactly what it felt like. Our own little home, in our own little corner of Angoulême.
To find out more or to book a room, visit:http://www.hotel-saint-gelais-angouleme.com