Magazine article The Spectator

Profoundly Glorious

Magazine article The Spectator

Profoundly Glorious

Article excerpt

TRAVEL

France

SPRING comes early to the Charente-- Maritime. In the first week of March the temperature sometimes nudges the 70s. Children run about in T-shirts and shorts under a sky flecked with white clouds.

If ever there was a landscape made to the measure of man, it is surely this. Rolling hills and vineyards stretch away in every direction. A mile from my house is the Gironde, the huge muddy river that runs north from Bordeaux into the Bay of Biscay. Birdsong fills the air. Life doesn't come much easier.

Mind you, it can be very cold in March, too. Almost exactly a year ago we woke one morning to a frost as thick as any I have seen. By lunchtime we were engulfed in a blizzard worthy of the North Pole, with snowflakes the size of golf balls. Just to rub it in, in the middle of the afternoon the snow turned to driving rain. Then, at six o'clock, the clouds suddenly cleared and a pale sun shone from a flawless sky. Normal service was resumed. At least, almost. It poured the next day.

Such freaks of weather are, I promise, very much the exception. The CharenteMaritime - fertile, contented and harmonious - is one of those blessed areas we all dream about: not too hot, not too cold, not too big, not too small. In summer, grapes grow in abundance. Winters, the odd gale apart, are cool but rarely cold. And all this in a landscape of such uncomplicated charm that it can make you want to laugh out loud.

Yet, for the English at least, it remains largely unknown. In a snap poll conducted among friends, no more than a handful even recognised its name, and none knew where it was. This obscurity is all the more peculiar given the universal fame of its neighbour, the Dordogne. Vastly higher property prices and a large permanent English population aside (the two are not, of course, unrelated), what does the Dordogne have that the Charente does not?

The answer is, in fact, an obvious one. Whatever its proximity to the fleshpots of the Dordogne, the Charente-Maritime, overwhelmingly agricultural, remains one of the poorest areas of France, with an unemployment level obstinately stuck at 12 per cent. Indeed, for the French metropolitan elite, it has something of a joke reputation as the home of an irredeemably backward and ageing peasantry, never more at home than with their pigs, their cabbages and their tiny vineyards. In short, this is La France Profonde in all its slightly seedy, earthy glory. And for me, as an outsider, that is precisely its appeal.

Of course, this being France, there is no lack of conventional tourist attractions. There are campsites and carefully workedout bicycle routes, driving tours, riding holidays and sailing holidays galore. …

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