Canoeing In France: Messing about on the Charente

Wynn Wheldon revisits the lazy, hazy charms of his favourite part of south-west France with four good friends and three sturdy canoes
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The Independent Travel
The last time we went canoeing on the Charente, in south-west France, the land was sunbaked dry as biscuit and the river ran slow and low. We meandered lazily down the river, on the look out for natural swimming- pools or perfect hammocking trees. We were escorted by big neon- blue dragonflies, and the scent of mint marked every landfall.

This year, the rain was falling as we launched the big Canadian canoes, the river ran fat and full, there was no meandering, and we paddled with purpose.

But whether low or high, the Charente is a benevolent river, almost motherly. One has a sense of being looked after. And it draws one back. The region of Charente-Poitou is not particularly favoured by tourists, who tend to pass through it on their way to the Dordogne or Bordeaux, nor, it sometimes seems, by the French themselves. The villages at which we stopped were quiet, ghostly almost. Their life seemed to be lead simply, away from prying eyes.

It is not difficult to hire canoes on the Charente. Around the biggish village of Mansle, on the N10 between Poitiers and Angouleme, there are several hire services, including a facility at the Hotel Beau-Rivage. It was here that we made our base camp on a Wednesday night, having left London some 12 hours previously (the journey by car is about 525 miles, whichever way you go). The canoes were brought to us the following morning, and we headed some way up-river to Aunac, where we found a bridge and a patch of stinging nettles, the ideal spot at which to launch our expedition.

We had three canoes and five paddlers, and we were going to be on the river for three days.

Canoes are simple boats, but some are more manageable than others. They should be light in case it proves necessary to skirt a weir on land. Lightness also helps with the steering, although a gust of wind can set you spinning foolishly. The canoe is powered by the paddler at the front of the boat and steered by the paddler at the back. If you are alone it is essential to master the "J" stroke, which enables you to both power and steer the boat in a single motion.

There are stretches of the Charente where there is no main channel and the river splits into a lattice-work of narrow ways often overhung and impeded by fallen trees. And there are brambles, evil fat old brambles waiting for prey. It is necessary, especially if you are at the front of the boat, to bear constantly in mind that to err is human, to forgive divine, and to strive for divinity. We all finished the journey with cuts and embedded thorns, trophies of our battle against the elements.

The other hazard on the river comes in the form of small weirs. When the river is low it is possible to paddle to the edge of the weir, get out and lower the boat down. This year there was enough water to "run" most of them. Common sense renders them less than dangerous (never attempt, for example, to go over a weir side-ways), and we only had to drag the canoes a couple of times.

On the first night, after a proper meal in a rather starchy local logis at La Folatiere, we camped on the Ile des Anguillards. It was tolerable, probably enjoyable if you like sleeping in tents (I was told that the matted grass on which we laid the ground sheets was a terrific bonus. I can't honestly say that I felt that in the morning).

On the second day, we pulled into the village of La Chapelle much earlier than we had anticipated. We were going to camp on the island that sits like a pleasure boat in the middle of the river. One of our party declared as soon as we had moored that he was going to sleep in a bed, in a single room, and that if that made him a wimp, well he was happy to be thought of as such. He didn't care. As the beers went down, we one by one defected to this line of thought. We are all within spitting distance of 40, and it might easily have rained during the night. Easily. As it was, the sky was clear as Evian water, the Milky Way spread across the firmament in all its distant glory.

The hotel at La Chapelle is on the water, and a mighty curious place, shabby as an old neglected dog. The rooms themselves smell as though they are sprayed regularly with Essence of Must. The food is of a mediocrity one would be hard- pressed to match even in the direst of English pubs. Most startling of all, here, deep in Cognac, we could not get a brandy to wash away the memory of the cupasoup and the cook-in sauce. No Cognac, no Calva, no Armagnac. We were offered rum or gin. We ordered rum but it proved undrinkable. The last time we were here, two years ago, the owner attempted to sell it to us but we were uninterested. It seems now that an English couple is soon to make the purchase. The place is rich in possibility, but quite honestly, I shall be rather sad if we return here in two years time to find the place painted, hanging with bougainvillaea, and patronised by the local bourgeoisie.

The last day ought to have been the hardest, but we made the excellent restaurant in Montignac-Charente early enough for a couple of games of pool and two rounds of Ricard before our magnificent lunch. And the rain had passed. This was the high life. The very last stretch was bucolic, messing about on the river. We reached our final destination, Marsac, in good time.

Canoeing on the Charente makes for a perfect long weekend. From Ruffec to Cognac, by way of Angouleme, I can personally vouch for the river's attractions. Six hours of navigating each day is just about right for a sense of achievement but not of exhaustion. The Charente is so benevolent and beautiful that even the rain fails to dampen the spirit. But rain in south-west France in July is extremely unusual. We were unlucky, but not that unlucky.

GETTING THERE

One week's fly-drive with Globe Travel (tel: 0171-724 7277) costs pounds 269 per person. Canoes can be hired at Les Gabariers (tel: 0033 545662311) in St Simeux, near Angouleme for FFr180 (pounds 18.75) per day or FFr780 per week. Rooms in the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Mansle (tel: 0033 545203126) cost between FFr160 and FFr260.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The French Tourist Office (tel: 0906 8244123; premium rate).

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