Perched on a plateau above a meander in the river Charente, hilly Angoulême is the capital of its department. The town’s splendid architectural muddle attests to a history of conquest and re-conquest stretching back to the sixth century, when the Franks took it from the Visigoths. An industrial powerhouse, Angoulême once manufactured paper for the whole of France, but only a few mills struggled into the twenty-first century. Today, it’s better known for its comic strips, illustration and animation, and some 20,000 enthusiasts descend on Angoulême each January for the International Comics Festival.
The old town is a natural hilltop fortress. On the southern edge stands the cathedral, whose west front offers a dense exposition on twelfth-century theology, culminating in a Risen Christ surrounded by angels. A lively frieze beneath the tympanum commemorates the recapture of Spanish Zaragoza from the Moors; a bishop transfixes a Moorish giant with his lance, while legendary military commander Roland (Charles the Great’s nephew) kills the Moorish king.