Angoulême: surrounded by walls, cartoons and cartoon walls

People really paying attention to my blog and travel plans might have noticed a gap in between my farming experience and my time in Bordeaux.

It’s true! While I spent a week in the Atlantic Coast region, it was not all spend in Bordeaux. My first two nights were in Angoulême, a small city about thirty minutes north of Bordeaux.

Angoulême has two main attractions: its unusual urban layout and its top-notch cartoon culture.

In the medieval days, cities were contained in walls. Once you walked on the other side of a wall, you were elsewhere. As time passed and cities expanded, walls were knocked down.

But in Angoulême, the city center is still walled off and the inner-district’s little streets feel trapped in time. In terms of streets and architecture, it’s as if nothing has changed. Everything feels medieval and nothing feels quite real, and yet, it is very much an active city with attractive bakeries, restaurants and museums, and not a sleepy town.

Boulevards have been built above these walls, and walking along them provides a spectacular 360 of the elevated city, with its old church spires jutting out and the Charente River and surrounding suburbs below.

Juxtaposed against charming old homes are the ultra-contemporary cartoon murals present all over the city. Brussels has these as well, and the two cities are fighting for the title of Cartoon Capital of Europe. Except, the average person has never heard of Angoulême, so Brussels is likely winning the battle.

However, Angoulême is definitely the Cartoon Capital of France, and the pride is evident every year at its International Comics Festival. The four-day event, which is actually this weekend, draws some 200,000 to its workshops and expos. And even apart from the festival, many come to Angoulême purely for its comic strip museum.

Most Americans think of comic strips as something for children, a small section in the daily newspaper meant for amusement. But in Europe, the comic strip is gaining popularity as an art form. It’s not the mainstream, formalist works like Tin Tin, but a new underground scene that cool college-aged kids read on the bus.

My couchsurfing host worked at la Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (the cartoon museum), which meant a free private tour and lots of perspective on emerging styles. It’s easy to appreciate the artists and these works — the books are hefty, where illustration and storyline hold equal significance.

After leaving Angoulême, I began to notice small comic strip shops, and massive comic sections in larger bookstores, all over Bordeaux. I noticed cartoons being consumed on the trams and even a small collection in my German host’s home.

It’ll inevitably spread the states as well, so if you are looking for some way to beat your local hipsters, getting into la bande dessinée is not a bad idea.

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