Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The city of Angoulême in the Charente valley is home to one of France's most distinctive art form: the bande dessinée or comic strip. Guest contributor Rudolf Abraham introduces us to this extraordinary city.

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Angoulême is one of those French cities by-passed by the modern autoroutes. So a place missed by most road travellers. And it is a community where the TGV to Bordeaux pauses for just two minutes, before the doors slide shut and the train heads on to the south, speeding past the homely stone villages that are a feature of this part of western France. Yet for aficionados of the comic strip, Angoulême is much more than just a brief stop on the train.

The comic strip, or bande dessinée, is a peculiarly polarising art form, derided by its detractors but celebrated by its devotees for its cultural vitality. And for those devotees, Angoulême is the undisputed capital of the art. The city hosts its enormous comic strip festival, called the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée, in late January each year. It is an event which regularly pulls close to a quarter of a million visitors to the city on the Charente river. Large marquees swarm with avid fans; there are performances, interviews and exhibitions; and artists sign and dedicate endless copies of their books.

Angoulême has been holding its annual bande dessinée festival for thirty-five years and, quite simply, it is the event in the calendar of comic strip artists across Europe. There are other comic strip festivals — in Saint-Malo, Blois and other cities in France and Belgium — but Angoulême reigns supreme. Marquees, called bulles (literally meaning ‘bubbles’, but also recalling in their name the familiar ‘speech bubbles’ of comic strip art), are erected for the event along Angoulême’s Champ de Mars, which was renovated in 2007 to better accommodate them. Aller sous les bulles is the expression used by artists before diving into the marquees to meet their fans and dedicate their books. Such dedications are often fairly elaborate affairs, usually being executed in the form of a drawing or painting, rather than with merely a signature.

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Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel writer and photographer specialising in Central and Eastern Europe – in particular Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Montenegro. He is the author of a dozen books including Peaks of the Balkans, The Mountains of Montenegro, Walking in the Salzkammergut, Walks and Treks in Croatia, Torres del Paine and The Islands of Croatia, all published by Cicerone, National Geographic Traveller Croatia, and The Alpe Adria Trail, published by Bradt. He is co-author of Istria - The Bradt Travel Guide and has contributed to many more books including DK Eyewitness Slovenia and Unforgettable Journeys. His work is published widely in magazines.

Rudolf lives in London, and is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Find out more about his work at Rudolf Abraham Photography, or visit Rudolf Abraham | Travel Writer. You can also find him on Instagram at rudolfphoto.

This article was published in hidden europe 24.