Cognac and the river
The “Cognac and the river” route traces the link that brings together the waterway and Cognac, the ‘water of lifeâ€™. Since the Middle Ages, trade in salt, stone and wine has passed through the river ports. Today the tourist barges revive the river traffic of the past, evoking cognacâ€™s golden age.
As the Charente meanders along, bridges and ferries cross from one bank to another, weaving links between river towns and vine-growing villages.
|Croisière sur la Charente|
Saintes was a bridge, a harbour and, since Roman times, a strategic route and centre of trade. Salt, skins, brandies from Saintonge, timber for casks and building stone were all loaded and unloaded here, long before the 18th-century quaysides replaced the old landing stages. Today, a river barge provides sightseeing cruises that take visitors back in time.
Leaving Cognac at the bridge next to the chateau, the trail hugs the long bend in the river which encircles the city of eaux-de-vie as far as Boutiers-Saint-Trojan.
In then moves towards Saint-Brice where the Charente displays all its beauty before the chateau. On the hillside a dolmen watches over the manor of Gardépée and its pigeon house. Here, try to make the small detour to the Abbey of Châtres, a jewel of Saintongeais romanesque art in its rural setting.
Fill your cup with cold coffee, and place it on a saucer. Put two lumps of sugar in the saucer and pour cognac over them and into the saucer. Lower the lights and put a match to the sugar. Leave it to burn. Finally mix the contents of the saucer with the coffee and enjoy the result. But be careful with delicate pottery. It may not resist the heat. There are, however, cups with handles and deep saucers in glazed stoneware specially created for the « brûlot ».
Between Saintes and Angoulême the passage through fifteen or so locks gives a certain rhythm to the progress of the pleasure boats. These constructions allow the boats to overcome the changes in height of the river. Created in the 18th century these locks stimulated the economic activity between the coast and the interior.
Nowadays pleasure boating has replaced the old barges. Several firms rent out boats equipped for river cruising. For those who are even more physically active there is plenty of opportunity to handle a paddle or an oar or… a fishing rod. Lovers of unexpected sensations appreciate the twilight trips down the river in a canoe, which are available each year.
A dug-out canoe from the dawn of time
It was at Bourg-Charente in 1979 that two amateur divers discovered a neolithic dugout canoe lying in the bed of the river. This prehistoric boat, hollowed out of a tree trunk with stone tools, can be seen in the museum at Cognac.
If « Cognac » had been called « Jarnac » would this little town, gathered round the slow moving Charente, have remained so tranquil? Jarnac owes its prosperity to those great trading houses of Courvoisier, Hine, Delamain, Royer. For years the sound of barrel-makersâ€™hammers resounded in the narrow streets, and the wine stores along the quaysides witnessed those precious casks being loaded for distant destinations.
The Office de Tourisme offers a tour of historic old Jarnac such as described by Jacques Chardonne in “Les Destinées Sentimentales”. Chardonne was a friend of the Delamain brothers, men of letters who came from the world of Jarnac trade. The birthplace of President Mitterand, Jarnac was also the home of Pierre Boujut a poet barrel-maker who created the literary review “La Tour de Feu”.
In 1547 a duel took place between two courtiers of Francis I at the chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It ended with an unexpected sword thrust from Guy Chabot, Baron of Jarnac, that cut the hamstrings of Francois de Vivonne, Seigneur de la Chataigneraie, who subsequently died.
Nowadays, competitions are of a more peaceful nature, such as the Cognac Marathon that starts from Jarnac and goes through the vineyards.
The Circuit du chêne (Oak Tour), proposed by the Office de Tourisme of Jarnac, is designed to initiate you into the art of barrel-making. From the splitting of the staves through to the hooping of the casks, the visitor learns why the oak is to cognac what the alambic is to eau-de-vie. It is the tannin in the oak which gives, with passing years, that essential and beautiful amber colour.
The trail which leads to the Abbey at Bassac goes through the site of the Battle of Jarnac which pitted catholic against protestant in 1569.At Triac Lautrait a pyramidal stele commemorates the death in combat of Prince Louis Ist of Condé.
The Abbey, founded in 1002 and rebuilt many times, suffered greatly during the Hundred Years War and then from subsequent religious wars. In more peaceful times, the monks cultivated their vines on the slopes surrounding the abbey.
The barge which now takes passengers on river trips is the floating reminder of the villageâ€™s boating past. At Saint-Simon an outing on the river should be linked to a visit to the barge museum and to the quaysides which together evoke the age when salt, wood, stone, cognac, and spices all came or went by water
From Bassac to Vibrac and from Vibrac to Angeac the Charente divides here and there to create small islands from which you can bathe. Over one arm of the river or another, little hump-backed bridges sit astride the water surrounded by chumps of mint or reeds.
Need a hand planning your holidays ? Consult hyperlinks
At Châteauneuf-sur-Charente, a river stop on our trail, the Bain-des-Dames will delight lovers of water games, and the ancient towpaths bring pleasure to walkers. Enthusiastic cyclists however will no doubt opt for the more challenging “Gérard Simonnot” circuit which attacks the surrounding slopes.
Nearby, in some buildings of a winegrowing property at Mosnac, a museum is being developed devoted to a collection of childrenâ€™s pedal cars and period motor cars.
The trail which leads to Saint-Simeux, perched on its slope, crosses the Charente by a small but graceful bridge. It overlooks the old eel fisheries which have been worked for centuries to provide local river dwellers with a tasty addition to their diet.
A detour from the trail takes you to Hiersac, gateway to the vineyards, on the Angoulême-Cognac main road. This large winegrowing village is the home of an active association of distillers who have created the festival of the “Bonnes Chauffes” in December.
The lovely Romanesque church at Trois-Palis is right opposite the craft chocolate producer where the aroma of cocoa bean blends with that of cognac. The heady sensation which this produces should be tempered by a trip along the lock keepers path to the craft paper mill at Fleurac
Handmade paper is a Charentais tradition which dates from the 16th century. In the mill at Fleurac paper is now produced by traditional methods, with drying rooms devoted to sheets of paper drying in the air.
When the River Charente hits the rock at Angoulême, it turns towards the sea and becomes a much wider river. In the late 18th century, the building of locks made the harbour at Lâ€™Houmeau the upstream "terminus" for river barges. Now, Lâ€™Angoumois takes visitors on special interest mini-cruises describing traditional activities as it stops off at papermills and vineyards.
Since the decline of the paper industry that had brought such prosperity to the administrative capital, or “county town”, of Charente, it has found a new growth industry - Imaging. From the International Comic Book Festival to the Magelis Centre that provides the focus for businesses based on new technology in the imaging and animated film industries, Angoulême has seen a number of creative initiatives.
Need a hand planning your holidays ? Consult hyperlinks