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Cognac and traditions


The "Cognac and Traditions" Trail wends its way between hills and vales, giving a few glimpses of Man’s involvement in the world of Cognac.
In addition to the expertise handed down from father to son, the locals are diversifying their production. In some places, ranges of local wines are being extended; in others, a discovery trail summarises the main features of life as a grape grower or wine producer. All these changes also involve the local women, who are equally keen to promote all that their land has to offer.
 

  



The call of the forest
 
The town of Montendre, the southern gateway to the winegrowing area of Upper Saintonge, grew up on a hilltop from which the square castle keep looks down on the pinewoods below. It has been rebuilt since mediaeval times and now houses a Museum of Popular Arts, Crafts and Traditions.
 
Continuing on past wooded moorland, vineyards and fields of crops, the Trail reaches Sousmoulins. From Sainte-Colombe to Chepniers, it takes you to the visitors’ centre known as the Maison de la forêt in Montlieu-la-Garde. An observation platform with information panels provides a panoramic view of the countryside and all its features. After Orignolles, the Trail skirts the Double Forest then reaches the old keep in Montguyon before turning off towards Saint-Palais-de-Négrignac and Chevanceaux.



Country pleasures
 
From Chantillac, car drivers can switch off their engines and walk, ride, cycle or roller blade along the 21 km of green corridor taking them to Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire, travelling under their own steam.


The chancel of the church in Chantillac contains a well whose waters cure believers who drink them of anxiety. In Baignes, the “Font madame” dedicated to St. Claire is said to cure eye disease.

In the isolated Touvérac Woods, the extraction of white clay has left behind water holes filled with beautiful turquoise blue water. Around them are some surprising interpretive walks. 


Buttering you up
 
Beyond Chantillac in South Charente, our trailblazers follow a meandering route, with a short stop in Baignes-Sainte-Radegonde. The winegrowing town suffered badly as a result of the phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century and then turned instead to dairy cattle and butter production.
 
The new covered market has rekindled the spirit of the market attended by local merchants and producers from the end of the 15th century onwards. The Espinoa is an arts centre that hosts a very wide range of exhibitions throughout the year. Father Michon, writer, archaeologist and the creator of graphology had a strange manor house built here in the 19th century. Inspired by Moorish designs, it was built over the remains of a castle that had belonged to the Duke de Montausier.



Hither and thither


 
The clay soil in Le Tâtre is not really suitable for vines and, for many years, the town specialised in the production of roof tiles. This is obvious from the finials that still decorate local roofs. Next to the terracotta kiln was a limekiln that supplied the basic ingredient for the famous Bordeaux mixture used to treat vines. 
 






The Trail winds on through Les Deffends and Lamérac then turns off towards Reignac and on to Condéon.
 
Another turn takes you to Berneuil, a wine-growing enclave in a landscape full of folded hills and valleys that are reminiscent of those in neighbouring Dordogne. From there, the Trail comes back via Challignac and Salles-de-Barbezieux.




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Windmill


Wind in the sails
 
After lying abandoned for many, many years, the Grand Fief de Condéon mill has been restored by an international youth workshop. This faithful reminder of the 1650s is being allowed to dream of letting the wind into its sails again, thanks to the energy of a group of volunteers. The delightful Romanesque church in the village has a multifoil doorway on the street.


Entitled to happiness
 
Barbezieux, a small town encasing its fortified castle like a snail shell, is the main town in the “canton”. On the square in front of the castle is a middle class housefront that marks the birthplace of Jacques Boutelleau. Under his nom de plume, Chardonne, he described the provincial tranquillity of the town in his book, "Le bonheur de Barbezieux" (The Happiness of Barbezieux).
 
The area was also the birthplace of Elie Vinet, a 16th-century historian; Félix Gaillard, President of the Council of Ministers in 1957; and Ernest Labrousse, founder member of the Human Rights League.
 
In addition to cognac and literature, Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire has a diverse economy based mainly on its dynamic agricultural fair and its agricultural college, the Lycée d'enseignement professionnel agricole (LPA). 


A glimpse of gourmet fare
 
Feathers and poultry
 
Another feathered local hero is the black Barbezieux cockerel and its hen, which were saved from extinction by a handful of poultry farmers anxious to revive the popularity of the succulent capon produced by this breed.

Passing vineyards
 
From Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire to Jonzac, the Trail runs past vineyards and fields, leaving South Charente for Upper Saintonge. To the right is the area known as “cognac’s Petite Champagne”; to the left are vine-clad hillsides and wooded valleys, dotted with houses and villages such as Saint-Ciers-Champagne, Meux and its charming manor, Saint-Germain-de-Vibrac and Champagnac. Here and there, the tower of an old mill tops the ridge of a windy rise.

Source of brandies
 
Jonzac Castle, first built almost 1,000 years ago then rebuilt in the 15th century and laid out in later times, once played host to the young Louis XIV, Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin. The present owner of one of the wings of the castle has given his name to the Jules Gautret brand of Cognac and pineau. 
 
Yet, in this winegrowing region, it is now hot water that is bringing wealth to Jonzac, the main town in Upper Saintonge. As a pioneer in the area of renewable energy, the town launched geothermal explorations at the end of 1979. As a result, not only does the hot spring provide the town with its central heating, it has also proven to be effective in treating rheumatism, circulatory problems and respiratory disease. Since 1986, Jonzac’s spa has opened its doors to a large number of patients, more than 800 per day at certain times of year.


Tropical climate
 
Les Antilles
 
Laid out around an indoor lagoon, Jonzac’s aquatic centre, Les Antilles, is one of the largest in Europe. In addition to its sports and recreational amenities, it has a gym complex and it can host seminars, shows and special events.




Unusual walks
 
Trades and resources
 
Jonzac’s Tourist Board arranges unusual “discovery afternoons” during which visitors can meet coopers and stave producers, quarrymen, linen weavers, stained-glass producers, vignerons and farmers. Some of the special-interest outings focus on heritage buildings; others highlight the natural environment. There are winegrowing trails, wild orchid sites etc.
The River Seugne is also linked to the history of  Jonzac, a town of tanners, weavers and millers. In summer, visitors can take a boat trip to see the charms of the river and its environment, as well as enjoying a sumptuous panoramic view of the town and its castle.



Romanesque and winegrowing
 
Beyond Jonzac, a trail full of twists and turns leads to the winegrowing town of Archiac via villages with names that are longer than their main streets, such as Saint-Martial-de-Vitaterne or Saint-Maurice-de-Tavernole. Neulles, Neuillac, Réaux and their small churches are strung out along the trail until it reaches Moings, where the superb openwork spire is not the only interesting feature in St. Martin’s Church. The walls in the chancel and nave are covered in graffiti of armed knights and battle scenes engraved into the limestone. Other local churches have engravings such as rose windows, coats-of-arms, sailing ships and other depictions of humans, animals and plants. All these moving decorative features were cut straight into the stone by stonecutters, pilgrims or even, in some cases, by soldiers during a military campaign.
 
The quiet vineyard trail runs through Allas-Champagne to Archiac. Located in the depths of the Charente countryside, this small town, which is entirely devoted to vines, local wines (vins de pays charentais) and the distillation of brandies, is setting up a very popular project – the opening of a visitors’ centre (Maison de la vigne et du terroir) specialising in wine and local produce!



Limestone hillsides
 
A bouquet of orchids
 
When not covered in vineyards, the countryside (or “cuestas campaniennes”) is overrun with dry, highly-scented vegetation and is ideal for the spring-flowering orchids*. In Saint-Maurice-de-Tavernole, the Fief-de-Chaux hill is one of the most prolific orchid-producing places in Upper Saintonge.

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Charente countryside
 
Wide open spaces alternate with the hills whose ridges form rolling waves as far as the eye can see. The Trail takes you through a village with the gentle name of Sainte-Lheurine, past an elegant bell tower indicating that you are in Germignac, and on to Saint-Martial-sur-le-Né, the Né being a tributary of the River Charente that marks the boundary between Grande and Petite Champagne. The 16th-century church in Lonzac is unusual for its ornate Renaissance doorway and its lantern-style bell tower.



After a detour via Jarnac-Champagne and Chadenac, the Trail runs through Biron then turns back up to Cognac. Located close to the vineyards, the predominance of walnut and hazelnut trees, the other main local produce, can be explained by the valuable complicity between their roots and truffles. The presence of a craftsman coppersmith reminds visitors that copperworking, used to make stills, is a job requiring the expertise that has been linked for many centuries to the distillation of Charente brandy.


 
Coulonges and Pérignac, a “must” if you are travelling along a Romanesque route, complete the trip just before Cognac, the point of departure of other Trails promising other, new adventures.

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Stream
Stream




   Starting in Cognac, the route then runs through the valley of the River Antenne which breaks off into countless arms and is given depth and width by water from small tributaries. In Le Seure, there is a legend relating to the Veyron Bridge, or "King’s Bridge", marking the boundary between the Saintes and Angoulême areas.

Etang de l'Hommée
Etang de l'Hommée

   The village of Les Ecures consists of two hamlets - Les grandes Ecures with its fine 19th-century mansions and Les petites Ecures where the vineyard workers lived on a more modest scale. Mons, once popular among the locals as a place to swim, has two restored bread ovens and provides a delightful view of the hills.
 
   The road to Prignac runs through the marshy Thors Plain flanked by vine-clad hillsides. The old sand quarry has been turned into the Hommée Lake that is so popular with anglers and picnic lovers. The Courcerac Marshes were used to grow flax and willow for many years, both of them vital for the domestic economy. Now, this area of countryside fulfils a more environmental purpose and a lake covered by a conservation order has been taken over by indigenous flora and fauna. Not far away, in the hamlet ofLa Frouse, there is a pretty little wash-house.


Litre stones


On the external walls of farm buildings, some of the stones just out, giving the construction greater strength. For each stone laid like this, the house owner would give the mason a litre of wine, hence the name "litre stones".


Bujour
Bujour

       
   After a period of decline, local fêtes have again found favour with the general public. One such is the "foère auxpirons" in Blanzac-Lès-Matha, which puts geese in the spotlight on the third Sunday in May (in Saintonge, young geese are known as "pirons").
This is an opportunity for storytellers to use the local Saintonge dialect and for local producers to give the public a chance to buy rustic fare, confits and other local specialities.
 
   The festivities also include references to work in the fields, old trades and crafts, and housework. Among the domestic chores for which the women were responsible was the "bughée", or laundry.  The family washing was placed in the "bujour" (or "bujheour") and boiled with ash scented with iris tubers. It was then loaded into wheelbarrows and taken to the wash-house. While the washing was being rinsed in fresh water, the housewives had a chance to chat, which made the work less arduous.
* In Saintonge, young geese are known as "pirons".

Porche
Porche

    

       So-called because of the slightly undulating countryside, the "hilltop road" to Haimps provides a panoramic view stretching as far as Les Touches-de-Périgny. The delightful Romanesque church, wash-house and dovecote are set amid country cottages and surrounded by fields and vines as far as the eye can see. The many different styles of houses on winegrowing estates are obvious in this area. They range from the "cell" used by journeymen, to farms and houses built "square" and hidden behind their carriage entrance*.
 
* Château des Bouchereau in Macqueville is one example of this.



   In the Lowlands, in the middle of a “sea of vines”, lie the attractive little towns of Sonnac, Brie-sous-Matha, Ballans,Macqueville and Neuvicq-le-Château. Wine production is remembered here through the harvesting scenes and decorative "veugne" (vine) carved on churches and farm gates.


       The overland route taken by cognac ran from Jarnac to Rochefort-sur-mer via Neuvicq-le-Château and Siecq, with another road branching off to Matha and Saint-Jean-d'Angély. Winegrowing has brought these towns a large number of beautiful estates.


Château de Neuvicq
Chateau at Neuvicq

     

       The main feature in Neuvicq-le-Château is its Renaissance château set on a scarp slope overlooking the surrounding countryside. Its façade and fairytale turrets stand high above a lush, green valley and a cool wash-house fed by a spring that rises from a "swallowhole".
 
   From Siecq, the road runs back to Coucoussac. On the way, there is a vast panoramic view from the top of a feudal motte. The village of Bresdon lies on the wine road from Matha to Aigre, in the Ruffec area. From here, brandy travelled to Orléans and Paris.



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