Cognac, castles, and courtyards in the southwest of France
29 Monday Oct 2012
Angoulême, apérifit, Auberge du Chevel Blanc at Luxé France, Aubeterre sur Dronne, Baron Otard Cognac distillery, Charente France, Château de la Rochefoucauld, Cognac, comic-strip festival in Angoulême France, France, French King François I, La Rochefoucauld, Middle Ages France, must of wine le moût du vin, Nanteuil, Pineau de Charente, Renaissance, Restaurant du Château La Rouchefoucauld, River Charente, Romanesque churches in France, Saint-Groux, Travel in Europe, Travel in France, Tusson, Verneuil sur Charente
By Anne Pawle
The Charente, a ‘département’ in the southwest of France, has a lot to offer the visitor. The countryside is covered with rolling hills, vineyards, and vast fields of sunflowers, through which flows the gentle River Charente, past Angoulême, through Cognac, and down to the sea. Its picturesque small towns and villages are numerous, such as Verneuil sur Charente, Nanteuil, Tusson, Saint-Groux, or Aubeterre sur Dronne, in the south. The Charente has fairytale castles dotted here and there, Romanesque churches, and prehistoric sites. Particularly striking in the region is the white stone used to construct walls, houses, farmyards and monuments. The malleability of this kind of stone has lent itself to the beautiful sculpture which can be seen on the façsdes of its monuments.
Angoulême is the capital city of the Charente, perched high on a promontory. Its quaint old town has pedestrian passages with boutiques and cafés that give onto cobbled streets. Once an important centre for the making of paper, it has now become famous for its annual international comic-strip festival. Interesting features are its comic book and graphic art museum below the old town, as well as its wall art to be found decorating the sides of various buildings of the town.
By visiting Baron Otard’s Cognac distillery, one also visits the château and birthplace, in 1494, of the French King, François I. A guide will conduct you through its vaulted cellars and enumerate the various stages in the production of cognac, ending the visit with a tasting session of a few drops of the golden liquid.
Below the castle flows the River Charente, and a little further along its banks, stands Cognac’s mediaeval gate, with its adjoining towers, once part of the fortified entrance into the town from the old port. In the Middle Ages, Cognac was an important centre for the production and transport of salt, an element as cherished as gold in times gone past, when it was used to preserve food throughout harsh winters. However, the decline of this trade and the arrival of new methods has evolved into Cognac becoming the seat of various well-known cognac distilleries.
The Château de la Rochefoucauld, quite small by some standards, has been in the possession of the Rochefoucauld family since the tenth century and has been added to little by little over the ages. It now has a splendid Renaissance courtyard as well as a library housing various early books of the works of its illustrious representatives. At the bottom of the castle drive, a small shop makes its own chocolate specialties. Next door is the Restaurant du Château, built on a pleasant site overlooking the River Tardoire. (La Rochefoucauld can be reached by the local TER SNCF train.)
One can also visit the Charente’s vineyards and taste its wines or, if you stay longer, enjoy the villages fêtes: those in April celebrating the sprouting of the first garlic cloves; on June 21st, the music festival held throughout the country in towns and villages alike; and, of course, on July 14th, Bastille Day. Later in the year, buy a bottle of the must of wine, (le moût du vin) ingredient in the first step of wine-making, or drink a glass of Pineau de Charente as an apéritif before reserving a table in a good restaurant, such as that of the Auberge du Chevel Blanc at Luxé.
Anne Pawle, expatriate and world traveler left the BBC Drama Department in London at the age of 24 to work as an au pair for a French family in the Haute Savoie. She arrived in Paris with her husband in May 1968 to stay on a friends boat moored on the Seine outside Paris. They were kept there by the May 1968 mini-revolution, a protest of general strikes bringing the country to a virtual standstill. Opposite the boat lived a lady who encouraged Anne to come with her to work for an international organization in Paris. She worked for the organization for 30 years and, upon retirement, has created a bilingual book of text and drawings called Leisure and Cultural Offerings in Paris, which is available from the publishers at www.mot-tech.com.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, The Stones of Carnac, by award-winning travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson. Catherine’s career has taken her around the world three times, to all seven continents, and into 115 countries. Writing about this prehistoric site in northwestern France, she describes the giant stones that linger there and stand in rows across the French landscape, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields—a granite army, 3,000 strong.
The Mays of Wine and Roses, by Mary Evans who spends May and September in Mollans-sur-Ouvèze, France. But it is the Mays that seem the sweetest for Mary where she can settle into an indulgent pattern of indolence, studded by the apprearance and events surrounding the month’s two rock stars—wine and roses.
Les grandes vacances: The grand getaway to summer’s beaches, mountains and countryside, by French woman Bénédicte Mahé who explains the importance of vacation breaks to the French and why they are truly “les grandes vacances” (the big vacation). Including some of Bénédicte’s film suggestions that capture the essesnce of the French vacances.
A Fairy-tale Weekend in the French Countryside, by Parisian Abby Rodgers who writes: “Cars rolled in, guests suited up in white, delicious cuisine, divine choux pastry tower, sparklers, dancing till dawn…”
D-Day Travel Guide: For American visitors to Normandy, France, by Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan has managed to seek out a number of places of significance that do not usually feature in guidebooks. Guides included.
Automobile road rallies in France: Women in the drivers seat (Camille du Gast Crespin, Michèle Mouton and Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, Moroccan desert), by Barbara Redmond who writes about the women who compete in a nine-day, off-road adventure in the sandy dunes of the Moroccan desert. She also looks at the “Coeur des Gazelles,” where the money generated from the race helps finance doctors providing medical care for people in the remote areas of Morocco.
Text copyright ©2012 Anne Pawle. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.