The Poitou-Charentes region of western France probably won't make you jump up in recognition of a very fine place to explore on your vacation, but it is. This is Cognac country. The Charente river, shown on the map running from Rochefort to Angouleme makes a fine navigation point for some interesting travel. The Tour de France often has a stage here.
The regional capital is Poitiers. The region has four departments: Charente, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne. Their regional capitals are marked with stars on the map.
As you can see from the map, the region is near some fine wine country (Chinon to the north, Bordeaux to the south along the Gironde river, marked with a winey overlay). The Dourdogne is represented by Périgueux, the prefecture of the départment.
There's lots to see and explore in the Poitou-Charentes Region.
A Taste of Cognac
Cognac lies along the Charente River, a major trade highway for Cognac's prodigious wine output and the Atlantic's salt before large trucks and planes came to be. It's about 2 hours from the Atlantic coast at La Rochelle.
Eventually the Cognaçais tried to reduce the volumn of their wine by distilling it to allow it to travel economically, thinking all one had to do was add water upon arrival. But it wasn't the same, so folks started to drink the spirit on its own and eventually began to see the benefits of aging. That's the uber-condensed version of the tipple's history, for the whole story see: A brief history of our eaux-de-vie.
You can take a criuse on a gabarre, the traditional flat-bottomed boat once used to transport the salt and cognac along the Charente. Get tickets at the tourist office 16 rue du XIV Juillet; telephone: 05 45 82 10 71.
Vieux Cognac, the town's historic center, offers a compelling mash of narrow streets, small shops and the Charente riverfront lined with cafes, shops and distilleries. The major companies offer tours and tastings.
A visit to one of the cognac houses along the riverfront will give you an idea of the appellation controlee where real cognac is produced. You can go when you arrive and reserve a tour.
In the evening you can sample the region's specialties with an aperitif. You can have cognac with tonic water and ice or Pineau des Charentes, made from a combination of grape must and Cognac eau-de-vie.
Saint Leger church is a 12th century Romanesque Church of the type you'll see along major pilgrimage routes; nearby Saintes was an important religious center in the medieval period; it was an important stop along the route to Santiago de Compostela.
Where to Stay in Cognac
If charm and luxury in a hotel are part of what matters to you, you have several choices in Cognac. The Hôtel François Premier (book direct) is a highly rated four star hotel inside a 19th century townhouse in the heart of historic Cognac. The hotel sits in Cognac's main square, which is lined with cafes and features a statue of François on horseback.
Budget travelers might appreciate the Hotel Le Cheval Blanc, a two star, family-run hotel in the city center that reviewers like for its value. If a corporate box is all you want, then your budget might be shaved a bit more by staying at the Hotel Ibis.
HomeAway lists several Cognac Vacation Rentals, mostly just outside the town of Cognac.
Saintes was founded by the Romans in the first centry AD and it exhibits a couple of spectacular remnants of that long-ago time. The Germanicus arch is a twin arch with intericate carvings built at the entrance to a bridge. There's also the Roman amphitheater which held 15,000 people, or the entire population of Saintes.
Saintes was also popular in the Middle ages. Head under the Church of Saint-Eutrope for a crypt hewn from solid rock, a stopping place for pilgrims on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.
You can take a guided river cruise from Saintes.
Although it's 10 km from Saintes, the Design Hotel des Francs Garçons (book direct) is located in the medieval vilage of Saint-Sauvant and worth a side trip. Ten architects managed to stuff a modern design hotel inside a well-preserved historic building.
Chauvigny is a little detour you might want to make, 23 kilometers east of Poitiers. Once a porcelain manufacturing city, you can still find pockets of it today. The town is in the shadows of several castles on the ridge, but the interesting thing to do in Chauvigny is to pedal a carriage along the (unused) railway lines on the 'velo-rail'.
Near Chauvigny is the Abbey of Saint-Savin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Marais Poitevin - The Bayou of France with the Alligators
Alluvial deposits from at least ten rivers silted up the Gulf of Poitou, creating a large wetland area like the Camargue of southern France. Benedictine monks began to drain even more of the area during the 15th century and today we have an area of wet and dry marshes that cover the approximate area you see in the green area on the map. The wet marsh is a popular area for row-boating along picturesque canals.
The area is now called "the Green Venice" on account of the green duckweed that grows on the water.
You can rent boats (from flat bottom Barques to canoes, pedalos and even electric powered boats) to see the sites and the marsh birds).
Coulon, an interesting little town in itself about 5 miles from Niort, is the home base for most aquatic tours. You can also rent bicycles and horses; there are precious few roads in the area.
French immigrants from villages surrounding the Marais Poitevin settled in eastern Canada in the 17th century, an area they called Acadia. They were expelled in 1755 and many settled in Bayou country in Louisiana, calling themselves "Cajuns".