A taste of Cognac: Revisiting Poitou-Charentes
The tune of a song. A whiff of perfume. A sip of wine.
Every time I taste Cognac Schweppes, it takes me back to Poitou-Charentes and a small village near Angoulême… It is my friend, Muriel’s wedding. The bride and groom have just kissed as we toast to their good health. Glasses of cognac and schweppes are handed out with grillons, delicious potted pork, typical of the region. After that I drink a lot of Pineau de Charentes, a sweet and strong local wine. I remember the next day soothing my hangover with an amazing view of a field of sunflowers - as far as the eye could see.
A few years after that memorable wedding I found myself back in Poitou-Charentes, except this time in the bustling port town of La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast.
Land, sea and music
I love old fishing ports like La Rochelle where you can walk in circles and lose yourself. The 17th century arcaded streets with perfectly preserved medieval walls and Renaissance buildings are a step back in time. Take La Rue du Temple for example, which reflects the city’s association with the Knights Templar for whom La Rochelle was a key base.
From land to sea, jump aboard the Kapalouest catamaran and cruise the Atlantic at sunset. I’m no sea dog but it was a mellow evening in September. The sea was calm, the serene sky turned from fiery red to pink drowning slowly into the deep blue sea.
La Rochelle is packed with harbourside restaurants serving superb seafood. My pick is La Cuisine de Jules. Locally sourced seafood dominates the menu and you can get a three-course meal for just €28, including lobster salad, truffle risotto and amazingly, fresh oysters.
The town also hosts fantastic festivals. Come during Les Francofolies, the French Music Festival (from 10-14 July this year) with more than 250 concerts in eight venues, across all genres of music. There’s also Les Nuits Romanes in 2015 with free music concerts and shows all summer, in La Rochelle and across the region.
The ‘white island’, Ile de Ré
A short hop from La Rochelle is the ‘white island’, Ile de Ré. Connected by a 1.8-mile long bridge, it’s the perfect escape. Just 30kms long, 5kms wide and flat as a crepe, it’s perfect for exploring by bicycle with over 100kms of cycle paths.
In idyllic St Martin you’ll notice the cute ‘donkeys in pants’ grazing on the grass at the foot of the ancient ramparts. A proud symbol of the island, the donkeys are used to collect seaweed on the coast, in the salt marshes, for which Ile de Re is famous, and agricultural work.
Then there’s the artisanal ice cream. Pop over to La Martiniere Ice-Cream Parlour where you can test your adventurous tastebuds by sampling oyster and caviar ice cream. Then work off the calories by climbing to the 12th century church of St Martin for breathtaking views of the Breton Strait.
End your visit to the island with by heading to the top of one of the few working lighthouses in the region, the majestic, Phare des Baleines. From the top you can view the Atlantic Ocean in all her fury, waves crashing against the base of the lighthouse.
If you’re not content being active in real life, fly through space, dive into the ocean or race around city streets in one of the several 3D and 4D cinemas at Futuroscope. It is a great day out for small kids and big kids.
Talking about big kids, if you’re a comic lover like me, visit Angolueme, the city of images and comics. Part of the Les Murs Peints, or The Painted Walls project, you can see over 30 life-sized murals on the walls of apartment blocks and buildings across this 2000-year-old city. Drop by during the Angoulême International Comics Festival towards the end of January, held annually in the city since 1974.
The capital of the region, no trip is complete without losing yourself in the maze of narrow, hilly streets of Poitiers, which date back to the Romans. The finest building from the period is the Notre-Dame-la-Grande
church with its stunning 12th-century facade.
It’s a city young at heart - a university town packed with great bars and affordable restaurants. For foodies, I highly recommend Bistrot du Boucher, where the clams, mussels and scallops are excel-lent, as is their steak and magret de canard.
From here visit historic, communities such as Angles-sur-L'Anglin, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne and Par-thenay that will offer an authentic slice of local life and culture. Also visit the idyllic village of St Savin, to see the hauntingly beautiful St Savin Abbey, an 11th century Romanesque church and UNESCO World Heritage site. The inner vault is lined with beautiful murals depicting scenes from the books of Genesis and Exodus.
Poitou-Charentes represents real France and a real escape from reality, with a rich coastline, a beautiful countryside and the best aspects of French life. Indulge in great gastronomy, dive into its rich Romanesque history or explore unique festivals, you won’t be disappointed. Especially if, like me, you love cognac or Pineau de Charentes.