French Road Trip: Explore La Rochelle and Cognac country

PUBLISHED: 15:22 16 June 2021 | UPDATED: 12:33 18 June 2021

La Rochelle's picturesque harbour. Pic: nevskyphoto/Getty

La Rochelle's picturesque harbour. Pic: nevskyphoto/Getty

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Starting out on the Atlantic coast, follow the Charente river discovering historic Rochefort and world-famous Cognac along the way

DAY ONE: La Rochelle to Saintes (via Rochefort), 77km

The historic Atlantic coast city of La Rochelle is a perfect place to spend a day, a weekend or even a week or so (particularly if combined with nearby Île de Re) – time best filled with delicious seafood, bracing walks and cycle rides as well as chic shopping.

The sweeping landscape of the Charente river. Pic: Lara DunnThe sweeping landscape of the Charente river. Pic: Lara Dunn

My stay at the Hôtel La Fabrique (rooms from €62) has been stylish and comfortable, just a few paces from the Vieux Port with its impressive towers. My departure from La Rochelle takes me south on the N137 and D137, alongside the glorious Atlantic coast. Passing close to numerous sandy beaches and the resort communes of Angoulins and Châtelaillon-Plage, it feels well worth a short diversion for a dip in the ocean, before the road contours inland to meet the Charente river at Rochefort.

Located at the point where the River Charente meets the Atlantic, this city remains off the map of many tourists, but its rich naval and maritime history makes it a fascinating town to visit. A riverside lunch at Les Longitudes at La Corderie Royale doubles up on sightseeing and great food before leaving town to follow the D137 as it plunges into the verdant Charente countryside en route to Saintes.

Once the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania, Saintes is an extraordinary mix of Gallo-Roman, medieval and 17th century with a lively atmosphere and plenty to see, such as the Arch of Germanicus, the impressive Roman amphitheatre, the beautiful Cathédrale Saint-Pierre as well as gracious riverside gardens to enjoy. Staying at the central La Porte Rouge (from €90 a night including breakfast) gives me ample opportunity to explore.

Back streets of Saintes. Pic: Lara DunnBack streets of Saintes. Pic: Lara Dunn

DAY TWO: Saintes to Cognac, 28km

Leaving Saintes, it’s time to take the D24 as it attempts to follow the meandering course of the River Charente. Woodland, farmland and the inevitable vineyards border the road as it bounces off the bends of the river. Villages such as Dompierre-sur-Charente with its 19th-century chain ferry show the importance of the river and its now mostly tourism-focused traffic. All but gone is the mercantile ebb and flow, replaced by self-drive rental boats on the lookout for a good mooring and a nice meal for lunch or the evening. Small local grocers and restaurants serve the boats, as well as the busy campsites that cluster alongside the riverbank. It’s a popular area for holidays.

Further along towards Cognac, at the oddly-named Chez Landard, the small family-run Distillerie des 3 Moulins offers a glimpse into the rich and varied past of cognac production. The spirit distilled here by the Babinot family is delicious and great value for money, and it’s worth picking up a few bottles of another local speciality – Pineau des Charentes – too.

Pretty Cognac. Pic: Paris24SevenPretty Cognac. Pic: Paris24Seven

A short hike up to one of the ruined mills that give the commune its name bestows incredible views out across the Charente countryside, the river meandering sinuously off into the distance. From here the D24 becomes the D83 continuing to the edge of Cognac, the perfect place to stop for the day. A stay at the spa Hôtel L’Yeuse (from €90 a night, breakfast €19.50), a little way out of the town itself, still gives a good base from which to explore the area.

Distillery tours abound within Cognac and its immediate vicinity, with Hennessy, Martell, Otard, Rémy Martin and Camus all based in the city. A visit to the well-groomed Hennessy HQ stands in marked contrast to the family-run Babinot enterprise. The town and its gardens are an excellent size for wandering around before dinner on a terrace overlooking the river at l’Atelier des Quais.

A peaceful spot at the river in Jarnac. Pic: Sebastien Laval - Charente TourismeA peaceful spot at the river in Jarnac. Pic: Sebastien Laval - Charente Tourisme

DAY THREE: Cognac to Angoulême (via Jarnac), 59km

Having done the tasting rounds of the distilleries of Cognac, it’s time to make for the last of the major marques and visit Courvoisier in Jarnac. I make my way across the river outside Cognac close to the village of Saint-Brice with its impressive castle.

The D157 runs along the course of the river, but a little away from the waterway itself, until it reaches Jarnac. This compact town boasts a pretty, leafy riverside area, dominated by the Courvoisier distillery and visitor centre which is, of course, a must see. After the tour, a wander around the town takes me past the blue shutters and door of the birthplace of François Mitterrand and inevitably, back to the river that is the very lifeblood of the countryside around here.

The world-famous Circuit des Remparts in Angouleme. Pic: Agence AustralThe world-famous Circuit des Remparts in Angouleme. Pic: Agence Austral

A hearty lunch at l’Alambic, with its view across to Courvoisier and then it is on to once more follow the contours of the river rather than taking the straighter main road towards Angoulême. Passing through small towns such as Triac-Lautrait, Bassac, Saint-Simeux and Sireuil allows the ostentatious wealth of the cognac industry to drift away on the river’s flow, delivering up serene Charentais countryside and communes.

Soon, the ramparts of Angoulême appear, echoes of the roar of the famous Circuit motorsport event that takes place every September easily imagined on those narrow hilly streets. It’s a fascinating and vibrant town whether it’s racing weekend or comic book festival time. Staying at the Hôtel du Palais in the heart of the town, (from €80 a night, breakfast €10) I’m well-placed to enjoy all it has to offer.

Getting there: Travel with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo. La Rochelle is a 3.5 hour drive from Saint-Malo. For more information, visit Atlantic Coast Cognac Country’s website.

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