The Charente is probably best known for Cognac which takes its name from the town surrounded by the vineyards which have been producing this amber liquid since the 18th Century when such famous names as Martell arrived from Jersey and Hennessy from Ireland. The historic town of Cognac is entered via a 15th Century gateway with towers. The impressive Chateau de Valois where Francois 1st was born in 1494 still bears traces of the British prisoners who were incarcerated there towards the end of the 18th Century. Scattered throughout the Charente are almost 400 Romanesque churches. Often modest and surrounded by fields, there are equally some impressive edifices as well as over 160 listed monuments including Châteaux ranging from the Gallo Roman period to the 19th century. The Chateau de Rochefoucauld, referred to as the ‘Perle d’Angoumois’ is perched on a rock overlooking the Tardoire and is an imposing sight whilst the town also has a very pretty Carmelite convent with a superb 14th century gothic cloister amongst other medieval buildings.
Towns in the Charente
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The Cognac vineyards are, in fact, to be found in Charente, Charente-Maritime and Deux-Sèvres. From April to November it is possible to visit the various producers for tastings. Cognac is distilled from white wine and matured in oak casks for years to obtain its distinctive flavour. The area also produces the aperitif ‘Pineau de Charente’, said to have been developed to use up the surplus Cognac grapes, as the production is strictly controlled. This mixture of Charente grape juice and local cognac can be white, red or rosé. Besides these delightful temptations, the department also has the delicious Charentais Melons and the ubiquitous snail known in the Charentes as ‘cagouilles’ whilst in Poitou they are called ‘lumas’.
The pretty medieval town of Confolens, with its half-timbered buildings is set on the banks of the River Vienne. Many of the roofs are black as a result of the fungus living on the Cognac casks. The Charente is a green and lush department which owes its vegetation to the Atlantic influence, and yet benefits from a sunny and temperate climate. The Charente River is navigable from Angouleme to Rochefort and offers boating enthusiasts 147 kms of waterways, without the need for a licence, whilst 1,600 kms of rivers, lakes and ponds provide a vast choice for the fishing fraternity, whether they seek trout or carp.
Angoulême, the main town of the department has impressive ramparts with panoramic views of the town and the Charente Valley. Amongst the many buildings of architectural interest is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, an exceptional example of a Romanesque cathedral (one of many churches in the region which featured in the route of the pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela). The west façade is famous for the carvings of seventy-five biblical figures illustrating the Ascension and the Last Judgement. Many old houses date from the 16th and 18th centuries and only two towers remain on the town hall, once the castle of the count. There are five museums, one of which is the only one of its kind in France dedicated to comics.