The best way to see any part of the world is by boat. Conor Power and his family go on a week-long cruise of the River Charente – a place where history and brandy are prominent features
Our first overnight was around the meandering Charente to a place called Saint Simeux. It must be very hard to find a place that no-one seems to have written anything about yet which is still enchanting and beautiful. Even American know-it-all website Tripadvisor merely mentions the fact that it has a restaurant but nothing else.
The restaurant in question is a pub/restaurant by the river called Les Garbariers and we found a mooring right in front of it. As the rain pelted down all evening, we sat in the pub run by a British immigrant named Simon while listening to another expatriate Brit from Manchester in his 60s deliver a stunning blues session. He was followed by a local garage band that attacked every tune they could with exemplary fearlessness but by that stage we were all turning in for bed, nodding off to dodgy covers of Téléphone and Queen.
I got talking to a local guy who told me that his father – Thierry Bonhomme – had a Pineau and wine production company. I promised I’d call in the next day.
Before setting off on the next leg of the cruise, we took the bikes and cycled up to the top of the village itself. It was a dull morning with the rain coming in fits and starts. We had a look inside the part-Gothic part-19th-century church whose bell had been felled by a lightening bolt in 1884. The views from beside the church were panoramic of the vine-dominated countryside.Moving westwards, the river banks became more lush as we had that lovely feeling of leaving most of civilisation behind you. We pulled in to overnight at Saint Simon as we knew from our charts that they had electricity there but the pretty village was just a bit dead so we motored on to Jarnac.
The sun came out in strength as we went through the lock at the entrance to Jarnac, painting a romantic first impression. Martell’s name seems to be the loudest one of a variety of brandy companies here. It’s a smart-looking town and I was surprised to read in my guide book that it was the birthplace (and burial place) of the late President François Mitterand.
We woke up to an unseasonably cold morning. The local tourist office were very helpful with brochures and information. Our three boys were delighted to find free WiFi there too.I asked a couple of locals sitting under the riverside plane trees about how to get to the cemetery to find Mitterand’s grave. They were elderly enough and I asked them if they knew any of the Mitterands.
“They’re all gone from here,” they said.
“So, I suppose there are no more Socialists left in Jarnac now?” They only laughed in reply.
Mitterand’s final resting place was one of the more discreet tombs in the cemetery where many families had spent big to create super-sized elaborate sepulchres around their remains.
We moved on to Cognac and found a mooring in the towns slightly shabby marina and went for a cycle around the town itself. In the evening, it has a charming atmosphere – a town of centuries of trade and history whose sandstone walls and fortifications speak of commerce and defence. Then it was back to the boat for a family game of cards before bed.
Day 4:We woke up to a sunny morning. After a long chat with our next-door neighbours from La Rochelle, we had a cycle around Cognac.
I had been led to believe that there was something of the faced glory about the town but it’s a very well-kept neat place. After visiting its fine 12th-century cathedral, we had a look around the lively market in the centre of town and bought some nice supplies for lunch.
We didn’t have time to visit any of the brandy houses there, but I did stop outside the gates of the famous Hennessy factory – the world’s largest supplier of Cognac. It was founded over 250 years ago. In common with almost all of the big Brandy companies along the Charente, it was founded by a foreigner who, in this case, was a Cork man by the name of Richard Hennessy.
In the afternoon, we set off again. We stopped to explore a tiny village en route before continuing our journey and we pulled into the city of Saintes shortly before sunset.There’s plenty of room to tie up along Sainte’s quay, although there’s lots of competition for the choice spots with water and electricity. When you’re cruising, you have to watch your levels of both these commodities – particularly the water. Fresh water needs to be taken on board every two days or so. Power is less precious as you can generate it by cruising in the boat if you’re running low. The other tiny difference with Saintes is that the river starts to get tidal from here on and when you tie up, you need to allow an extra 50cm of rope to allow for the tides. You can’t navigate in the rented boats beyond here, where the river meanders towards the sea, past the former royal shipyard city of Rochefort.
The sunshine was of the proper French summer variety when we awoke next day. It made a nice difference to be in a city environment after being through so many small towns.
We were quickly out on our bikes to have a look around this very pretty city. You can already feel that it’s a place of formerly huge importance. The large Gallo-Roman arch beside a pile of Roman ruins right by the quayside and the Tourist Office is a dead give-away.
The open-air/covered market in the shadow of the cathedral proved an irresistible draw and we bought some nice bread, a cheese stick and lardons to go with whatever wonderful surprises my wife had in mind for dinner.After a quick visit to the local Leclerc to stock up on essentials such as wine, beer, food, and a bit more wine, we all departed en famille by bicycle to visit the old Roman arena. I just love Roman ruins and this was a pretty impressive one, where they still hold events in the summer.
We finally left Saintes in the afternoon. It was a hard place to leave and we had to top up on electricity too. The journey was very warm and sunny and we were all up on top (you have the choice to navigate from inside the cabin or up on top in the open air), playing “I spy” as we motored through the beautiful landscape.
We stopped at a tiny village with a campsite by the river called Chaniers. Here, we had a swim in the pleasantly cool waters, jumping off the deck and swimming against the mild current.Another half an hour upriver, there was a particularly nice-looking mooring spot with a weeping willow that we had spotted on the downriver journey. On the charts, it was marked as having a fresh water supply – something we urgently needed at this stage.
When we got there, however, there was a nice picnic spot and a toilet block but the tap was of the push-down type that our hose couldn’t attach to. Furthermore, it was too far from the river bank for our hose to even reach it. It wasn’t a major inconvenience in any case and we managed by making trips with pots over to the tap and back. We’d wait until tomorrow to have a proper shower.
We started off at the very first light, savouring the magical misty light of the early morning. As the kids slept, we felt like we were discovering this stretch of the river all over again, with the abundance of wildlife – from birds to choruses of croaking toads, otters to jumping fish and strange black-and-white storks in the fields.We had to travel all the way back up to Cognac to get a fill of water but it was as wonderful a way as any to fill three hours.
We overnighted in Jarnac once again, having found another perfect spot beside a weeping willow, where we enjoyed a superb meal of produce bought at Jarnac’s market: mussels, chips, merquez and lots of other bits an pieces, all washed down with some great wine.
I had borrowed a frying pan from French neighbours on a larger boat down the quay. When I returned it after dinner all washed and clean, they invited me on board for an after-dinner drink. I had thought they were a bit stand-offish having come across them earlier but, as is often with French people, the initial impression is always the coldest and we had a great laugh, talking about boating, life, wine, teenage children, Ireland and France.
In weakness, I cycled into town to look for some “holiday cigarettes”. I went into a little bar where the tipsy barmaid (who looked like the owner too) was chatting with four hardy locals and said that “par hasard”, she happened to have a packet of Winston. The boys at the counter found this extremely funny, saying how it would be years again before she’d have any more. One guy said “I’d better get some too in that case!”
The next morning, the sun was blazing and the Friday Jarnac market was buzzing. We said hello to our neighbours from the night before, got bread, some local honey and two slices of the most fantastic home-made pate I’ve ever had – made by a local genius of an artisan butcher called Alain Beau.
We made more friends on our next stop-off point at St Simon, where we had a swim. A very nice Breton guy – Noël – from Quimperlé was on holiday with his son and daughter.Going through the locks upriver is twice as slow as when you’re navigating downriver so we were motoring flat out to make our overnight outside the pub at St Simeux. At one of the locks, we got talking to an English couple who’d moved to Jarnac. They were heading for the same place and knew the owner Simon very well.
We arrived in brilliant evening sunshine at Les Garbariers. As it was our last night, we were eating out. The music started up as we tucked into our pizzas and got talking to a couple from Drogheda. They too had discovered the magical St Simeux by accident and had fallen in love with the place so much that they were now living here and he had even got involved with the local council.
Day 8:Our last day began at 06:30 in the morning with a beautiful cruise through three final locks. We stopped for breakfast at a mooring spot and then back to Sireuil to leave the life of the river-cruise behind. It was a fantastic adventure and the very best to see the River Charente. As we pulled away from the boat base in our car, we suddenly came to a shocking realisation: we had just spent a week cruising through the cradle of brandy and Pineau-des-Charentes… and we hadn’t tasted a single drop of either one!
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