When I say that I spent a year in Cognac, people laugh. They ask me where is Cognac? Is that even a place or I spent a year in a bottle? Well… Cognac in France is a small town in the southwest part of the country. It’s a world capital of the unique brandy also called cognac. In this post I will tell you what is there to do in Cognac and why it’s a perfect place for a weekend in France.
What is cognac?
First things first, lets learn what is cognac. Basically, it’s a spirit from white grapes with characteristic brown/amber color. Some people describe it as a kind of brandy, but the other says it’s too unique to compare. The first grapes appeared in this region 2000 years ago but just in 17th century (1643) locals produced the first brandy. Vineyards take over 79 000 ha and includes 6 different areas called crus. Each of them characterizes different soil features, which provide specific qualities for this spirit. The town is the heart of the crus.
Apparently, this is the main business in Cognac and most of the people I met in the town work in alcohol industry: some as a tourist guide, some with distillation, some with barrels, some with accounting. It’s truly unique region where everything is about cognac. Advertisements on the streets, posters billboards – everywhere spirits! And the smell all around, the typical for cognac production black fungus on the roofs of medieval architecture. I wrote a separate post about cognac, where I explain about the production process, kinds and classification. Therefore, if you are wondering which cognac should you buy check it out. In this post, I want to focus strictly on the town and tell you what is there to do in Cognac and the area.
Where is Cognac?
Cognac is a small town around 500 kilometres from Paris in the Charente province. The biggest city in the region is Bordeaux, world-wide famous for a great wine. All in all, if you come to south west France, you will see the picturesque view of the vineyards everywhere. Together with Bordeaux, Cognac will be a perfect idea for a weekend in France.
To get to Cognac from Paris, you can choose the train to some nearby town, such as Angouleme or Saintes and then take a bus. The same means of transport you will have to take arriving from Bordeaux, as there is no train directly to Cognac. I have to admit that trains are pretty expensive in France, so I would suggest checking Bla Bla Car – shared cars with locals. It’s also a great way to support locals and with a shared car limit the environmental impact.
What is there to do in Cognac?
Even though Cognac is surely one of the off the beaten path spots in France, I assure you it’s worth to stop not just for spirit connoisseurs. First of all Cognac is beautiful medieval town, secondly nature along the Charente River is simply stunning. I worked as a volunteer in African NGO, and after sitting for the whole day in front of computer, my favorite thing to do was to take a bicycle and ride along the river. I even made a video as a souvenir of these times. It’s not the best quality but with traditional French music I really adore – Les Vieilles Valises .
Start at the Francois Premiere Square
Start your trip in the center, which is a square of Francois Premiere, a king of France born in Cognac. There is a statue of the king on a horse as he was knows as a King Knight. He was a great patron of arts who invited Italian artists to France such as Leonardo da Vinci who brought Mona Lisa. During his reign France started exploration of foreign lands, which was the beginning of the colonial expansion.
Just next to the square there is a tourist information center, which will provide you with the map and give you idea about the cognac tasting tours. From Francois Premiere Square starts the main promenade through the medieval old town.
Walk the old town of Cognac
A pedestrian street will take you along beautiful narrow streets. You can admire old, medieval houses from which the most picturesque is the Old House, also called Lieutenant’s House (on the photo). Attention also grabs the beautiful Saint Leger Church, also in the center. The church is a mixture of styles, with Roman style facade. I would recommend walking around the church, to see old Priory of Saint-Leger with its 17th century cloisters. Nowadays, there is a public library and you can admire the old courtyard with visible ruins.
Very nearby you can also step in the old Convent of the Recollets with beautiful architecture. Nowadays, there is an art gallery which often hosts events and exhibitions.
If you continue farther, you will reach little castle and the medieval gate, which is an icon of the town. Crossing the gate will take you for a nice walk along the river, where you can also see some museums and a tiny port.
Visit the City Park
The great thing about the town is that you can walk pretty much everywhere as the city is tiny. Just next to the old town, there is a nice park with the old building of City Hall. The park is full of spots to sit or make a picnic as well as performances during summer time.
Shop from the Local Market
Every weekend I was running to the local market to get the best bread, fresh cheese from local farmers as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a perfect place for getting your groceries and at the same time support local farmers and family owed businesses. I bought a few jars of amazing honey there, to support my sisters – bees and always got myself spoiled with some smelly type of cheese. You can purchase some local products as a souvenir, which surely will be the best quality you can get. The market fully functions only on Saturday and Sunday from early morning until noon.
Visit Cognac houses (Maison de Cognac)
There will be no visiting the town without learning about cognac production at the best place possible – cognac house (in French Maison de cognac). The cognac houses is the best answer for the question: What is there to do in Cognac? The spirit is a star here and you simly cannot leave the town without tasting it. What’s more, where the quality will be better than straight from the producer?
When you walk around the old part of the town, you will see plenty of signs to various cognac houses. You are basically surrounded by plenty of them plus many are outside of the center and within the region. This is a paradise, so expect to get spoilt, if you like the spirit. Reminding my other post here about spirit kinds, distillation process and which cognac you should choose, so check it out for more info.
Which Cognac house should you visit?
The biggest companies are within the center: Hennessy, Martel, Remy Martin, later Camus and Meukow. However, they dominated the world markets and these are huge companies which you can basically buy everywhere in the world. While visiting Cognac, I would recommend choosing cognac houses which are smaller, often supplying only local market so you have a unique chance to taste them. Some of the cognac houses carry centuries of tradition and their buildings look like palaces, so it’s really worth it. For tour reservation, you can contact directly selected cognac houses in advance. If you are last minuter, you can ask in the tourist information for the available slots, but in this case the choice will be limited.
I am also a fan of ethical shopping, so would rather prefer supporting small family owned-businesses and head far from the most touristic spots, to off the beaten path houses. If you are renting a car, you could go around the region and reach small producers. They make spirits just for themselves and give you a bit to try straight from the barrels. That’s a great way of slow travel and interacting with locals, learning about their job or crops. No doubt, they will surely have as good quality cognac as the big companies. Going off roads will be also a great way to see cute villages and wine yards.
Taste Pineau des Charentes
Although cognac is the main star in the region, it wasn’t my favorite. It often happens that men like cognac and women prefer something lighter and sweeter. That is my case. I tasted many spirits, but Pineay des Charentes stole my heart. It’s a mixture of grape juice with the spirit which is something like a wine with cognac. It tastes really good! Moreover, it’s a regional product so don’t miss a chance of trying it as it’s hardly possible to get it elsewhere.
Enjoy the Charente River
Wondering what is there to do in Cognac don’t forget about the beauty of nature. For a longer walk or bike ride, there is a great path along the river with amazing views and palaces on the way. Unfortunately, there is no public bicycle rental in Cognac, but that may change anytime. If you don’t have a bike, you can do the boat tour, which is a very popular tourists’ attraction (during the season). You can find the boat near the Cognac gate, it’s called “La gabare“. The boat will take you for 1,5 hours trip along the Charente River. There is always a guide explaining history of the region. I think the English tours are rare, but you might be lucky (worth to ask in tourist information too). I highly recommend the boat or a bicycle tour along the Charante River, as it was my favorite in the town. The greenery of the place is so relaxing, plus wine yars and old palaces on the way, make it just unforgettable.
Enjoy summer festivals
Summer is definitely the best time to travel to Cognac. It’s not too hot in this region and what’s very important you are sure to get all the tours available. During summer there is also Festival of Cognac (Fete de Cognac). Apparently, it’s the biggest festival in the city. It gathers cognac and pineau des charentes producers from all the region and you can have a taste of all in one place. The festival is outdoor and there is always big stage with music. Each year there are some famous bands and artists, so be sure to check out the program.
Cognac is all about cognac while Czechia is all about beer! Check where to go for a beer in Prague as well as Czech beer essential guide in the Czech brewery’s tradition. If you are a fan of wine I invite you to the biggest wine cellar in the world!
The Bee is a nature lover and tea addict. Loves the idea of slow life and responsible traveling, constantly trying to improve to bee more eco-friendly. Appreciates old cultures and traditions, loves to immerse with locals, listen to ethnic music as well as taste regional food and drinks. Her favorite spots while traveling are family houses and street markets.