Cognac, France – Finding out more than what it’s famous for

You’ve likely at least heard of, if not enjoyed immensely, the alcoholic beverage known as cognac. But have you ever been to Cognac, France? Or maybe thought about going? This small, French town of just 20,000 inhabitants has a lot more to offer than just its world-renowned brandy.

The Chemin de Halage at Cognac runs for miles alongside the Charente River and features gorgeous scenery and nature experiences for walkers, bikers and hikers.

The namesake river of the region, the Charente River, separates the main part of town and its much smaller north end. It provides opportunities for gorgeous strolls and bike rides along its banks as well as kayaking, canoeing and boat tours. You can even hire a boat of your own to cruise around and fully live on for a week or more. There are several locks on the river, making travel up and down the Charente all the more enjoyable and entertaining. The river winds through the French region of Poitou-Charentes for 237 miles from the town of Chéronnac, passes a multitude of towns including Cognac and flows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

A boat cruise on the Charente River at Cognac is a relaxing ride and
a unique viewpoint for enjoying the area’s natural beauty.

I took a cruise on La Demoiselle, a river tour boat that departs from its dock on the Charente just south of the Hennessey headquarters in Cognac. For just 9 euros, it takes you on a very pleasant and absolutely gorgeous journey up the Charente to the neighboring town of Saint-Brice and back. There is a lock that you’ll pass through twice – once about ten minutes after setting off on your journey and then again when you return.

Everyone on the boat tour had a wonderful time. We saw an abundance of truly heartwarming nature scenes including a kingfisher actively hunting, a heron standing on a rock, lots of little baby fish swimming along the banks and tons of trees, bushes, plants and other birds. We also cruised slowly past sites such as the original city gates (the Porte Saint-Jacques towers), the Château de Cognac, the André Mermet Park, the Châtenay Bridge with its 18th-century tax office, the Château de Bagnolet and the L’Yeuse Chateau and Hotel. All the while bathed in sunshine under a beautiful blue sky.

A heron stands on a rock in the Charente River
with the Château de Bagnolet in the background.

The tour is conducted in French, but English speakers are handed a guide that describes all of the sights on the tour and the history behind them. The journey is about two hours long – a very leisurely pace that allows you plenty of time to relax, enjoy and soak in everything there is to see, hear, smell and envision. This boat tour is by far the best 9 euros you’ll spend in Cognac.

Wild spearmint is so abundant in places that you can smell its
delightful fragrance just by strolling along the Charente River.

The day before my boat tour, I had walked along the banks of the Charente from the Châtenay bridge back into town on the south side of the river. This is one of many popular stretches for those touring the area on a bicycle, but walking along the banks gives you time to stop, observe and inspect all of the natural wonders in the area. Much to my surprise and delight, wild spearmint can be found growing in groves.

A sign points the way to several of the distilleries
and cognac houses that offer tours and tastings.

So what exactly is cognac, anyway? Well, it’s French brandy, but of the highest pedigree. Much like Champagne is a sparkling wine that can only be produced in the Champagne region of France, cognac is a brandy that can only be produced in the Cognac region of France. Sure, you can make similar beverages elsewhere – you just can’t use those names to sell the resulting products as the producers in these controlled regions are very, very strictly regulated to ensure consistently superior quality. For example, in Cognac, some stores of eau-de-vie (cognac that has yet to be blended) cannot even be opened unless in the presence of an official who must document the occasion and its purpose.

The Musée des Savoir-Faire du Cognac takes you on a really deep dive into not only how cognac is made, but the history of its making and of the region. There are tons of displays, exhibits and hours of films and videos to watch. For just five euros, one could easily spend most of a day here. Or you could just breeze through in an hour or less and move on to the next thing if you so choose. 

Some of the eaux-de-vie in storage at Hennesey’s
cellars in Cognac date back to the early 1800s.

An absolute must, of course, is at least one tour of a cognac house or distillery. These tours and tastings are indeed the main reason most people visit Cognac. The Hennessey tour is known as the top attraction in town and is reasonably priced. The tour includes a very short boat ride across the Charente River, a short film, a description of the cognac-making process, a cellar/warehouse tour, a virtual-reality experience, lots of Hennessey history and a tasting at the end. Like most other brands, they also offer more extensive and engaging tours for those who are looking for a deeper dive and are willing to spend a little more. Several producers in Cognac offer experiences that are very intimate, extensive and expensive – some costing thousands of euros per person. 

The Vieux Pineau des Charentes offered by Fransac is light, floral and fruity
with the heartwarming sensation of Petite Champagne eau-de-vie.

At the opposite end of that spectrum are the free tastings and tours. Yes! Free cognac! Right next door to Hennessey is Roullet Fransac – a tasting room that will allow you to sample their cognacs, liqueurs and what I was most impressed by – their Pineaux des Charentes. Made by adding cognac eau-de-vie to some of the finest white wine of the region, this classic, regionally and nationally-revered French aperitif is akin to the finest sherry you’ve ever had. Their “vieux” pineau is aged to perfection for 5 years in oak barrels and will sincerely impress you!

The core range of Bache Gabrielsen cognacs. They also offer
limited editions, unique expressions and specific vintages.

For a free tour, a great story and history lesson, an explanation of the cognac-making process and samplings of some of the finest and most creative cognacs around, my highest recommendation goes to Maison Bache-Gabrielsen. This cognac house is steeped in history and the delightful aroma of cognacs quietly aging in the house cellar. The entire experience lasts about 90 minutes and is a very interesting presentation of the history of the brand and their processes. The tasting at the end of your time there will definitely entice you to take home some of their cognac. The quality is superior – it simply speaks for itself.

Brillat-Savarin is a soft-ripened triple cream cow’s milk cheese with notes of mushroom.
Incredibly creamy, rich, luscious, buttery and simply heavenly.

The food markets in France are like something out of a fantasy for people like me who love food and love to cook. There are two food markets in Cognac – the larger, covered market in the Halles de Cognac and an open-air market that gets set up in the Place du Champ de Foire on the west side of town. Like most food markets in France, they both start closing down just after noon, so get there early for the best offerings.

The covered market runs from Tuesday through Sunday, opening at 7am, but it’s only in full swing on Fridays and Saturdays – and to some extent on Sundays. Other days you may find only a few vendors open, but enough to get your basics. I went on a Tuesday and found two butcher shops, a cheese shop and the main produce stand open. The open-air market is open on Tuesdays and Fridays with a good number and wide variety of vendors in attendance on both days.

A gorgeous stretch of the Charente River runs
right past the dreamy little market town of Mansle.

Cognac also serves as a hub to visit other towns and cities in the area. If you have a car, you can go for wonderful drives through the French countryside and marvel at the immensity and number of vineyards. You can also visit tons of cute little towns – my favorite being Mansle which is also on the Charente River and just over an hour’s drive north and then east through the countryside. But plan to take your time and really enjoy the drive. There’s lots to see along the way and of course, plenty of bakeries to visit!

If you don’t have a car you can still get around the region fairly well. Local buses take you around Cognac for just one euro per trip (albeit on limited routes and schedules) while other services run between Cognac and other towns all over the region. Trains can quickly and easily take you to places like Angoulême, Saintes, Jarnac and Rochefort, but my highest recommendation goes to the oceanside town of Royan.

Royan actually sits at the mouth of the Gironde Estuary right where it meets the Bay of Biscay/Atlantic Ocean. There are 4 beautiful beaches within the city limits to choose from.

The covered market in Royan is one of the best in the region. You’ll find dozens of vendors selling the very best in food and drink from all over the region and beyond. Royan has plenty of great places to eat, drink, shop and have fun as well as a fabulous seafront that stretches for as far as your legs can take you. There is a marina, a small amusement park, multiple beaches and several viewpoints. Royan is a big-time tourist attraction and as busy as can be in the summer. If you are lucky enough to visit in spring or fall, you’ll find a great number of things to do without it being too crowded.  

The Eglise Saint Léger in Cognac is as warm and welcoming as
its beautiful stained glass, marble, art and architecture.

Like most towns in France of its size or larger, there are several churches in Cognac. Located in the heart of the historic center, the Saint-Léger church is the main parish church of the city. Built between the 12th and 16th centuries, it combines several architectural styles. Tucked in between the buildings of Cognac’s old town, it is a big, beautiful church inside with all of the architecture, paintings, sculptures, artifacts and stained glass you would expect and more. There are several separate areas in the church where one can sit and reflect, enjoy a moment of peace, pray or just get out of the weather for a while in a quiet and comfortable space.

La Cervoiserie is a chain of beer halls with multiple establishments all across France.
The selection of bottled beers here is one of the biggest you’ll find in the country.

Of course, there’s more to drink in Cognac than just cognac. For beer lovers, you cannot beat La Cervoiserie. They have local craft beers on draft and an enormous selection of beers from Belgium and many other parts of the world. I discovered a new favorite milk stout from the Basque Country while I was there and also enjoyed some of my very favorite Belgian beers including Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrik Quadruple. There is a large, permanent covered area with several tables and stools for those who like to take their drink outside and a good selection of food items are available including pizza from the adjoined pizzeria. A bowling alley and an amusement center also share the same building.

Another local favorite is La Gabare. They also have multiple local beers on draft, a nice (albeit much smaller) selection of bottled beers, snacks like nachos and charcuterie and a large outdoor seating area that is opened up in better weather. Which in Cognac…is most of the year.

A typical neighborhood street in Cognac. The Eglise Saint Antoine sits at the end of
Rue Colin on the Rue de la République on the west side of town.

There are many other places to visit in Cognac including the Museum of Art and History, the Royal Castle and the Public Garden. There are vineyard tours, bike tours and bus tours. You can stroll around the old town, go for a rooftop cognac cocktail or experience some of the local cuisine over a fine evening’s meal. Many of the locals are very friendly, so be prepared to say “bonjour” or “bonsoir” back to them while walking along the neighborhood streets. 

No matter if you are looking for a slate of lessons in the region’s history, an intimate look inside the world of cognac-making, a warm and relaxing getaway or a place to get out and about in the splendor of mother nature, the town of Cognac, France has it all.

The SNCF train station in Cognac looking rather artful in the early morning light.

For more photos of Cognac, France and the area, you’ll find them in my Instagram post…

1 thought on “Cognac, France – Finding out more than what it’s famous for”

  1. Well written and informative. One of the best travelogues I have ever read. It makes you feel as if you had actually visited what sounds like an enchanting place.

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