Cognac is a town on the Charente River in the west of France with almost 20 thousand inhabitants, and it’s world famous because of the brandy with the same name. Cognac is also the hometown of King Francis I, who ruled France for more than 30 years in the first part of the 16th century. Cognac has a charming old city, awesome parks, and old houses, the stones of which are covered with black velvet most of the time, as a result of a microscopic fungus living on alcohol steams. The town owes its original wealth and success to King Francis I, rather than to the drink for which it is now famous. The king granted Cognac a licence to trade in salt, it was a very important strategic decision. So, check these eight awesome things to do in Cognac.
1) Learn about Francis I, king of France
Cognac honours the memory of its King, who is also called the first renaissance king of France, in the castle, square and park dedicated to him. King Francis I Park is located near the Charente River. According to a legend, the future King of France was born near an oak tree that was given his name. King Francis I statue may be seen in Francis I square.
2) Walk the Cognac old town
The medieval part of the town has narrow cobbled streets, with attractive houses from the 15th to 18th centuries, and many brandy maturing warehouses along the riverside. A few of the older houses are half-timbered, while most are in the local white stone, often covered by black velvet. Most buildings have large windows, an indication of the wealth of the traders living in this area at that period of time.
3) Admire the Convent of the Recollets
The restored 17th century Convent of the Recollets has a lovely vaulted gallery. It now houses various organisations and exhibition rooms, has a rib-vaulted room and a covered well in the middle of the cloister.
Address: 53 rue d'Angoulême
4) Visit the covered market
The most beautiful covered market in the region was inspired by famous French architect Victor Baltard. It’s a nice place to buy some local products. One of the stands sells great local alcohol and cheese, and you can even order a cheese plate and take it to the picnic area in the middle of the market.
5) Visit Saint-Léger Church
The Church of Saint-Leger was built and modified over the course of several hundred years from the 12th century onwards, which explains the mix of architectural styles. The facade is essentially in the original Roman style and features a large rose window above an ornately carved entrance. The Priory of Saint-Leger with its 17th century cloisters is now used as the town library.
6) See the town hall and visit the parks
Cognac’s town hall is located in the heart of a park. It is a former town house owned by a merchant of the 19th century. The public gardens in Cognac occupy several hectares in the centre of the town and have extensive plantings, a rose garden, water features, trees and flower borders, and an English style garden planning.
7) Learn about cognac production
The term brandy comes from the Dutch term brandywein or burnt wine. “Burnt” refers to the fact that the wine has been distilled. Brandy can be made anywhere in the world, while cognac must be made in the Cognac region of France. Both are made from grapes, and actually, come from white wine. A legend has it that cognac was invented when Dutch merchants, in order to reduce their shipping costs, first distilled the local wine to reduce its bulk. Their intent was to convert it back to wine by adding water when it arrived at its destination. Upon doing so, however, they discovered that they got an entirely different product: brandy. In fact, the eau-de-vie only becomes cognac after slowly maturing in oak barrels between 2 and 100 years. It is the cellar master who produces the blend. While major Cognac houses may grow a small percentage of their own grapes, the vast majority of the distillate they use to create Cognac comes from local winegrowers and distillers.
8) Visit Cognac houses
With almost 200 cognac producers in the area, this is definitely the main attraction of Cognac. The cognac houses include big names like Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier. These four produce most of the Cognac exported to the world. Other known brands include Otard, Camus, and Meukow. Several important Cognac houses are open to the public for brandy cellar visits and tastings. Many big Cognac houses have established their main buildings on the riverfront. Walking the elegant promenade, you’ll pass by the port of Cognac, the Hennessy house, the Chateau de Cognac (now the Otard Cognac house) and the impressive Tours Saint Jacques, one of the only remainings left from medieval times. Many distilleries offer tours in French and English. However, if you need an English speaking tour, be sure to book in advance or ask for help in the tourist office. Martell and Hennessy are very popular tours as well as those by Otard, where you get to visit the old Chateau de Cognac (the birthplace of King Francis I). My choice was Meukow, Otard and Camus cognac houses.
Meukow Cognac House
The Meukow House was founded in the 19th century when two brothers Meukow from Silesia were sent to France by Tsar Alexander II of Russia, with orders to secure the supply of cognac for the Court. After several voyages, they decided to set up a commercial office in the town of Cognac. In 1979, Meukow got new owners. Since that time Meukow Cognacs continued to develop their range. Meukow is now distributed in more than 80 countries. The altering of the building and cellars is harmoniously arranged around the wide hall, which was inaugurated in 2012 for the occasion of Meukow Cognac’s 150th Anniversary. The journey continues at the “Chai Meukow”, an old cellar renovated as a culinary workshop. Between art and conviviality, the chef shares its passion and extends the Meukow experience around food pairing with cognac. It’s a great place for lunch.
Royal Château de Cognac or Otard Cognac house
The Royal Château de Cognac dates back to the 10th century when it was a fortress. In the 15th century it became a stately home where Francis the 1st was born. Baron Otard, who founded his Cognac house in the late 18th century, understood that thick walls provide excellent conditions for the aging of cognac. The guided tours of the Royal Château de Cognac are divided in two parts: French History and Baron Otard Cognacs. The tours are available in several languages: French, English, and Russian on request.
Camus Cognac house
Camus is a family business with an international attitude, it’s more than 150 years old and driven by the passion and dedication of its people who strive to create products of the highest quality. The Camus vineyards are part of an impressive estate of 280 hectares, located in the best area of the region.
You can visit Cognac arriving by train from Bordeaux, for example. The railway station is in some distance from the old town so you should make some 15 minute walk to the city centre. I recommend visiting Cognac tourist office for perfect advice and organisation of your stay. It looks more like a cognac shop, which is a special characteristic of this place. Still, one of the most professional and useful help I have gotten in any tourist information centre was there. They helped arrange the visits of the Cognac houses for me in the best possible way. Just remember that a few cognac houses like Braastad and Hine are located at Jarnac, some 20 kilometres away from Cognac accessible by train from there. Also, you should know that many distilleries close for winter so consult their tour schedules before heading to Cognac.
Addresses of tourist offices:
Cognac office: 16 rue du 14 Juillet Cognac
Jarnac office: 7 quai de l’Orangerie Jarnac
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Author: Anita Sāne
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