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To The Heart of Things...Part 2 of the River Charente trip

To The Heart of Things...Part 2 of the River Charente trip

Roger Moss continues his relaxed journey beside the Charente, against the flow, all the way to the river’s source...

charente verteuil-charente-river

With Charente-Maritime now behind us (we’ve entered the Département de la Charente) the river shows occasional signs of having divided, as if uncertain as to quite which direction to take. Soon we pass Saint Brice, possessor of not one but two 16/18th century châteaux – the elegant Château de Saint-Brice (owned by the Hennessy family) and, further from the river, the battlemented Château de Garde Epée. The commune is also home to the 18-hole Golfe de Cognac and the Cognac Tennis Club.

A few kilometres further upstream a Neolithic dugout canoe (now in Cognac’s Musée d’Arts et d’Histoire) was unearthed in 1979, near where the Charente is spanned by Bourg-Charente’s graceful road bridge. Bourg’s large and imposing château is owned by the Marnier-Lapostolle family, of Grand Marnier fame, while nearby is La Grange du Bois, a classic French country estate whose vineyards have been producing fine Cognacs and Pineaux des Charentes here since 1727.

The river remains a navigable waterway on the approach to Jarnac, where the presence of great producers like Courvoisier, Hine and Louis Royer tell of a long and prosperous spirit trade. These days, however, the town no longer resonates to the cask-makers’ hammers, and the river, unimpressed by some 80,000 Ha of nearby vineyards (France’s second-largest growth area, after Bordeaux), slips back into leafy tranquillity. From here on it also re-divides now and then into multiple courses, but otherwise the sole distractions are the Charente’s twenty-one locks, most of which date from the 18th century and are still carefully-maintained, despite the lock-keepers having long since vacated their riverside cottages.

But the river wasn’t always quite so peaceful. From medieval times flat-bottomed barges or ‘gabares’ transported wine and brandy to the coast for shipping, then returned laden with Atlantic Coast salt and Oriental spices. The pattern continued for centuries, until eventually the trade abandoned the waterways in favour of fast-developing road and rail networks. Here and there, though, signs of former glory remain, from now-silent tow-paths to the once-bustling quays of small ports like Saint Simon, which long ago constructed gabares and now operates a replica vessel. A trip aboard offers visitors a glimpse of how things would have been during the river’s heyday and the village’s still-active eel fishery allows them to enjoy a taste, too.

It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for any activity (or a simple picnic) than the local riverbanks, a sentiment obviously shared by those who saw the peaceful landscapes of French countryside as something worth fighting for. The turbulent period when this sentiment would be put to the ultimate test is recorded near the village of Vibrac by a poignant memorial to French Resistance martyr Claude Bonnier, who died in 1944 while in Gestapo custody near Bordeaux.

The river remains more or less navigable almost as far as Angoulême. The last of the locks, though, appears a little sooner, beside the 17th century Moulin de Fleurac, a listed Monument Historique whose site has accommodated a succession of mills since the 13th century. Originally constructed to mill flour, the present structure later began pressing grains and nuts for oil, before becoming a paper mill. Today it’s a living museum producing specialist papers using techniques once commonplace when paper products were transported by gabare to Rochefort, for a second leg down the Gironde to Bordeaux (or for shipment overseas). With the arrival of electrical power and alternative transport options, paper producers gradually abandoned the riverbanks with the last of the old mills (producing cigarette papers for the Bardou-Le Nil ‘JOB’ brand) closing in 1970. Today the building houses the Atelier-Musée du Papier, recounting the long history of paper production in and around Angoulême.

river-charente-boat

Upstream from the city the river begins a series of graceful meanders. The first embraces the early 17th century Château de Balzac, whose most notable occupant was celebrated critic and essayist Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (who lies in Angoulême’s Chapelle des Cordeliers). The river’s convolutions continue past the villages of Vindelle and Marsac, where the flow once again divides into multiple smaller rivulets. The curious effect continues for over twenty kilometres, passing the ivy-clad former water-mill and brooding 12/13th century fortress ruins of Montignac-Charente. The waters finally reunite at Amberac. Soon we have the railway line for company, and TGVs from Bordeaux or Paris streak across the river at Luxé, before calm returns and the road passes through a string of faded, colour-washed villages among vast swathes of sunflowers. Ahead lies the pleasant market town of Mansle, beyond which the river slips beneath the busy RN10 highway to continue its peaceful, meandering progress past more small rural communities. At Verteuil-sur-Charente the current still powers a small flour mill selling direct to the public, beside a vast 11th-15th century fairytale château (seat of the La Rochefoucauld family) poised romantically above the riverbank.

Now tightly-meandering, the river continues past Condac on the outskirts of Ruffec, an expanding market town. A plan to link the Charente to the nearby Clain and create a passenger and freight route to Paris never materialised, but the river feels almost navigable again as it continues northwards. Beyond Taizé-Aizie, where an old water-mill houses mountains of brocante plus the bizarre-sounding Musée de la Cafetière, we cross the border into la Vienne among the idyllic, Turner-esque landscapes of l’Isle and Voulême. The area was once renowned for both chestnuts and truffles, and during the late 19th century nearby Civray was even supplying locally sourced delicacies to truffle dealers in Perigord. Little remains of the early 11th century château constructed to keep a watchful eye on the river by the Counts of La Marche, but behind the 12/13th century Romanesque Eglise Saint-Nicolas (whose sculpted facade conceals a vibrant painted interior) lies the Tour-Pigeonnier, a survivor from the town’s ancient fortifications.

The river narrows visibly before reaching Charroux, a centuries-old halt for pilgrims bound for Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. Of its once splendid Benedictine abbey, only foundations, 13th century sculptures and the astonishing Tour Charlemagne survived the devastation of the Wars of Religion. Nearby are a huge, well preserved market hall dating from the 16th century and a beautiful medieval Gothic archway.

By now we’re well off the tourist track. Beyond Chatain (a real gem, with bar, église, boulangerie, brocante, etc., around a landscaped square) the river passes beneath a narrow, medieval dos d’âne bridge before slipping quietly back into the Département de la Charente. Ahead, in a commanding position overlooking the valley, lies Benest, followed by Alloue, whose echoes of past prosperity include a Benedictine priory, the huge 12th century Eglise Notre-Dame and several former châteaux.

The river, now little more than a stream, has nevertheless created a surprisingly broad valley, through which it meanders and appears fleetingly among flood-plain meadows of wheat and maize between dense tracts of woodland. Soon it looks destined to disappear altogether amid the vastness of Lac Lavaud, one of the Lacs de Haute-Charente created in 1988 by damming several valleys. Now an inland paradise for locals and visitors, there’s safe bathing and sandy beaches fringed by chestnuts, oaks and willows, providing natural shade from the summer sun, while around 170 species of birds and wildfowl have so far been recorded here.

The River Charente actually springs into life across the Limousin border in Haute-Vienne. Exactly where, though, is debatable, and one local farmer is convinced that a spring emanating from his patch of undergrowth is the true source. Officialdom thinks otherwise, however, and in the unassuming village of Cheronnac (alt.310m) a weathered enamel sign proclaims: ‘Source de la Charente’. Don’t get too excited; a few metres away, in a modest public garden, a gentle trickle emerges from a garden-style brass tap beneath a large granite slab, before heading off down the hillside. So, we’ve reached journey’s end at last, although for the river it’s just the beginning...

 

charente sourceADDRESS BOOK

Find out more...

LES ETAPES DU COGNAC, Maison des Viticulteurs, 25, rue Cagouillet, 16100 Cognac Tel: 05 45 36 47 35 www.cognacetapes.com
Useful information to help you plan your visit, discover and sample Cognac, Pineau and local gourmet cuisine.

LA GRANGE DU BOIS, 16200 Bourg-CharenteTel: 05 45 81 10 17
The owners, the Cartais-Lamaure family, welcome visitors to their traditional chais, to discover the distillation process, enjoy dégustations and buy direct
from the producer.

LES LACS DE HAUTE CHARENTE, Office de Tourisme Haute Charente, Maison des Lacs, 16310 Massignac Tel: 05 45 65 26 69 www.lacs-de-haute-charente.com
Created to regulate the flow of the River Charente, the Lacs de Haute Charente offer safe bathing beaches and plenty of activities both on the water and in the vast natural area which surrounds them.

 

Dining Out...

RESTAURANT LA RIBAUDIÈRE, 16200 Bourg-Charente Tel: 05 45 81 30 54
Open Tuesday evening to Sunday lunchtime www.laribaudiere.com

HOTEL RESTAURANT LE MOULIN NEUF, 34, rue du moulin, 16160 Le Gond Pontouvre Tel: 05 45 94 50 29
Open Tuesday to Sunday lunchtime www.hotel-moulin-neuf.com

AUBERGE DU CHEVAL BLANC, LA GARE, 16230 LUXE Tel: 05 45 22 23 62
Open Wednesday to Sunday lunchtime www.auberge-cheval-blanc.com

COUVENT DE CORDELIERS, 16510 Verteuil-sur-Charente Tel: 05 45 31 01 19
Open daily for refreshments, cream teas, lunch and dinner (restaurant closed Tues/Weds evenings) www.couventcordeliers.com

RESTAURANT LE REJALLANT, 16700 Condac Tel: 05 45 30 79 67
Open daily except Tuesday, with ice cream bar open in the afternoon www.le-rejallent.com

 

PUBLISHED IN LIVING MAGAZINE AUGUST 2012