While France is already famous for its art, culture, and fine wine, visitors are now falling for Cognac, too—the scenic city where Western France's most famous distilled spirit has been produced and lovingly aged for centuries. Just a few hours' journey by train from the City of Lights, you'll find a host of reasons to visit the historic city beyond its namesake liquor (though that's reason alone to make the trek!).
Since Cognac doesn't have its own airport, your journey to the region will likely begin in Paris. And since Cognac is reachable by super-fast TGV train (in just over 2 hours), it's a breeze to get there. Bonus Tip: Get yourself psyched for the journey by grabbing a classy Cognac cocktail, like the Smooth Temt8tion, at Bar 8 in Paris's elegant Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Made with fig syrup, orange juice, Courvoisier Cognac, bitter plum, and Champagne, it's the perfect way to toast to your Cognac adventure to come. Santé!
This may seem obvious, but tours of distilleries—large and small—are available throughout the region, allowing Cognac lovers to learn how the liquid gold is made (hint: distilled white wine and copper pot stills play a big part) and aged by its passionate producers, not to mention taste the delicious spirit and stock up on unique bottles to take home. Rémy Martin and Hennessy are the largest in town, boasting sleek visitors' centers, with Courvoisier a short drive away (it's located in nearby Jarnac). Prices vary, and some English tours are available.
Stop by the town's vibrant central market and pick up a host of edible supplies for a picnic in the nearby Cognac Public Garden or along the banks of the Charente River. Farm-fresh produce, crusty baguettes, delectable pâtés, and local cheeses (like Le Petit Semussec, an exceptionally soft goat cheese) will make for a perfect French meal. Don't want to wash it down with Cognac? You'll find a host of wines from nearby Bordeaux readily available at the market or nearby shops for under $15 a bottle.
Once called "the loveliest stream in France" by King Francis I, visitors can rent a boat—try the Dame Jeanne, a replica of a traditional gabare, or flat-bottomed wooden barge that once hauled Cognac barrels—and enjoy a leisurely 90-minute cruise down one of the region's prettiest waterways. Ancient vineyards and Roman ruins can be glimpsed boat-side, along with picture-perfect chateaus, private estates, and elegant swans.
Don't miss a tour of Château de Cognac, the 15th-century fortification situated by the Charente River and the birthplace of Francis I, considered France's first Renaissance king. It's also the beautiful site where D'USSE Cognac is crafted (the château has a 200-year-old history of Cognac production and aging, with a museum to prove it). Other architectural wonders in town include the Saint-Léger Church, which dates to the 12th century and boasts a dramatic Romanesque facade, and the half-timbered houses on the Rue Grande, Cognac's main street. Just watch out for those cobblestones after tasting all that Cognac.
Alexis Korman is a freelance wine, food, and travel writer based in New Orleans. She is also Contributing Food Editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine and founder of blog City City Bang Bang. Follow her on Twitter @lexisips.
Photo Credits: Hennessy Barrels: Courtesy of Alexandra Sklansky; Chateau and Market: Courtesy of Alexis Korman
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