There are many options to choose from when you take a wander away from the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, but the city of Cognac should be very high on your list. It’s one of those old European towns that feels like it’s been caught in a time capsule and the moment you arrive you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
Cognac is the home of the Grande and Petite Champagne regions and the spirit makers Remy Martin and Martell. Like most of the French countryside, the production of grapes is at the heart of the town, its heritage, history and present-day survival.
Travelling to the Town of Cognac
When you’re in Paris, the most convenient way to get to Cognac is via train. Rail operator SNCF has a direct train to Angoulême, another quaint French town, and it’s a two-hour journey. There you change trains and half an hour later you’re in Cognac. If you’re not in a rush then Angoulême is also worth some time and sightseeing.
The town has a rich history and museums with some rare artefacts.
The Episcopal Palace is a repository for not only Angoulême’s history but also French history. Some of the exhibitions includes the severed skull from the Bronze Age and an oceanic and African art collection comprising of more than 3 000 pieces. If you love Gaelic Celtic art then you will get lost in the treasures on offer here.
For a more modern look into French culture, there’s no better time to travel to Angoulême than in January when the second-largest comic book festival takes place in the town. The hustle and bustle of The International Comics Festival greeted me at the exit of the train station. I had unknowingly planned to pass through the town (to travel on to Cognac) and it was the start of the festival.
The entire town is engrossed in the business of comics - writers, illustrators, designers and fans get together for conference meetings and an awards show to celebrate the most talented and their works.
From Charles M Schulz to Hergé, homage is also paid to the work of French creatives Goscinny and Uderzo, who created Asterix. If you’re a DC and Marvel fan, this will be an essential stop for you during your travels in France.
In Angoulême you don’t really have to make much of an effort to soak up the creative and artistic vibe, it’s on murals and graffiti across the city - the work of some the best graffiti artists from Belgium and France, I was told.
What makes Cognac special
When I first arrived I was struck by how quiet it was, even for a countryside town, and I was then promptly informed that there are only 7 000 inhabitants.
One of the biggest developments, the restoration of the birthplace of Jean Monnet, has rejuvenated the town. Monnet was a French political economist and diplomat and one of the founding members of what is today the EU. The 19th-century cognac cellar and the stately home beside it has now been restored and converted into a five-star-hotel.
The new building is an architectural masterpiece - a black glass box with red steel, twisted and enveloping the entire structure. The choice of black is a nod to the black fungus that grows in a cellar from what is known as the angel’s share - that part of the cognac that evaporates from the casks during maturation.
If you want to see the cognac vineyards, the various spirit houses do offer guided tours, but for something a bit different (and more adventurous) consider booking a hot-air balloon ride to see the vineyards from the sky.
Cognac is en route to Bordeaux, and many miss it on their travels to the Champagne region. In comparison with Champagne, the French are dismissive of cognac and even the town itself.
It’s not a place to be overlooked. The journey away from the crowded tourist attractions in Paris is well worth it. Cognac has a lot to offer for the perfect holiday.