If castles, vineyards and lore from ancient times suit your fancy, head to the fascinating region of Charente, in south-west France.
One of the area's jewels is Cognac, an idyllic village tucked away from the onslaught of tourism. This is where Francis I, one of France's greatest kings, was born. On its outskirts are luxurious chateaus and mansions of wealthy French barons, as well as acres of vines, growing in abundance in the fertile soil and the gentle climate.
The town's fringes are studded with unspoilt treasures — gorgeous landscapes of green meadows, lovely sunflower fields and lush forests. The heart of the place is bathed in an old-world charm. Narrow cobbled streets wind through stylish shops, restaurants and stone houses that have stood the test of time.
One sunny day this summer, I set foot in this tranquil town. The village was quiet and the roads so deserted, it was easy to think I was walking in the dead of night. "Where have all the people gone?" I wondered as we waded through a maze of old stone houses, some as high as three storeys.
Boyd, a Dubai-based Parisian who had spent his childhood here, explained that there are only two types of people in this modest town — the children and the old folk. Young people are virtually non-existent in the village, as most leave for glitzy and swanky places, such as Paris, to pursue a stylish life. The silence of the place is punctuated only by the visits of tourists who usually come down on weekends or during the town's music festival.
Feel of the place
A few steps further and we reached a square under the shade of trees, where a group of old men huddled together. There were some metallic balls on the dirt surface. The men were engaged in a game of boules, a sport close to the French heart and similar to the Italian bocce or British lawn bowling.
"Come, play the game and let me take your girl with me," a grizzled man in overalls said to Boyd in French. I just had my first taste of Cognac humour.
Farther ahead, a gleaming sun bathed the placid Charente River; the water a deep, vibrant green, taking on the hues of trees that adorned the shore. A boat bobbed on the fringe of the waterway, waiting for some passengers to get on it. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
Dubbed by Henri IV as "my kingdom's nicest", this slow-moving river was once a source of water for major refreshment houses. It winds through Cognac's neighbouring towns — Angouleme, Saintes and Rochefort.
As we got closer to the river, I could smell the whiff of potions evaporating from old oak barrels. Many famous refreshment makers' warehouses and factories dot the waterway.
The next day, I went for a boat ride along this glorious river, in the company of some tourists. For a few minutes, we sailed through the waters of Charente, past a few refreshment houses, and got off at an old warehouse on the right bank of the river. Later, we were taken into a cavernous cellar steeped in the smells of long-gone years. Inside, it was a chilly 13 degrees. The air was intoxicating, filled with the heavy scents of liquids oozing out from the oak casks that store the French refreshments.
Our next stop was Chateau de Cognac. Francis I was born here in 1494. Now blackened with lichen, the chateau was built as a rudimentary fortress towards the end of the 9th century. During the king's reign, it hosted many splendid banquets.
A guide wearing period costume treated us to a rendezvous with the great king, shared some of the brand's production secrets and let us discover the conditions of the place's cellar.
"You want to see more castles?" asked Christine, my ever-accommodating host who was ready for another sightseeing tour.
Just as the sun was about to set, we drove three miles from Cognac and past endless plantations of grapes to a 17th century castle called Chateau Chesnel. Like Chateau de Cognac, the castle offers a guided tour and tasting of its products. Tucked away from the main road, sitting amid lush vineyards, the chateau takes pride in the refreshments it makes.
The next day, we stepped out of Cognac and headed over to a neighbouring town, Saintonge, which is situated between Rochefort and Saintes. There, standing amid verdant and well-manicured French gardens, was the enchanting Chateau de la Roche-Courbon, also known as the 'castle of Sleeping Beauty'. Built around 1475 on a high cliff overlooking the river Bruant, the castle got its name from the rock (la roche) on which it is built and the Courbons who had lived there for more than three centuries. I could not help but marvel at the geometry of the castle's elegant gardens that is astonishingly symmetrical — plants perfectly trimmed in circles, rectangles and triangles that complement the castle's towers.
After an hour we headed to Saintes, a place rich in monuments from medieval times and one of the 18 towns renowned in France for its art and history.
To another age
An important monument worth visiting is the Saint Eutrope church, considered one of the biggest and most important cathedrals in France. Situated outside the walls of the town on an ancient road leading from Saintes to Bordeaux, the church is home to crypts, one of the best and most beautiful of its kind to exist in France. A few turns around the town's winding roads later, we came to an outcrop overlooking some ancient circular rows edged out on the sides of a valley. It was a Roman amphitheatre built around AD40, one of the many vestiges of the Gallo-Roman age. It can accommodate around 15,000 people. Another sight to behold was the Arch of Germanicus, which looked a lot like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
These were just some of the hundreds of sights to behold in the Charente region, I was told. Even so, my short stay there had offered me enough memories to last a lifetime.
From the UAE
Bordeaux is the closest airport to Charente.
From Dubai: Air France flies daily via Paris. Fare: Dh3,000
KLM flies daily via Amsterdam. Fare: Dh2,740
From Abu Dhabi: Lufthansa flies three times a week via Frankfurt and Munich. Fare: Dh2,220
(All fares exclusive of taxes)
— Information courtesy: MMI Travel
The writer took a Gulf Air flight from Dubai to Paris (via Bahrain) and then got on a four-hour trip aboard a train from Paris to Angouleme, a town in the Charente region. From Angouleme, she took a 30-minute car trip to Cognac. There is a train that leaves for Cognac from Angouleme. Travel time is about 40 minutes.