Cruising the Charente
© Conseil Régionale Poitou-Charentes/F.Roche
Here we were, gathered in the quiet town of Jarnac on a beautiful August afternoon, a motley crew of American and French sailors—boaters might be more accurate—with one former U.S. Navy officer among us. We were ready to spend a week navigating up and down the Charente River, on the west coast of France north of Bordeaux, after only 30 minutes of instruction on how to run the boat and operate the locks. If the folks at the boat-rental company were confident enough to let us leave port with one of their boats sans permis, certainly the task was manageable.
But let me introduce the crew: Ed and Carole Lynne, my parents-in-law, had made the trip from California together with their longtime friends, Bill and Susan, who were then living in Paris. Completing the American ranks was my husband EJ, a French-trained chef who was eager to prove that he could prepare gourmet meals in the tiny galley of our boat which was, after all, not much smaller than the kitchens of some Parisian restaurants. (Delicious dishes such as rabbit terrine and stuffed squab day after day proved he was right.) The French contingent was made up of my parents, Claude and Nicole, from nearby Poitou and my aunt Marylène from Brittany. As the ninth member of the crew, I carried a precious cargo, as I was pregnant with the first grandchild on both sides of the family.
Needless to say, this voyage on the Charente was an incredible opportunity for our families to bond. I should add that not every member of our party had mastered both languages perfectly, which added to the good-humored challenges of living in close quarters on a boat for a week. But the beauty of river cruising is that, along with the fun of being on the boat, riverside towns and villages beckon at every bend. There are markets and churches to visit, walks to take, and, in this case, Cognac to taste. The bikes we had loaded onboard were an added bonus for those who wanted to venture beyond the river’s banks and spend a few hours in the countryside.
Properly briefed, and having bought a tantalizing flat of strawberries from a farmer at the market, we set off from the small town of Jarnac, known as the birthplace and resting place of former French president François Mitterrand—you can visit a small museum in his childhood home. On that first day, we headed west towards Cognac.
Henri IV called the Charente “the most beautiful stream in the kingdom”, a phrase sometimes attributed to one of his predecessors, François I, who was born in Cognac and who granted the town the right to trade salt along the Charente. Merchants used flat-bottomed boats called “gabares”. They would sail down the river carrying stone, arms or eaux-de-vie and return with salt from Ile de Ré. Gabares could be found on the Charente until the early 1900s. Back in the 16th century, the river was central to the international salt and wine trade with England and Holland. In the 17th century, the region started to produce eaux-de-vie. In a typical case of accidental luck, Cognac was invented when makers discovered that letting the alcohol sit in oak barrels greatly enhanced its taste.
On several occasions, we tasted Cognac and its twin aperitif, Pineau des Charentes, in various places, some of them set up right on the riverbank. We became experts on the finer distinctions among VO (very old), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) or XO and Napoleon for even older Cognacs. Not all Cognac ends up in a bottle, we learned—the part des anges is the significant portion which evaporates during aging, leaving a distinctive black deposit on the region’s stone buildings. For an official introduction, you can visit the Hennessy factory in the center of the town of Cognac. (The Hennessy empire, now part of the luxury conglomerate LVMH, was started in 1765 when its Irish founder, Richard Hennessy, decided to settle in the area to trade with his native country.)
The town of Cognac was the site of our biggest boating blunder. After shopping for scallops at the covered market and filling our water tank, we were ready to move on. Unfortunately, the boat started drifting uncontrollably backwards towards a nearby bridge. Strollers started leaning over the bridge to watch this confused spectacle as instructions were screamed in two languages. In a flash, my father took off his pants, jumped in the water and somehow got the boat back on track. To this day, my mother-in-law breaks into giggles remembering the episode.
We had another funny moment when Bill steered a bit too close to shore and started running over the fishing lines of some local residents. Understandably, they started shouting at us. Even with his shaky command of French, Bill could tell they were not happy. But he decided to play it cool. We just kept going, as he waved and smiled at them, and we somehow avoided a serious diplomatic incident.
A bit later, when several of us jumped off the boat to maneuver a lock, my father and father-in-law decided to stay behind to help a second boat through. Mistaking them for local workers who sometimes help in exchange for a tip, the boaters generously tossed them a few coins for their trouble.
The farthest we ventured to the west was the charming city of Saintes. For once, we spent the night in an urban setting instead of mooring in a bucolic spot with peaceful views of a castle or green rolling landscapes. The Old Town of Saintes offers much for visitors to see, including the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre and the Arch of Germanicus, where the main Roman road of Mediolanum Santonum crossed the river; the 15th-century cathedral with its massive belltower; and the Abbaye aux Dames, founded in the 11th century and now the site of a music festival in July.
As we talk about it now, it’s fun to remember the mishaps, but in fact the trip was generally peaceful. Maneuvering a river boat is not that difficult, and we all proved worthy sailors, taking turns at the wheel and managing the locks. Living in close quarters proved surprisingly easy. And the trip accomplished its mission: it created shared memories between our two families and deepened our bond from the start. More relaxed than a road trip and less tiring than a bike trip, a week on a river boat is a wonderful way to discover any one of many beautiful regions of France, even one you thought you knew, because seeing it from the river, or the canal, is a different story altogether.
Comité Régional de Tourisme Poitou-Charentes
A Little Canal History
The history of canals in France dates to the Roman era, when those enterprising engineers linked the Rhône River both to the Saône and to the Mediterranean. In the 9th century came the Canal de Bergues, in northern France near the Belgian border—the oldest still in existence in France. The first locks were invented in 14th-century Holland, but canals couldn’t reach their full potential until Leonardo da Vinci perfected the familiar écluse àsas, or chamber lock, in which vessels enter a basin which is then closed and either flooded or drained to allow boats to go up or downhill.
The heyday of French canals began in the 17th century. One incentive for their creation was the need to supply Paris with provisions. The first large-scale project was launched by Sully who, under Henri IV, had the canal de Briare dug—it took nearly forty years, from 1604 to 1642—to bring wheat from the Beauce. The Canal de Bourgogne and Canal du Centre were built to carry wood, after the city had depleted the forests of the Ile de France.
The military also launched a spate of canal projects. The Canal du Midi carried the French Navy’s galleys to the Atlantic to fight the Spanish, and Napoleon used Breton canals to move his fleet north in secret, while Britain’s unsuspecting Royal Navy patrolled the English Channel.
Towing methods improved over the centuries from human and animal power to steam tractors and even canalside locomotives; self-propelled canal boats arrived with the diesel engine, when tugs and towboats took over. During the Industrial Revolution canals appeared in the mining regions of France’s north and northeast, supplying coal and other minerals to the iron and steel industries. But the Industrial Revolution also saw the rise of railroads, which marked the beginning of the end for the commercial importance of canals.
For more canal history lore:
ObservaLoire: Learn about the Loire, canal history, local fish and fishing practices, and the history of Digoin, an important port in the 18th century, at the junction of three canals. Rue des Perruts, Digoin, 03.85.53.75.71. www.observaloire.com
Musée du Canal: Visitors can tour a barge and an 18th-century lock and lockhouse, learn about the lives of boatmen and their families, and take a 2-hour guided boat tour through a lock on the Canal du Centre. 9th lock, Ecuisses, 03.85.78.97.04. www.bateau-musee-canal.com
Musée du Vin et de la Batellerie: Both boating and wine are highlighted at this museum, where visitors can take an excursion on the Dordogne River aboard a reconstructed gabare, the Carpe Diem. 5 rue des Conférences, Bergerac, 05.53.57.80.92.