Cognac’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. Some historians say it began as the town of Condate located on a former Roman road between Saintes and Limoges. Others mention Condate on the Merpind, Croin (near Cognac) or Conniacum in the first century AD, where a Gallo-Roman chief lived with his family and slaves.
The Gallo-Roman site is visible from a building that the Saracens erected, where the remains of 10 pools suggest that people farmed, made wine and even engaged in craft activities here.
In 1200, the domain of Cognac fell under English rule; the castle was rebuilt of stone and fortified. Francis I was born here in 1494. Years later, he granted Cognac the right to ply the salt trade on the river, which boosted the town’s prosperity. An equestrian statue of the king stands in the central square named after him.
By the early 18th century the ramparts had been abandoned and the surrounding fields were an excellent place for growing hemp and taking walks. A few English families settled there, including cognac’s most famous future names: John Martell in 1720, Rémy Martin in 1724, Richard Hennessy in 1755 and Thomas Hone in 1763. However, the name cognac to designate the famous spirit did not appear until 1891.
In 1971, Jas Hennessy teamed up with Moët et Chandon to create the LVMH (Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessy) group in 1983.
Cognac is the birthplace of several famous people: Francis I (1494–1547); Paul-Emile Lecoq de Bois Baudran, who discovered gallium in 1875 and isolated samarium in 1878; Jean Monnet, the father of Europe, who was born here in 1888; Louis Delage, who became famous by building the magnificent cars named after him; and the imitator-pretender Gérald Dahan.
Surprising as it might seem, the cognac appellation only dates back to 1st May 1909. At first, cognac was a kind of brandy made by distilling wine that did not keep well. But when cognac is distilled twice, it becomes an excellent product. The first distillation is performed with a copper still called a “charentais”, whose volume is regulated. What comes out is called “braillin”, which is 25° proof and in which the heads are separated from the tails and hearts.
The tails and hearts are distilled to obtain a 68° or 72° proof alcohol.
Then the liqueur is stored for at least three years in barrels made of oak from the Tronçais or Limousin Forest.
Double distillation was the idea of the Knight of the Brown Cross, who had a dream that Satan tried to steal his soul. He saw himself in the devil’s cauldron, but his faith was so strong that he withstood the first heating! When he woke up after a second heating, Marron had the idea of applying the “recipe” to Charentes wine. Thus was born the most elaborate method for obtaining a genuine cognac, whose distillation ends on the 31st of March following the harvest.
Boutiers owes its name to the expression “boot out the enemy”. A former fortified town, it has the Saint Cybard Priory, which is home to a community of monks from Saint-Antoine, near Saint-Marcellin (Isère) in the French Alps.
Things to see include Saint Trojan’s Church, Saint Marmet’s Church, a mill and the ruins of 19th century brick and tile factories.
Nercillac, which is in the Soloire Valley, boasts an 11th-century Romanesque church that has been restored over the centuries. Armand Pingard, an aviator, was born here in 1887. After a campaign in Africa, he was one of France’s fighter pilots in 1914. When the Great War broke out, Pingard took the controls of an MS 23 and won 25 dogfights. He was made a prisoner in Germany after a forced landing on 8 February 1915, managed to escape and continued fighting until 22 August 1918 on new aircraft that had entered into service during his internment.
This town, which dates back to the Bronze Age had a 14th-century church that the Protestants destroyed in 1568. Points of interest include the 19th-century Château de la Poyade, a 16th-century dovecote and 5,000 m² of greenhouses with kiwis, house plants and a beautiful collection of 600 varieties of orchids.
The motto of the town, where Henry III was duke as a child, is “I draw my strength from the loyalty of my citizens.”
Angoulême is made up of an upper town with narrow streets in the north, a low town in the south and pedestrian streets in the east.
The upper town hasn’t changed since the 19th century; the best way to see it is to take a walk on the ramparts in a counter-clockwise direction from the Tourist Office to the Place des Halles.
On the ramparts, visitors enjoy views of the bridge, Faubourg Saint-Cybard and Charente Valley.
Paul Abadie, the architect of Sacré Cur, designed the Gothic-Renaissance style town hall, which was built on the site of the castle of the counts of Angoulême between 1858 and 1868.
All that remains of the castle today is the former 12th- and 14th-century keep, a polygonal tower that offers beautiful views of Angoulême. The town hall features a round 15th-century tower where Margueritte d’Angoulême, whom her brother, Francis I, called “la Margueritte des Marguerittes” (“the prettiest daisy of them all”), is said to have been born in 1492. She is famous for writing L’Heptaméron, a collection of tales inspired by Boccacio.
Angoulême is the home of the Comic Book Festival. and the CNBDI (National Centre of Comic Books and the Image), designed by Roland Castro, a magnificent stone and glass building with a forecourt of painted slabs.
The decor consists of deliberately unfinished drawings. The interior houses the CNBDI’s most beautiful permanent collections.
The comic book history museum traces the various periods of French and Belgian comics from the second half of the 19th century to the present, with tributes to the authors who wrote the most beautiful pages in comic book history.
The science and technology museum focuses on the various stages involved in creating a comic book and the natural history museum features an astonishing comic book bestiary with familiar and fantastic animals.
The ethnology museum recalls various comic book heroes, whereas the fine arts museum presents comic book trends and aesthetics.