When the idea was born to go to Europe this year, it was to meet up with friends and do a river cruise on the Charentes River from Jarnac in the Cognac region of France. The cruise would be 5 nights out of a 5 week trip. We were still two days away from our bare-boat charter reservation. En route to Jarnac we went inland to a small town called Descartes.
We stopped in Richelieu, a small, walled town, to buy supplies. Richelieu, France! This was the powerful man who pushed Louis XIII to colonize New France – Canada. He pushed the French aristocracy out, centralized French government, and before his death, paved the way for Louis XIV to be the most powerful monarch until the revolution broadsided that. Another history lesson…And we were in his walled town. By the way, it is paved in marble. The grocery store was ok and we bought fresh lamb, eggs, fruit and almost a few earthenware pate terrines that the deli discards after the terrines of duck, rabbit or pate de campagnes are sold. They were only 1-2Euros each. Don’t need them. They won’t fit in the trailer. Not packing them through France and Spain… And they would make good gifts too!! Nope. But oh my, if our life were considered normal….
Why Descartes? Because we found a couple of rooms online, in a house that was affordable and quaint. It was definitely out of the way but as with many travels, sometimes the odd ones are the best. Descartes is the birthplace of philosopher René Descartes who revolutionized dualism as thinking and matter, paving the way to modern physics. His famous quotes such as “I think, therefore I am.” or ” It is not enough to have a good mind, the main thing is to use it well.” are solid ideas that still make it on to T-shirts and Pinterest posters! We were in this smarty-pants home town.
We arrived at the address, “Le 37” (also the name of the accommodation), and rang the ancient doorbell. Nothing. Tried again…then there was some thumping and the door six meters away opened. In we went into a century’s old “house” with 3 floors and a tower. The storefront was just a ruse. Each bedroom boasted a comfortable king sized bed, with crisp white sun dried linens and a private bathroom. There was a large spiral staircase up to our rooms and the kitchen was on the ground floor and a garden courtyard just outside the kitchen door. The “younger-than-us” owner, Pierre, spoke his beautiful English/Parisian French accented language, as he showed us our home for the next 20 hours. He had fresh tomatoes, nectarines from his garden, a loaf of bread, cheese and jams for us to help ourselves, and lovely stories of the area. He acquired the home from a family that had lived there for many generations. The 60+ year old son of the elderly couple who still lived in it had to sell it because they were 100+ years old and didn’t want the son to have it. Why not? Because he married a divorcée!!! Sacrè Blu! Fast forward to their deaths and he had to sell quickly, and Pierre was there at the right time. It was in pretty bad shape as the old parents had not renovated it at all and many generations of history were on the walls. This was actually fortunate because all the “bones” of the place were good without having to survive poor quality renovations.
He said his motivation to purchase the house was the tower, but discovered the most interesting part of the building was underground. Below the yard and the building was a well that he used to water his garden. It was surrounded by a tunnel entrance and a cellar that dated back to some original constructions from around 1200-1400 AD. They were typical to many small towns as the tunnels lead to the church of Saint Georges and most were under the roads. His wine cellar was below, and he took Albert and another guest (who, coincidentally was a real estate evaluator with civil engineering background from the UK) for a tour.
Pierre is an artist and truly a gentle soul, with a quick wit, keen eye and a highlight of our trip. We didn’t take enough pictures of his garden but there are great photos on booking dot com here https://tinyurl.com/yyhcevvr
The next morning the whole town came alive for the Sunday market. We bought Paella and Tajine from a rotisserie food truck, drank a lovely café au lait, and hit the road en route to our next stay near Jarnac and the Charentes River.
Our cruise was dreamed up by our friends Bill and Luba who we were traveling with. The boat had 4 staterooms so 2 more couples, and long-time friends, came along as well. Lori, my bestie for more than 50 years, Mike her hubby, from Calgary, and our friends from Qualicum, Jill and Cam. We had a fun meal in Paris with Lori and Mike before Albert and I headed to Normandy. They were continuing to Carcasson after Paris with Calgary friends then meeting us at Le Boat. The night before our cruise began, we all met in Jarnac for a meal. We brought our market finds and the rest of the menu was cheese and bread, of course!!
Albert and I were staying just outside of Jarnac and on the way in the next day we stopped in a vineyard, nibbled Bread with Bordier Butter (4% salé) and fresh preserves….
The next day we provisioned the boat, parked the cars at the “Le Boat” secure parking, got on board, set off, opened our first bubbly, and headed downstream towards Cognac. Jill and Cam were meeting us there. They just finished an epic Morocco trip including sleeping in the Sahara in a tent and 4 days of travel on camel back. Le Boat had asked us to come early because the river keepers were closing the locks along our route on the river to work on a bridge. What!!?? We had 3 locks to go through before they shut it down, so we made tracks.
We went under the aforementioned bridge…there was really only half a bridge, a crane and a bunch of trades guys. We got to the third lock and they wouldn’t let us through because the river was too low. One of the weirs was stuck open. The “Le Boat” staff had driven down river to meet us and we ended up going back to Jarnac for the night with the possibility the weir would be fixed quickly, and we would be able to get through the next day. We could have changed our plans and headed upstream but there were a lot more locks in that direction. The locks were not mechanized. We hand cranked every one of them to empty, fill, open and close. We contacted Jill and Cam, and they hopped aboard in Jarnac.
We pushed off upstream and camped for the night with the instructions that we could tie up anywhere unless there was a sign saying privé. The Charente river is a gentle flowing, tree lined, narrow reservoir that is full of life. The trails and paths along riverbanks were formerly roads used to drag the barges of merchandise for trade and security. There are swans that are a bit pushy and follow the boats looking for treats. There are many dens along the riverbank that may house Coypu (or another name is Nutria), beaver-like mammals that we never saw. There are many fishermen, campers, and even in parts, water-skiers. It is “clean” even though the “le Boat” staff said the sewage was macerated and flushed…into the river…
We had our first night in the bag and the next morning we were given the all clear to head down river. We had 4 more nights before the boat needed to be back. Our ultimate destination was Saintes and a return to Jarnac. These are not long distances and we had a slow boat. The weather was perfect, and we were able to be out on the top deck while we motored. The deck had loungers, two large tables, a small fridge and sink. The 4 stateroom-cabins each had a washroom with toilet, sink and shower. The kitchen was well appointed with a large fridge, stove oven and huge table. The interior was air conditioned so during a particularly hot night we ran the AC. Travelling on the river through the shade of the trees gave us a gentle and cooling breeze, so we were entirely comfortable the whole time. We did cool down with some Pineau de Charentes, beer, sparkling wines, G&T’s too!!!
We traveled into the town of Cognac where the massive Hennessy Cognac house is. Courvoisier is in Jarnac along with Louis Royer. This was Cognac after all!!! Mike and Bill did the Hennessy tour that lasted over an hour and a half on both sides of the river, including a cruise in the Hennessy launch traverse to the other side where their cognacs were aging. Albert gave everyone a lesson in why the buildings in the region were black. A mould that, due to the distillation and aging processes, feeds on “the angels share” and grows on the sides of the buildings in the town.
On the Hennessy tour day, Albert sustained an injury to his leg (fluky, weird, cramp in right quadricep mid air causing severe charlie-horse of insane proportions on landing) while jumping off the boat to go through one of the locks, so he missed the Hennessy tour. When we got to Saintes the next day, Lori, Mike, Albert and I did a mini train tour of the town. Saintes is a great little town with a large Roman Colosseum ruin. The train took us up and down all the hills and past all the great landmarks, churches, and historical sites for over an hour.
Another small town we stayed beside, Chaniers, had a free power and water hookup and a short walk to town. We toured around the centuries old town and stopped for crêpes near the river. The bakery had a sign on it, closed for a few weeks well-earned holiday and would open the next day. We made note of this and graced their doorstep before heading out the next day. They also had an after-hours baguette vending machine. We didn’t attempt push button baguette.
Most of the small towns in France that we visited or drove through seemed like ghost towns. Gone are the days of the neighbours sitting out on doorsteps, visiting and watching the world go by. Granted the siesta time in the afternoon is real, and people do relax inside away from the frantic pace the world runs at, but I also think watching kids in the playgrounds vs screen time may play a big part in the cultural landscape everywhere including small town France. Our boat trip was a lot of fun, very comfortable, relaxing and we all had a great trip. This was the first time we had stayed in the same bed since Paris for more than one or two nights. It was great to be able to cook and share a big meal with everyone. There was no shortage of laughs and suspense from 400+ collective years of travel stories. When we returned up the river, we were prepared to duck our heads under the demi bridge, but that half was gone too, so we understood the reason for the earlier closure just a few days before. Our cruise was complete, and we were on to the next adventures. Cruising on a riverboat was a great idea. Thanks Bill and Luba!!!
Stay tuned…Jill and Cam left us to travel north and the rest of us traveled to the city of Bordeaux.