There’s a time of the year in France called La Rentrée, literally meaning ‘the return.’ It marks the end of summer, when everyone comes back from weeks of vacation. The City of Light re-illuminates after being abandoned and left to its tourists, and its dwellers slowly (and begrudgingly) assimilate back into the rat race. There’s a song that pops up on the lips of Parisians at this time of year: “Je ne veux pas travailler…” meaning, I don’t want to work. But among the tedious restart of life as usual, people begin reconnecting and reminiscing. Dinners are scheduled, friends reconvene and the conversation du jour is where you went this summer and what you did. Photos are shared, tans are admired and ideas of where to go next year are mentally noted.
This year when I reminisce about the summer, I’ll be thinking about the other South of France, the South West. Me and the boo took an unconventionally short sejour down toward Cognac where we did very little other than enjoy the fresh countryside air, admire the terrain and drink!
We rented a car and drove down from Paris. It was about a five-hour drive to Chaunac, our first destination. But we took a ‘big’ break at Château de Chambord (2.5 hours south of Paris), where we had lunch and toured the huge castle. It was built in the 1500s by order of King Francis I of France as a hunting lodge, but he spent very little time there–seven weeks total. It was essentially passed down to relatives and nobles until eventually the French state bought it and opened it up to the public. Unlike the famous Versailles, it’s not uber decadent, which to me makes it easier to take in. At the time of our visit there was a small exhibit of modern art taking place, which is always fun to view in an old space.
If you’re not on a tight schedule, definitely take the time to enjoy the journey, especially as you near your destination and are off the autoroute (highway). The routes truly are scenic, and the small villages you can pass through are the definition of charming.
Enjoying the Region
There is and there isn’t a lot to do in this part of France. If you’re into outdoor activities, i.e. camping, biking, etc., you’ll definitely be able to do that here. If, like us, you like to take a relaxed approach to your vacations, you’ll certainly be able to do that too. I’d highly recommend visiting the region versus staying put in any one particular town or village. In total we visited about three communes and three towns/cities (Jonzac, Cognac, Saintes) in about 5 days. They’re all pretty close together.
Chaunac, Jonzac and Royan
We spent our first night in Chaunac, a small commune situated right between Bordeaux and Cognac (lush much ;-?), making it an ideal location to visit either or both cities. Chaunac is also pretty close to the Atlantic Ocean, more so a little estuary (Estuaire de la Gironde) that empties out into the Atlantic. We had dinner at Le Coq d’Or in Jonzac, a restaurant with a beautiful view of the town’s château. It was just a 20-minute drive from Domaine de Chaunac, where we spent the night.
At the domaine, we woke up to an amazing breakfast that was too good to describe, so I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. Our host recommended we do a petite tour of the region, driving down to Bordeaux, then heading back up the other side of the estuary, crossing back over the estuary to end at Royan, a seaside resort. If we had more time, we would’ve taken her advice, but instead we headed directly for the beach (with a pit stop somewhere along the estuary).
It’s funny the distance between the South West and South East coasts of France is relatively short (this is coming from someone who lived in the States), but it’s incredible just how different the two coasts are. The beach at Royan felt a little more ‘accessible’ and down to earth than, say, the beaches in Saint Tropez, with their Mediterranean climate. But really, I guess, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Enjoy a lazy day under the sun. You can rent beach chairs and umbrellas and have lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the ‘boardwalk.’
Cognac in Cognac
After our beach day and after settling in Saint-Bris-des-Bois, a tiny commune just outside of Cognac, we were ready to do what anyone else in brandy country would do–drink! We took a tour at Martell Cognac. They had 20 euro and 30 euro option. We “splurged” and took the 30 euro one. The tour was… fine. It was informative. The guide was great, but to be completely honest, I was let down by the tasting. Those who took the 20 euro tasting only got to taste one type of cognac, one of their cheapest. And with the option we took, we got to try two. Call me a lush, but I would think that at a base level, you’d at least get to try three different types of cognac, so you can really apply everything you learned on the tour. In addition to that teeny let down, we weren’t too impressed by Cognac as a city. It’s not one of the most beautiful. It has its charm. I’d really recommend visiting it if you really, really like cognac. I’ve heard of people (who are really into the liquor) spending days in the city, domaine hoping. (Just be sure you have a designated driver, as it’s very much a driving town with little public transportation).
Saint-Bris-des-Bois and Saintes
Cognac aside, we spent most of the remainder of the trip simply lounging around our beautiful lodgings in Saint-Bris-des-Bois at Le Logis de l’Astrée, a 200+ year-old estate with it’s own vinery. Our host welcomed us with a glass of wine. Again, I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.
In the evening we enjoyed a yummy dinner at Auberge de la Fontaine. We quickly discovered that cognac is not the only specialty of the region. Pineau (pronounced the same way as pinot), is another specialty of the area. Our waiter told us it’s essentially a cooked wine that comes in both a red and white form. It’s super sweet and I drank it as both an aperitif and digestif (haha).
We drove to Saintes on one of the last days of our trip (just a 15 minute drive from where we were staying). There we visited the Abbaye aux Dames (an abbey founded in 1047) and toured the town’s winding roads and view of the Charente River.
One of my favorite landmarks in the town was the Amphithéâtre de Saintes (the Amphitheatre of Saintes). As if the abbey wasn’t impressively old, the amphitheater dates back to 40 AD, and is a vestige of the town’s Roman roots. We admired the structure from behind the gates that protect it (we were too cheap and lazy to pay for the 5 euro tickets to go inside), but even from that point of view it really was a marvel, especially because it’s completely surrounded by modern homes.
A second thing we really enjoyed about Saintes was the dinner we ate at La Table de Marion. Even though it’s a restaurant with a Michelin star, it didn’t feel stuffy. It’s run by a husband-and-wife team; the husband, Mr. Marion, cooks and the wife attends to guests. If you have room to splurge, definitely treat yourself to a meal here.
On the day of our return, we had lunch at Restaurant de la Place in Saintes, where we enjoyed some of the best tuna steak and salmon in the region before heading back to Paris.
Our overall experience in the South West of France was definitely one of those picturesque relaxing countryside experiences. We took in the beautiful landscape, we ate well and we, of course, drank well.