When we saw Cognac on the map we just had to go. We literally never heard of it & it being one of my favourite drinks because it reminds me of my grandmother who enjoyed a brandy over ice with a dash of soda water and called it a “whacker”.
We arrived just on the outskirts of Cognac where there was hundreds of vineyards and distillerys dotted all around. We picked a little distillery that welcomed campervans located right beside the most beautiful flowing river and parked under some weeping willows. We hopped out of the campervan and were hit right in our faces with the gorgeous whiff of brandy in the air from the distillery nearby. We had a little look around and followed our noses straight to the distillery to have a snoop. We were met by 18 year old Cristian who has taken over the family business which was started by his grandad. He showed us around the cellar, showed us how the machines work and all of the tools they used, then offered us a tasting which obviously we couldn’t refuse. We tasted his own brand cognacs up to 40 years old which were just a little too nice. He then brought out some of his Pineau’s which this region is famous for. Pineau tastes like a sweet wine, it’s a mixture of cognac and grape juice and comes in white, red & rosé and it’s about 17% vol. It seems to me to be a little digestif so we bought a bottle for the road and a couple of bottles of his own brand wine too, just to be polite 😉
I said to Cristian proudly, “in Ireland we have Hennessey”, morto when it finally clicked after he said yes 50% of our produce goes to Hennessey. Practically every vineyard and distillery in this region works to send their produce to Hennessey. It’s not cognac if it’s not from Cognac right?! Duh! Then the following day we went into the town of Cognac and of course Hennessey runs that shit there too. It’s big tourism in the town where they have a have a huge factory / tourist attraction which occupies the whole riverfront. Jas Hennessy & Co. sells about 50 million bottles a year worldwide, or more than 40 percent of the world’s cognac, making it the world’s largest cognac producer. The distillery was founded by Irish Jacobite military officer Richard Hennessey in 1765 and it became very popular in the USA, we were fascinated seeing all of the old photos of boys throwing barrells onto ships in the river to set sail all over the world.
It’s not all about the brandy in Cognac though, it is most definitely the most beautiful town I have ever seen. The main street in the old town still features former medieval workshops made from cob & timber which have been turned into little café’s and town houses. One of these wooden houses was the residence of the lieutenant-general of Cognac & features C15th carved wooden heads and a familiar looking naked woman on the corner that reminds me very much of our Sheelagh na gigs back home in Ireland.
The following day we headed west for the Roman town of Saintes. The Romans actually ruled France for over 500 years. The Roman dynasties and history is just as interesting, complicated and confusing as the Egyptian dynasties and every other dynasty or monarchy for that matter. Julius Caesar launched his invasion of Gaul (France) in 58BC and the Romans eventually either called it quits or merged into the local population from the 5th Century. The ancient town of Saintes played a major role under Emperor Augustus (27BC-14AD) (who was nephew and heir to Julius Caesar) as the capital of the Aquitane province and the amphitheatre was constructed about 40AD under another successor Emperor Claudious and it could accommondate between 12,000-15,000 people. In the middle of the 2nd Century, the city began to decline and in the middle ages the amphitheatre was abandoned in the middle of the countryside. Once upon a time though, gladiator fights, hunts and even naval battles took place here and everyone from the most noble to slaves attended these bloody events. The gladiators were mostly trained professionals, some were slaves who were taught in actual gladiator schools to compete at the amphitheatre.
After our trip to Saintes, it was time to collect our dog Buckie. Another reason we chose to visit Cognac was because I found a vet online who I had been in contact with about our dog. Buckie is our mental springer spaniel who is almost ten years old & just over two weeks ago while running fetching his ball in a field in Penmarc’h, Brittany, his front right leg went down into a hidden rabbitt hole and it broke. We brought him to the vet straight away and the xray confirmed it was a very complicated fracture located right on the hinge of his humerus bone. She referred us to a specialist near Lorient for a consultation who confirmed it was complicated, he would need a metal plate in his leg, it would take 6-8 weeks of recuperating, he would have a shorter leg and therefore a terrible limp and it would cost a fucking fortune. €1,500 was his fee but we were warned they always say it will be less than the final cost and there would be more check ups and xrays to do along the way too and we have no pet insurance. It was just a really really shitty situation. Buckie is a lovely dog, everybody loves him, annoying as fuck wanting to play fetch all of the time and is constantly spitting sticks or pebbles into your lap to throw for him but lovely. He’s been with us since he was born, since the very start of our relationship and we were in bits trying to figure out what to do with him. We left the specialist to think about it and figure out our options. We got him splinted and bandaged up for a few days until we came to a decision. He has been relatively comfortable, happy, playing and not in any pain but when we took his splint off, the leg was dead, totally dangling and we had to visit the vet again and make a bloody decision. We saw a couple of vets on the way to Cognac but they were very unfriendly, unhelpful and the language barrier didn’t help so I started to research vetinarians online and found this amazing practice right in Cognac. The vet was lovely and spoke very good english too which was a huge help. We arrived for our consultation, she took a look at his xrays and told us she could see why we didn’t go for the surgery, it would cost a lot of money and it was too risky on an older dog like Buckie. She suggested amputation, she herself has a three legged dog and talking to her was enough to convince us it was the right thing to do and we booked him in the following morning. It was a relatively simple surgery, we visited him just two hours after it was completed and he was up and lively as ever. He went in at 8am and we brought him home to the camper van that afternoon with three legs, a cone on his head and a bag full of anti-inflammatories and anti-biotics. The one thing we weren’t ready for or expecting was the kids reactions. Ellen our six year old girl gave him a big hug straight away and is minding him like hell but Alex, age 5 totally freaked out. He was hysterical actually, horrified, couldn’t look at Buckie at all or even be near him. It’s the wound that is affecting him so we have put one of his old t-shirts on Buckie for now and they are beginning to make friends again.
We woke up this morning in Cognac wondering where will we go next, pulled out the map and headed south with an open mind. We wanted to move away from the towns and found a lovely quiet spot just a little north of Bordeaux with a playground. A perfect place to keep the kids busy and let Buckie rest for the next few days until we figure out our finances, our next plan and route. The coast is calling us.