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Off the beaten path, cognac is a marvelous blend of old and new.

Only an hour by air from Paris, the unassuming small town of Cognac mixes the contemporary and the ancient. It is a place where wine enthusiasts can indulge their taste for the best vintners have to offer, and weary travelers can find a peaceful respite. Cognac is fine for walking, and its surrounding countryside--dotted with small, picturesque villages--is ideal for touring by bike or by car.

Like many old French settlements, Cognac is a photographer's delight. Its old town is built up with quaint two- and three-story stone houses that line winding, cobblestone streets. Broad oak doors and gates of polished maple offer a beautiful contrast to the houses' pale sandstone walls. Cognac is also the birthplace of a 16th century king, Francois I, whose sprawling Chateau Valois, open to visitors, retains its ancient flavor.

The old town centers around the Romanesque church of St. Leger, whose 16th century spire reaches above the surrounding tiled roofs. To the east of the church begins modern Cognac, with its shopping district, charming cafes, movie theaters and a visitor's best bet: the elegant Hotel Francois I, situated on a square of the same name and within easy walking distance of Cognac's center. The town is also blessed with the lovely Charente river, once a water source for the three major cognac houses--Martell, Hennessy and Otard, whose distilleries are nestled near the riverbank.

And what would Cognac be without its namesake--the drink of kings, the rich, smoky liquid that has brought world renown to this little town? For many travelers, a visit to Cognac is a feast for the palate, with the many cognacs and blends to be tasted and savored. The distilleries, many of them housed in luxurious mansions, usually provide tours and tastings. Perhaps cognac drinkers are lured by the marvelously poetic names that speak to the imagination and sophistication of their distillers--Hine Triomphe, Martell Cordon Rubis, Monnet Josephine, Coffret Decouverte Brillet and Hennessy Paradis. But the secret to cognac--the drink--is not in the grape nor in the distillation. It's in the chalky, sticky soil of Cognac--the town and region--that yields a grape high in acid. But bring plenty of money! Many of these fine congnacs can cost upwards of $200 per liter, with the finest priced at $900 per liter.

For a week in early April each year, Cognac suddenly stirs to life and resembles Cannes with its Cognac International Film Festival. The festival attracts dozens of filmmakers and actors from Paris, and hundreds of journalists from France, Spain, and even the United States. Cognac's single movie theater takes on the character of a Hollywood premiere as the town's enthusiastic fans descend upon it, hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity attendee. The festival also kicks off a week of lavish parties at distilleries and chateaux. The mayor's annual reception includes a lunch at City Hall.

The vineyards radiating from Cognac offer vistas of a bucolic French countryside. Winding country roads rise and fall, offering startling views of hillsides studed with enormous chateaux--the fruits of wealthy cognac barons. The road that meanders through nearby St. Trojan, St. Brice and Boutiers is a scenic journey of neatly-kept farmhouses and sprawling vineyards, and can be easily made on a bicycle.

Cognac is usually cool, breezy, and often wet, so dress accordingly. But for the discriminating traveler, Cognac offers a series of treats for the senses. And one final word of advice--leave plenty of extra space in your luggage. Undoubtedly you'll want to bring a few bottles of eau-de-vie--a special fruit brandy--and cognac home with you.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Cognac, France
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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