It does not take long for visitors to the Charente to feel a warm glow on their cheeks, and not just from the strong rays of the summer sun. This is cognac country, the epitome of French life, where the great houses of Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell produce their magnificent brandies. The region was the first to practise the process of double distillation and to discover that whereas casked wine deteriorated, spirits improved with age. You can confirm that for yourself at the Cognac Houses, who encourage visitors and offer free samples.
Often towns famous for their products are a disappointment to visit, but not so Cognac, with its narrow winding streets and seventeenth-century houses. The stonework and tiled roofs seem to be covered in a curious black velvet, in fact a harmless fungus that feeds on alcohol fumes. Cognac is also noted for its festivals: a different one takes place practically every month.
To the east lies La Rochefoucauld, with its interesting château styled on those of the Loire, and Angoulême, with its ancient ramparts and magnificent Saint Pierre Cathedral, symbol of the town’s affluent past. Angoulême has excellent shops and, especially in the old quarter, more restaurants than you can count. This is the ideal place to sample the highly original Charentaise cuisine, including such delectable dishes as tournedos à la crème, or oysters with a shallot and vinegar sauce, or petits gris à la Charentaise (be warned, though, these are snails), washed down by Pineau des Charentes, a sumptuous fortified wine. Children, however, may prefer a local excursion to a chocolaterie (chocolate factory) - there are many along the river.
The River Charente, nearly fifty miles in length, flows between Saintes, Cognac and Angoulême, wide enough for mini-cruises and gentle enough for messing about in boats. They can be hired cheaply from Les Garbariers, a riverside bar southwest of Angoulême run by an Englishman, Simon Constant.
The river flows on through undulating farmland past Jarnac, a charming, sleepy little town lying amidst the cognac vineyards, the stop for the Romanesque Bassac Abbey, and the village of Bourg-Charente, whose Priory of Saint-Jean has an exceptional west façade.
Away from the Charente, which runs on towards the unspoilt coast, the Charente Maritime, a pine forest gives welcoming shade from the fierce sun. Nearby is the lake Baron Desqueyroux, offering a wide range of boating activities, safe swimming, and many delightful picnic places on its banks.
Saintes has an impressive collection of buildings from the 18th century but is best known as the birthplace of Joseph Guillotin, who invented the guillotine, a handy device known as the executioner who never grew tired.
The pine forest gives its name to Montendre-les-Pins, the local shopping centre. Look out for a fromagerie run by Amiot & Fils, whose family has been in the business of selling cheese and milk for the past 108 years.