This trip was sponsored by France.fr, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region and Charentes-Tourisme. However, as usual, our opinion remains unaffected by this, the article reflects our own experiences.
The covered wagon bumps through the draining water, the fresh air containing iodine blows around our noses. Shortly afterwards we reach the Île Madame, a small tidal island in the Atlantic Ocean. Rare herbs such as mud grass, sea fennel, smyrnium olusatrum and quellers thrive there in the largely untouched nature. And here we are already inmidst of our culinary road trip through the Charente-Maritime region, which stretches from Bordeaux along the Gironde and the Atlantic coast to the north.
We are on our way on a wheelchair accessible covered wagon, which has an extendable ramp at the rear and thus also allows wheelchair users to travel along the so-called ox trail, which connects the island with the mainland. Fish, seafood, salt and herbs – and of course cognac and b. We travelled here to find out if this is really the culinary secret of the region. And because, by the way, the Charente-Maritime region is one of the regions that is most strongly represented in the French certification system “Handicap et Tourisme“, similar to the German system Reisen für Alle. So, in a few days, we’ll be visiting many wheelchair accessible attractions, restaurants and accommodation – accompagned by the topic “enjoyment”!
Flashback: Shortly after landing it becomes clear that we are in a region where culinary delights and enjoyment play a major role. In the baggage reclaim we find ourselves next to huge wine bottles – it’s obvious: we have arrived at Bordeaux airport! After taking some selfies in front of the gigantic wine bottles we start our road trip through the region Charente-Maritime, which is located at France’s Atlantic coast and offers not only beautiful landscapes but also all kinds of delicacies.
Our route takes us to Cognac, Rochefort, La Rochelle, the Ile de Ré and finally back to Bordeaux.
The Cognac Distille Courvoisier in Jarnac is our first destination. A tour through the wheelchair-accessible exhibition brings us closer to the creation of the legendary brandy, from the soil of the growing region, through the grape, harvest and distillation process, to the barrel. There are also some exciting insights into the ancient history of the traditional distillery, whose founder already supplied Napoleon. During the following tasting we will hold back a little bit, because it’s still in the morning hours and we want to appear somewhat sober for the upcoming lunch. Nevertheless, we learn something about the different notes of cognac that make up the overall aroma: the fruity note, the floral note, the woody and finally the spicy note. They all change during the maturing process, and the longer the cognac was allowed to mature, the rounder the overall result, which explains the enormous price differences: the age categories range from V.S. to V.S.O.P. to the sometimes exorbitantly expensive X.O. editions, which have been stored for up to 40 years and can quickly cost four-figure sums, but can also bring an impressive play of aromas.
A little off the beaten track is the restaurant La Table de l’Yeuse, where we enjoy regional delicacies on the terrace in a wonderful ambience. The old walls have been lovingly restored and can not only offer fine cuisine but also an impressive cognatheque – a matter of honour, of course, in such a city where (almost) everything revolves around the noble brandy. In the entire region, wine plays a major role just like brandy, which also has an impact on the cuisine of the region. With a fantastic view over the gardens of the Yeuse we enjoy our fish and are already excited about the coming days. We then check in at the Hotel Francois Premier, which is ideally located inmidst of the old town of Cognac. Then we set off to discover Cognac, because we are always hungry – not only for food but also for new impressions. Our first destination is the Musée des Arts du Cognac, where the regional history is excitingly presented. Here it becomes clear once again how important viticulture and Cognac distillation is for the region, and we are allowed to deepen our newly acquired knowledge of Cognac once again. Right next door is the Espace Découverte en Pays du Cognac, where we start with a short film about the history of Cognac – in a great ambience with water features, light and sound effects, which allow the viewer to immerse himself more deeply. A collection of paintings and sculptures completes the experience. We now process our impressions on the banks of the Charente in a relaxed beach bar next to the harbour, where we enjoy the autumnal sunset between many young families with relaxed music, and we literally see the old cargo ships passing by…
After a quiet dinner we end the evening in this lively but relaxed small town in the hotel’s own cognac bar.
Our next stage takes us to the sea: in a small village near Rochefort called Port des Barques we meet Cécile from the local tourist office. We plan a carriage ride together (attentive readers might suspect it: it’s going to the Ile Madame!) The covered wagon with the extendable ramp soon bumps off, and we enjoy the view over the small island, which offers an amazing variety and is especially characterized by the fishermen’s huts on stilts, the “cabanes de pêcheurs“. They can be found everywhere on the shore and defy even the biggest storms and floods. The salt marks on the high stilts give an idea of how far the water rises here at times…
Now we want to check if the local cuisine really uses the products we found here. Our way leads us to the port of Rochefort, where we dine in the restaurant “Vivre(s)” of the French star chef Grégory Coutanceau, and indeed: beside Fleur de Sel we discover fresh queller in the main course, which adds a crisp freshness with a slight salt note to the celery puree. The accessible building with its bright glass front in the harbour allows a wonderful view of the yachts across the street.
One street further on we visit the Corderie Royale, the royal ropemakers. Here in Rochefort once gigantic ropes and cables were produced for shipping by twisting long single strands together. We are allowed to produce our own rope on a small historical machine and afterwards we marvel at the artistic works made of ropes and sailor’s knots in the museum shop, which are produced here in the manual tradition. The large ropes of modern shipping have long since come from China – and are usually no longer made of hemp fibres, but of polyester.
After this exciting visit we continue to explore the small town. Vis-à-vis from the Corderie Royale, also in the Arsenal de Mer, is the frigate Hermione from the 18th century, on which La Fayette once sailed with other insurgents and revolutionaries. It is being restored in a gigantic project and presented to the public. The entrance fees will again benefit the restoration budget.
We discover the other parts of the old town and finally check into our hotel. The wheelchair-accessible room of the “Hotel de France” is an apartment at the backyard in a quiet location, and we will be surprised what a lovingly rich breakfast the owner of the boutique hotel conjures up for his guests.
But first of all something else is more important, because Adina has discovered a chocolaterie near the hotel on her way – and there is of course no stopping there! Salt caramel is definitely one of the local specialities. Not surprisingly, because as early as the 18th century sugar was imported from the Antilles via the port of nearby La Rochelle, while wine and cognac were exported. In fact, to this day around 98 percent of the cognac produced is exported, mainly to the USA. In France itself there is very little demand for it.
Full of expectation we set off for La Rochelle. There we have a whole series of exciting appointments and start with a tour of the La Rochelle Aquarium, which presents the marine biodiversity split by continents on numerous levels. The gigantic aquariums and the gorgeous fish and jellyfish cast a spell on us and let us dive into a huge underwater world. We could have easily spent the whole day here, but we still have a lot of plans! First of all, we continue our culinary search in the in-house restaurant, the Brasserie Là-Haut, and fortify ourselves with fish, poultry and seafood while enjoying the breathtaking view over the marina. But we don’t want to fill our bellies too full, because the wind is freshening up – and in front of us lies another highlight: On the edge of the world’s largest sailing fair, the Grand Pavois, which is currently taking place in La Rochelle, we want to set sail with a sailing boat. After we get our guest of honour-tickets we enter the fairground.
We meet Olivia from the local committee for disabled sports, who accompanies us to the boat and introduces us to our skippers. Details are quickly clarified, as we have already had sailing experience through Adina’s father, once a sailor and now a passionate sailor. Actually, we had planned to go out to sea, but the wind thwarts our plans, because punctually to our appointment it freshens up to wind force 6. The skipper decides that we only go to the old harbour under prow and back. And so even Adina can take over the helm and steers confidently through the approximately 20 metre wide harbour gate… Our skipper tells us a little story when we see the tower “Tour de la Lanterne“, which we pass on port side: the tower was recently restored and will be unveiled again in 2015. A surprise came to light that the chief architect Villeneuve had thought up during the restoration: two renewed gargoyles on the north-east and south-west sides of the tower bear the likeness of the two caricaturists Cabu and Wolinski, who were murdered in the assassination of the “Charlie Hebdo” editorial office!
Afterwards, there is a little highlight on the program, because Adina’s little sister is on a trip to France with her boyfriend, and we have arranged to meet here to explore La Rochelle together and end the day. We even discover a Ferris wheel with a wheelchair accessible cabin, and we marvel at the view at sunset over the harbour. The four of us continue to stroll through the harbour mile and finally decide on a restaurant where we can make ourselves comfortable. We start the evening with fresh fish, veal steaks, duck breast and sumptuous desserts or a cheese platter with a bottle of local wine and finish our dinner with a glass of Pineau. Full and satisfied, we continue to wander through the lively alleys, music sounds from many bars and clubs, while the fresh Atlantic wind carries the typical salty-fishy scent of the coast through the harbour area. In front of the bars, there are single groups of people, most of the times with cigarettes and a wine glass in the hand, and we enjoy the exuberant atmosphere of this quarter.
At the end we check into the “Hotel de la Monnaie“, a comfortable design hotel with barrier-free rooms in the immediate vicinity of the port. After this day, sleep is not long in coming, and the next morning we have to move on directly after breakfast, although we really would have liked to spend some more time in this charming port city.
Ile de Ré
The weather is rather uncomfortable, but we set off to explore another island – the Ile de Ré. We were told that at the very top of the most north-western tip of the island we might reveal some secrets of the region’s flavours. We park at the edge of the nature reserve, visit the small museum that describes the local flora and fauna and then walk a little into the nature reserve. First, we notice some plants there that we already met in the Ile Madame: Smyrnium olusatrum with its peppery and lemony taste lines the way, sporadically, we see sea fennel and quellers in the meadows. Further towards the sea we discover long white elevations in the fields: we have arrived at the salt marshes. This is where Fleur de Sel is mined – the sea water is dammed up in troughs and evaporates, leaving behind the crystallised salt, which is pushed together, purified and sold. This typical salty crunch, which is used as a topping on dishes, we have encountered here several times before. On fish, meat or even vegetables, even in chocolate or caramel – there are countless applications for it. Satisfied, we continue on our way towards St. Martin, but when we discover an oysters vending machine at the roadside, we have to make a stop! Here we find oysters in boxes of different sizes – by the dozen, by the double dozen and also larger units. Next to it there is a vending machine with fish soup, and of course oyster knives! This now confronts us with a luxury problem: we have already reserved a table in a restaurant and are on our way there right now – namely at an oyster fisherman’s place right on the coast. Therefore, the vending machine only earns the price of an oyster knife as a souvenir to us and we continue our journey. Rain and wind cannot stop us while we sit down at the sea under umbrellas and eat seafood and oysters. And slowly we realize where the freshness comes from that we have encountered in all dishes so far: it is the taste of the sea, the iodine, the salt. It is found in the water, the soil, in the food, and it is everywhere in the air.
After a side trip to St. Martin de Ré, a picturesque little place with white houses and green shutters and a visit to the museum there – which actually makes us stay longer and gives us an idea of the exciting and varied history of the island – we go to our apartment. The apparthotel “Les Vignes de la Chapelle” is a little isolated in Sainte Marie de Ré and offers a dreamlike quietness. In the inner courtyard we stroll past the SPA area and the swimming pool with pool lift to our apartment and decide to end the day in the SPA. Tomorrow our last day will dawn and we will start with a long drive to Bordeaux – to which we will soon dedicate a special article. But this much can be revealed: we are now certain that we have decoded the culinary DNA of the region. Salt, iodine, wind, herbs and wine, coupled with typically French high standards of nutrition are essential ingredients of the cuisine and make the region so incredibly delicious!
Our accommodation, restaurants and excursion destinations were almost completely certified by Tourisme & Handicap. This means that we have not encountered any real hurdles, and although our trip is not over yet, we are impressed by the wide range of accommodation, restaurants and activities available in this region.
To be continued! Don’t miss a new article anymore and follow us on Facebook or subscribe to our newsletter!
Links & addresses
Ile de Ré
Links on Atlantic-Cognac.com
This post is also available in: German