All the President's memories
Francois Mitterrand is buried in Jarnac, now a shrine. But
Sunday 14 July 1996
Every weekend thousands of devotees visit the museum housing the gifts he was given by fellow heads of state, gaze reverently at The Grave, at The Birthplace, at The Station where his father was stationmaster for a while and buy the works of the Blessed Francois as well as postcards bearing His features. Only a few older inhabitants remember the extreme right-wing Catholic activist of the 1930s who miraculously reinvented himself as a Socialist 30 years later.
But there are many better reasons for visiting the Charente region for those who, like myself, think of Mitterrand as one of the sleaziest people to have occupied political office in Western Europe since the war. To start with there's the river, which - as any local will tell you - was described by Francois I, born in Cognac nearly 500 years ago and thus patron king of the region, as "the most beautiful stream in all my kingdom." He was right: the Charente is an exception among France's innumerable rivers. Not only is it beautiful but also navigable for nearly 100 miles from Angouleme in the west to the sea at Rochefort. It also distils the qualities which have made the Charentes region so special, placed as it was by a benevolent deity in the centre of Aquitaine, between the River Loire and the heat of the Landes. There is the overriding impression of gentleness, luminosity, light that has been filtered; there are no shocks for the eye or, on a river insulated from the modern world, for the ear either.
It is enclosed, yes, but never boring. There is immense variety, if only because the river changes in width so abruptly. At times it is so narrow that the trees close in, forming a roof, their green echoed by their reflections in the water. It is a complicated stream, with its traps, its numerous weirs, its treacherous sandbanks, its hidden rocks. The view changes from bend to bend, providing a delightfully rhythmic alternation of woods and fields - and a few vineyards - punctuated by towns, villages and the glimpse of the spires of churches of other villages which have turned their back on the river.
The general character changes, too. West of the diesel fumes emanating from the bridge carrying the Cognac bypass, you start to smell the sea, and the river becomes broader, flowing more purposefully to Saintes and Tonnay-Charente where, traditionally, the gabares, the river barges, transferred their cargoes to ocean-going ships.
The region's centrality has brought trouble with it, above all during the seemingly interminable wars between France and England for control of Aquitaine. A century later it became one of the heartlands of French Protestantism, and was home to Jean Calvin for several years; the Calvinist influence remains in a certain dogged dourness, an individualism, characteristic of a race known as cagouilles, "snails", who by and large deserve their reputation for keeping the outside world at bay. Yet for a thousand years it has also been the region of rural France most open to international trade.
That is one reason why the Charentes has been rich through most of the past 2,000 years - and it shows. Prehistoric man decorated the region's caves; the Romans left roads and at least one major amphitheatre; and, from the 11th century, Christians added impressive Romanesque churches in even the tiniest village. Francois I was one of many who added their own castles and, from the 18th century onwards, mercantile wealth resulted in hundreds of other monuments, including some glaringly ornate chateaux.
You can see the legacy from the river. At Saintes and Angouleme you get a superb view of two well-preserved historic towns, and at Jarnac both sides of the river are lined with warehouses blackened by Torula compniancensis, the famous fungus that thrives on the fumes seeping through the staves of the casks of maturing cognac. But Cognac seems to turn its back on the river to which it owes its fame and fortune. The town was originally built on the slopes of the north bank but, happily, has been prevented from spreading along the river by the existence of the Parc Francois I. So the mariner can sail right into the heart of the town without leaving his own green world, unaware of the straggling suburbs on the banks above.
Saintes, the next major town downriver, was Roman in origin. Rochefort, at the mouth of the Charente, was founded as the major statement of Louis XIV's ambition to dominate the seas and still boasts a breathtakingly impressive 17th-century rope-walk. Whereas it was the product of state power, Tonnay-Charente, between Saintes and Rochefort, represents private enterprise, symbolised by the gabares which remained a major form of transport until 1926 when the French state stopped spending money on the river. Fortunately the locks have now been restored to working order but today all that remains of the golden age is a museum at the picturesque village of Saint Simon, where the gabares were built.
To most Brits the Charente means brandy, oysters, and the miles of beaches between the Charente and the estuary of the Gironde. But the industry which dominated the economic life of the region until well into the 20th century was paper, which exploited both the region's plentiful supplies of wood and the power of the river. As late as 1960 there were nearly 50 paper mills in the region, but today virtually the only one left is a much-visited reconstruction, St Fleurac, which makes special paper for repairing ancient books. But the region can no longer live on papermaking - or from the factory making superb hand-made chocolates at Trois Palis, west of Angouleme. Today it lives off cognac and tourists, who find many native goodies in the markets, which remain one of the glories of rural France.
The region offers not just the small snails, the cagouilles which gave the inhabitants their name, but also eels from the fisheries up-river at Saint Simieux; pike; veal from Chalais a few miles south; local beef; capons from nearby Barbezieux, fully the equal of their better-known brethren from Bresse; the asparagus from the riverbanks; and, last but by no means least, the aillet, the delicate spring garlic which grows like a weed among the rows of vines.
Thierry Verrat - owner of La Ribaudere restaurant, on the river opposite the chateau at Bourg-Charente - shows a due respect for these local goodies, and remains a standing reproach to the Guide Michelin which has not awarded him even a single star. You would do well to tie your boat up below the restaurant, since M Verrat boasts an incomparable stock of old cognacs.
But it would be vulgar - and thus not at all Charentais - to go on about the nosh. Let us simply leave the river to its natural inhabitants, the many birds - including, happily, the occasional heron - and their human counterparts, the sailors who brave the 31 locks between Angouleme and the sea, the strenuous rowers, the earnest joggers, and the fishermen who, from first light to darkness, dominate the scene. For one of the advantages of being Charentais is that it leaves so much time to contemplate the river and the fishing rods which rarely seem to be troubled by the hint of a catch.
! For further details about Jarnac, including boats for hire, contact: Madame Corbaillat, Departmental Tourism Council for the Charente, Place Bouillaud, 16021 Angouleme, France (0033 45 69 79 09).
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