We bade farewell to Francois after one last filling breakfast and made our way to nearby Versailles in search of a bike shop to see if we could purchase more tubes and flat repair materials. Driving in the older cities of Europe, as said before, is always an interesting experience and even with the GPS providing instruction, one missed turn usually sets you off on a ten minute complex search to get back to your original route.
A block or so from the bike shop we were pulled over by the local police because of that missing front license plate. They were very nice and advised us that, contrary to all of the information I’d seen before hand, that we should also have our North Carolina Drivers Licenses along with the other papers, as the International permit is just a translation for your own license.
We pulled up in front of the bike shop, only to discover it closed, most likely due to some local holiday. The other bike store in town did not exist at the address listed so we made our way to a gas station to fill up the car. One big change from trips past is the increased use of chip based and other specialty credit cards for the automated pumps, making in nearly impossible for us to pay at there. The cashier inside didn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate our need and so not long thereafter we were on our way.
It was a miserable day for driving, rain falling consistently as we motored down the A10 Toll road. We were making good time and just north of Tours, a bit over 130 miles of driving hit our first pay station. It was an automated machine that took only cash or a specialty card and thus took a long time for drivers to complete their transaction.
When we reached the pay point our ticket inserted into the machine indicated that the charge was 22,40 Euros, about $32. We paid and then, pulling quickly over to the side of the road, changed the default settings on the GPS to avoid toll roads as we recognized that we had a lot more time than money on this particular journey. Another added bonus to traversing the smaller highways is that the Highlander gets about 2-3 miles to the gallon better gas mileage at lower speeds.
We arrived in Cognac later in the day, after traversing a number of very small back roads and threading our way through little villages. Camping de Cognac is nicely situated, about 2 kilometers outside town sitting on the banks of the Charente River. We set up camp and drove into town looking for a quick bite to eat, not wanting to spend too much money or take too much time. We found a local take-away pizza joint, La Boite, where we ordered a large pizza Margherita.
It turns out this chain is a little like a Papa Johns or other’s of that ilk, where some of the ingredients are fresh and others are not exactly as expected. They pulled a flat pre-made crust out of the refrigerator, topped it with a shredded cheese blend, then with slabs of Mozzarella that appeared rock hard. Instead of the fresh basil depicted on the menu board, they topped it with a Basil sauce. Being hungry and on a budget, we ate half and saved the rest for the next day, a testament to our desire to experience all elements of a foreign culture.
Wanting to make the most of bike riding, we applied ourselves to finding the source of the flat in my rear tire, a vexing problem for any cyclist. A first examination revealed nothing, no glass, pin, nail or wire. So I really scrutinized the tire, pulling and pushing on it until I found a very small hole in the tire itself, no bigger than the head of a ball point pen. This would mean that the tube would hold a small amount of air, but once you pumped it up to pressure, the tube would force itself into the tire hole, rub against it and then explode. So I placed a special type of patch (a boot) on the tire and it has held air ever since!
Weather for most of our stay kept changing, from sunny to cloudy, rainy to sprinkles and so we took off on a ride not knowing what to expect, but hoping to get in at least ten miles. We decided to head out to the town of Jarnac, the home of Courvoisier Cognac about six miles away. Winding along on small country roads, slipping in and out of little towns and settlements, we chased blue skies and fleecy clouds all the way there.
We parked our bikes, went inside to inquire about a tour to find out that the next in English was over two hours later, so we packed it in and rode back to Cognac. Cooking in camp that night, we went into town for supplies at another French supermarket chain, Intermarche, where we picked up two very nice salmon steaks, basmati rice and a prepared cucumber salad. Oh and a bottle of white wine, the first of many we would consume in the ensuing days, none costing more than 4 Euros.
Determined to get in more miles the next day, we took off on a predetermined marked route, the C24 and rode it pretty much along the same one that took us to Jarnac. We made a brief stop at an abandoned church, the Abbaye de Chatres, which sat out in the middle of open fields. It was oddly affecting to find such an impressive edifice like that in this space. We then lost the course, but wanting to get more miles in kept riding on deserted farm roads.
In anticipation of this and other navigational needs, we’d purchased a Garmin Edge 800 GPS device for the bikes and also for navigating cities on foot. For the elite athlete, this device will track every workout that is performed and load it to a personal computer for monitoring performance. For the rest of us, it is a fine GPS device that acts just like it’s big brother in the car, finding addresses, locations, and other points of interest.
For our purposes it allows us to ride out from a spot, say the campground, and when we’ve gone far enough and gotten thoroughly lost, tell it to take us back to camp and it guides the way. We got in a little over 20 miles that day, a good start to what we hope will be many more miles of riding this summer. Dinner in camp that night was simple, consisting of some canned Cassoulet (surprisingly decent for the product), a green salad and another nice bottle of wine.
Rain was predicted for the next day and with two good rides under our belts we decided to dedicate it to visiting cognac houses. Our first visit was back out to Courvoisier, a long time favorite of my friends and mine. We arrived around 12:30 and cognizant of the fact that just about every business and function in this part of France shuts down for a couple of hours from noon until 2:00pm, we made a quick stop at an open Patisserie for a quick coffee and pastry, then returned to the car to split a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (yes, we brought peanut butter from home) while we hung out on a park bench and let the time drift away.
At 2:00pm we made our way to the tour desk only to again find out that the next English tour wasn’t for a couple of hours. When I mentioned to one of the ladies manning the front of the shop that we’d been out a day or so ago on our bikes, she remembered us and very nicely arranged for a short tour for 5 Euros apiece with one of the other clerks who spoke English. We got to view a video about the history of the product and the characteristics that make it unique, take a look at one of the small aging cellars in the building and then sampled of their Napoleon and Exclusif cognacs, both varieties I’ve tried before.
We made our way back to Cognac to see if we could tour Otard, recommended to us by a British chap at the campground as it sits in an historic building, the Château des Valois (Château de Cognac), in the family since 1796. Unfortunately, we’d missed the English tours for the day thus sending us back to the car for a trip outside of town to Domaine Remy (Maison Remy is in town). This large production facility, beautifully situated in a valley on the outskirts of Cognac was created in the early 1960’s by Remy to house the bulk of their production.
One interesting feature of all cognac production facilities is the darkening of the buildings due to the loss of eau de vie (the initial distillation of singular sources strains that will be blended to create each unique cognac) known in the industry as “the angels share “. This evaporation equals roughly 2% of the amount in storage and as the walls absorb the alcohol, a mold that thrives off the evaporation grows and covers the surface it is attached to. As you drive around the area, you can easily identify storage houses by the dark walls of the buildings.
When you arrive at the Remy facility you buzz a green button at a turnstile, which alerts a guide inside that you are approaching. We were greeted by a lovely French woman who upon taking us inside advised us that, yes indeed, all English tours for the day were done. But, just as with Courvoisier, she turned us over to an English speaking young man who then proceeded to give us a shortened, but very personalized 30 minute tour of the operation dispensing a great deal of information about cognac production and the house of Remy itself.
As they provided the tour for free, no taste of cognac was waiting for us at the end but all in all, our two impromptu visits to cognac houses had brought us an up close and personal view of the tradition, culture, and science of this highly enjoyable product.
As we were planning to leave first thing in the morning, we’d promised ourselves a nice meal out in Cognac and had decided on the Coq d’Or, which had received a reasonable number of good reviews in Trip Advisor. We arrived in town a bit after 5pm and found a place to park close by, then entered the restaurant and were advised by the hostess that dinner wasn’t served until 7:00pm.
This particular day wasn’t good for us to wait and so we wandered over to the town square and eventually located a small shop where we ordered a chicken sandwich on baguette, open faced toasted cheese bread, and a mixed ingredient quiche for a total of 8.50 Euros. It was raining out so we carried our haul back to the car and ate our simple dinner in the front seats. Although not fancy, it was a meal that spoke of the day we’d had, letting fate determine our course, with the outcome seeming to always turn in our favor.
Pizza La Boite: http://www.laboiteapizza.com/
Camping de Cognac: http://www.campingdecognac.fr/index.php?lang=en
Remy Martin: http://www.remymartin.com/
Trip Advisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/