With the exception of Royan, a little further south on the Atlantic coast, the golf courses at Saintes, Cognac and Angoulême spread their fairways as close as possible to the Charente. All good reasons to follow the course of the river, to get out on the land, while playing some very attractive courses that are far from flat. Very far indeed…
Robert Berthet took up the challenge of creating the Royan Golf Club along the Côte de Beauté in 1977. Between the maritime pines and the holm oaks, on a dune soil, he was able to hem in his fairways until he discovered the Cordouan lighthouse at the start of the 14th. This is the only point from which the ocean can be seen, even if it rumbles relentlessly throughout the round. Set back from the beaches, the holes are clearly separated by tall trees whose high branches indicate the direction and strength of the wind. Uphills, downhills, perched greens, pretty slopes sliding towards the fern undergrowth, there’s nothing missing from the postcard or scorecard on this year-round iodine-filled site. A few doglegs, such as 6 and 9, before arriving at 13, a par 5 with two sharp bends, require precise tee shots towards greens with a fine reputation. For the club’s 40th anniversary, the pond opposite the green on the 18th was rebuilt, doubling in size and often causing drowning… It’s impossible to talk about Royan golf without mentioning its table. It deserves to shine in the firmament of tourist guides. The chef may prefer his pianos to the light, but his dishes speak for themselves, combining the flavours of the sea and the land in a subtle balance.
This year, the Golf de Saintes-Louis Rouyer Guillet – a rather long name paying tribute to its founder – celebrated its 70th anniversary. Designed in two stages, 9 holes in 1953 and the continuation in 1991, this is a physical course, particularly on the outward leg where the climbs, descents and doglegs between the trees alternate at a steady pace. Some of the approaches are well worth the effort, such as the one on the 4th where, to the left of the green, you can see the ruins of a Gallo-Roman aqueduct that used to supply the town with water. Or the finish on 12, with the copper dome of St Peter’s Cathedral on the horizon. In this design by Hervé Bertrand and then Jean-Louis Pega, the route features no fewer than six Para 3s. Some of them leave little room for error, such as 8, which is rather long, or 11, which is small but strong facing the water… Or 18, with an out-of-bounds behind the green! The clubhouse is housed in former wine cellars, where the angels’ share can still be seen on the scorecards… The terrace is very pleasant at break time.
Since 1988, the Golf du Cognac has completed the panoply of this Charente town known the world over, not just for its golf course… Facing the rows of vines drawn to the line on the hills bordering the course of the Charente, the 18 holes, the work of Jean Garaïalde, have aged well. The champion, no doubt inspired by the divine wines, has designed a friendly course in the spirit of these lands of pleasure. The course faces the clubhouse in the outbuildings of a former wine estate, where you can enjoy a drink after a round! The course is not a monster, even if a few trees can thwart the trajectories of a few doglegs. In this land where the “angels’ share” melts into the morning mist, water has little place on the course, and only comes into play on three serious occasions, just to rinse out your mouth…! On the hillside, the way back is as powerful as a blind tasting in the neighbouring wine cellars. On the greens, there’s no speeding, no tortuous slopes, just simple, true and good! It’s all about keeping a clear head and hoping to turn in a fine card. There will always be time to water it…
Almost seven years old, the Golf d’Angoulême-L’Hirondelle no longer has much in common with the original layout, designed by Yves Engelhard and Sandy Bertrand in 1955 on a hill overlooking the city’s rooftops and bell towers. When he extended the course to 18 holes in 2001, Georges-Alain Calmels had to deal with the limited space on this knoll overlooking the town of Augsburg, where several holes intersect, such as 3 and 4, then 8 and 18. But the strategic point of the course remains the launch ramp, which brings together the tees of holes 6, 12, 13 and 18 in a small space, where vigilance is essential, even if everyone is aware of the dangers and tries to be careful. Beyond these constraints, the Hirondelle valleys lined with copses are pleasant, dominated by an austere calvary – iron crosses from the early 20th century – anchored between the greens of 11 and 16. The greens are small and well defended. At the clubhouse, whose terrace is popular beyond the summer months, a smile has been the order of the day since the restaurant was taken over by the club. There’s no need to wait until spring to get to l’Hirondelle, overlooking the Angoulême plateau !
Where to stay ?
Facing the ocean, the Thalazur Royan 4* is ideally placed for enjoying the town, its 50s architecture and its beaches, as well as the treatments at the marine spa. With its 83 rooms, all with sea-view balconies overlooking the Conche du Chay, the hotel, which has been given a facelift, focuses on the peace and quiet of its residents. The tidal flats on the horizon seem to be suspended in the mists of the sea, while chef Emmanuel Blin is busy in the kitchens of Le Fâ, the restaurant overlooking the ocean. Using the catch of the day, regional dishes, sweet and savoury flavours, he is never short of ideas to satisfy even the most delicate palates. The wellness area features a seawater swimming pool heated to 32°C, with jets and bubble baths, as well as a solarium. Sauna, hammam and fitness room are also easily accessible.
In Cognac, the 5* Hôtel Chais Monnet & Spa is more than exceptional. Since the middle of the 19th century, these cellars, where eaux-de-vie were stored along the Charente, have made the reputation of the town and the region, as well as the fortune of the Monnet family, builders in the image of Jean, the son, who worked hard on the construction of Europe. In 2014, Cognac decided to convert these disused industrial buildings into a hotel complex. The task was entrusted to Didier Poignant, who was responsible for renovating the Royal Monceau in Paris. He preserved the “Cathedral”, a 260 hectolitre cask, added glass and steel to symbolise the vines on the façades, opened up the perspectives and volumes, and combined design and heritage to perfection. With 92 suites, 12 flats, a Michelin-starred restaurant ‘Les Foudres’, a brasserie ‘La Distillerie’, a jazz bar ‘Le 1838’ – the year the winery was created – a rooftop and a lounge bar ‘L’Angélique’, it’s almost like paradise. Not to mention the wellness area with swimming pool, hammam, sauna, jacuzzi and fitness room… just in case your meal has affected your weight!
Tourism in Charente
Seen from the air, the Coubre forest, home to the Royan golf course, blends into the Marennes oyster basin to the north-west of La Tremblade. There, as the tides change, the Seudre, a small river in the Charente region, fills the silt-rich oyster beds with its brackish water. Along the Côte de Beauté, facing the fine sandy beaches, a few beautiful Belle Époque villas survived the bombardments of the Second World War, but today most of Royan‘s houses display the minimalist style inspired by Bauhaus or Le Corbusier.
Built in the 1950s, colourful, bright and generous, they represent the carefree spirit of the “Thirty Glorious Years”. Seventy years on, these houses, buildings and districts are protected, visited and photographed, like Notre-Dame de Royan, the church nicknamed “Our Lady of Concrete” – and it’s easy to see why! – Or the central market hall with its concrete roof symbolising an enormous shell. Royan has become a living museum of the architectural style of the mid-twentieth century, facing the ocean. Its beaches, such as Grande Conche with its blue and white canvas tents, Pontaillac, the surfers’ spot, and the more discreet Foncillon and Pigeonnier, are sure to win you over. Just like the seafood that delights the stalls of the shellfish merchants and the best restaurants along the Côte de Beauté.
Cognac, two syllables that click on the tongue and can be heard on all five continents, whether you’re sober or not… But what’s behind this eau-de-vie made from wine? Defined by the terroirs linked to the soil and climate, the Cognac appellation extends mainly around the town of the same name, in Charente, but also throughout Charente-Maritime and a few hectares in Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres. The vineyards cover more than 83,000 hectares – 10% of French vineyards – divided into six crus, mainly made from ugni blanc grapes, but colombard, folle-blanche and a few bunches of folignan, montils and sémillon are also harvested, enabling the blends that each trading house keeps secret.
The subtlety and richness of this spirit come from the double distillation of the grapes before the passage in oak barrels gives it its distinctive amber colour. A minimum of two and a half years’ ageing is required to qualify for the cognac appellation. During this time, the alcohol evolves, evaporating in a part known as the “angels’ share”, and drunkenness seems to be allowed… Before bottling, where the alcohol will no longer age, the blends are made in foudres – huge barrels – according to the talent of the cellar master. Vintage bottles are rare, as blends are usually made over several years. A “ten year old” means that the youngest wines have aged ten years in cask, it can’t be the other way round.
Although vines were planted in Saintonge in Roman times, it was not until the 18th century that cognac production took off in the region. Maritime trade with England and its colonies played a large part in this, but this time not by angels, but rather by wealthy merchants – often from the British Isles – who managed to make their trading houses prosper on the quays of the Charente. Famous names such as Martell, Hine, Hennessy and Delamain still adorn the pediments of mansions in the beautiful districts of Cognac and Jarnac.
Today, 97.2% of cognac production is exported and consumed in 150 countries, producing around 215 million bottles and generating annual sales of 4 billion euros across 265 trading houses, providing a livelihood for 60,000 people, including almost 5,000 winegrowers. Figures that make your head spin before you’ve even raised a glass. Cheers!
The town of Saintes dates back to Gallo-Roman times, and the ruins of an aqueduct on the edge of the golf course still bear witness to this two thousand years later. Mediolanum Santonum was then the capital of the Roman province of Aquitaine. The Arch of Germanicus, built under the principate of Tiberius, is still standing and was saved from demolition in the 19th century thanks to the efforts of Prosper Mérimée. The amphitheatre, built at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Claudius, is very well preserved, even if its high structures have disappeared, but its gigantic volume of 126 x 102 metres is still clearly visible. The thermal baths of Sainte-Saloine, dating from the end of the 1st century, have suffered, with only a few walls of the caldarium – the hot baths – surviving. The Place des Récollets still preserves the remains of an ancient rampart that protected the city from invasion in the 3rd century.
In the Middle Ages, the town flourished, with the quays of the Charente lending themselves easily to trade. In 1539, Bernard Palissy settled in Saintes, where he worked on enamel firing, which took him five years to master. A convert to Protestantism, he spent time in Saintes prison before ending his life in the Bastille around 1590. A statue pays tribute to him in Place Bassompierre. It depicts him meditating, his hand resting on one of his famous animal ceramic dishes.
Built in the early 17th century for Louis de Pernes, the governor’s residence has survived the arbitrary destruction of the Revolution almost intact. The town centre is dominated by the massive silhouette of St Peter’s Cathedral in Place du Synode, whose bell tower topped by a copper dome rises to a height of 58 metres. It is clearly visible from the green of golf course 12. On the outskirts of the town, the medieval villages of Taillebourg, Port-d’Envaux and Saint-Savinien are also well worth a visit, and can be reached by riverboat on the Charente.
Event in Charente
Fifty years of bubbles in Angoulême! As is so often the case, the Angoulême International Comics Festival was born rather by chance. In 1972, an exhibition entitled “Dix millions d’images” (“Ten million images”) brought together comic strip enthusiasts in the Charente town.
Two years later, well-known authors such as Franquin and Gotlib responded to the town’s call. From then on, the craze for the 9th art continued to grow, until it became the worldwide reference that it is every January. Following the example of Cannes, the Grand Prix du Jury awards a “Fauve d’or”, the Angouleme prize, to a writer every year. A dozen other prizes are awarded by the jury. In 1977, Hergé agreed to chair the festival. In 1984, Jack Lang announced the creation of a national centre for comics and images in the town. The following year, François Mitterrand took part in the festival. In addition to the awards, major exhibitions showcasing the work of the authors are organised in different areas of the city, and crowds flock to them every year. In 2022, the FIBD brought together 1,500 authors and nearly 300,000 visitors over 4 days. Faced with this profusion of artists, the choice of poster designer could be a Cornelian one, as it has often been drawn by last year’s “Fauve d’or”. Hugo Pratt in 1974, Moebius in 1982, Crumb’s poster in 2000 was censored for being subversive… Since 2012, the digital line has taken over from the pen, so we won’t be going against the current along the Charente!
By Claude Granveaud Vallat
Crédit photo entête : Fishery and village of Mosnac-Saint-Simeux on the river Charente – © Jean-Claude BRUNET ; Charentes Tourisme