Thursday, June 7, 2007

Cognac, France

Friends: Cognac is another of the many French towns that have gained international renown thanks to a drink or food or condiment that originated there, along with Dijon, Roquefort, Chablis, Champange, Bordeaux, Beaujolis, Brie, to name a few. This city of 20,000, about 50 miles northeast of Bordeaux and 25 miles east of the Atlantic, has several dozen distilleries, many of which give tours and tastings of the double-distilled, extra-potent wine known as
Cognac, a label that can only apply to the officially sanctioned distilleries of this region.

Rather than a distillery, we opted for the Cognac Museum and its sister Art Museum, a two-for-one deal. The Cognac Museum moved into its new location, a former chateau, just three years ago. It was a rare museum with English translations on most of its displays and headsets offering English translation for its several videos. The English provide the biggest market for the drink, and the region attracts many English tourists. Cognac is aged anywhere from two to fifty years, losing about two percent of its volume to evaporation each year, "the angel's share." One of the more interesting videos showed the construction of the oak barrels that the cognac is aged in. An entire room was devoted to the exotic glass bottles it is sold in, contributing to its glamour and prestige. Another room was a library of books that mention cognac with the page marked. "The DaVinci Code" was one of the books.

If we cared to we could have wild-camped in any of the many vineyards in the area last night. It would have maintained our theme of camping among agriculture indigenous to the region. Maybe tonight, though vineyards with their low height don't provide as much privacy as I

prefer. They can do, however, if they are over a rise and out of range of anyone out strolling looking down the well-manicured rows.

Last night's campsite was on the fringe of a waist-high field of wheat in rolling terrain framed by
a small forest along a stream, maybe our best yet. Wheat ranks second to grapes as the most grown product of this region. The night before we camped in a forest of chestnut trees, the ground thick with spiny chestnut carcasses. A walnut orchard along the Dordogne River was another campsite. We also camped in a field thick with slugs, something the French don't eat despite their kinship to snails.

We have woken to a handful of slugs clinging to our rain flies most mornings, but that one campsite, on the fringe of a small garden tucked beside an overgrown meadow, was an extreme case. Our tents were speckled with more slugs than a boulangerie has baguettes. It took no effort, just some time, to flick each off. Fortunately, they made no noise as they crawled up the side of our tents, at least discernible to our ears, otherwise we would have had a truly sleepless night. As it was, there were plenty of other violators of the silence that night, making it by far our least quiet campsite. The quiet was broken by the tinkle of bells around the necks of sheep on a nearby hillside, the hourly chime of the church clock not far enough away, the toot of the trains as they entered a tunnel not far from us, car horns warning of their approach to the one-lane wide underpass just below us beneath the train tracks, and jets above landing and taking off from a regional airport.

Still, it was fine camping, and no complaints from Craig, who hasn't been in a tent in years. He's
proving a natural to this hobo-style of travel, having no qualms about bathing and washing his gear in the cold Dordogne River and under cemetery spigots, dining on bread and cheese at roadside picnic tables and village soccer fields and in his tent at night. His French fluency has come in handy asking directions and just being plain friendly with the locals. It is not unusual for people to express shock that he is American. He hardly looks it, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat as he pedals along on a bike with a mismatched set of scavenged panniers.

Having spent six months a year in France since buying his house in the Cevennes twelve years ago, he knows well the culture. He finds things in the grocery stores that I am blind to--bags of bargain-priced croissants, hunks of cheese at spectacularly low prices, figs and assorted fruits.
I didn't need to indulge in quiche, one of my staples, the first couple of days, as he thought to
bring along a dozen hard-boiled eggs. He nearly brought them fresh from his local Saturday farmer's market the day we left, but Onni warned him that fresh eggs don't peel very well, so he purchased the eggs at the supermarket.

The cycling world's attention will be focused on Cognac in a month-and-a-half, when it hosts stage 19 of The Tour on Saturday, July 28, the final time trial of the race. The town does not yet have banners and posters up promoting the event, though the gardens outside the town hall have a flower display with a bicycle and another of a map of France with the Tour route marketed by flowers. The stage will take the riders 55.5 kilometers to Angouleme, due east of here. I'll be at the finish line cheering for Levi Leiphiemier, this year's American hope, trying to make it nine years straight for an American.

Later, George

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