HAUTE-VIENNE, FRANCE — From a source in the small village of Chéronnac, in the foothills of Haute-Vienne, the Charente River flows for 381 kilometres through the French departments of Haute-Vienne, Charente and Charente-Maritime, in south-west region of Limousin. It empties into the Bay of Biscay and the mud-brown swells of the North Atlantic just beyond the Napoleonic garrison town and bagne (penal colony) of Rochefort, from which many of the first French settlers of North America sailed.
The Charente river's lower reaches are an informal geographic, climatic and cultural demarcation between northern and southern Europe. Its banks, fringed with stands of oak and weeping willow, are littered with fragments of a chaotic history. The shallow, gently flowing river was once described by the 16th century French king, Henri IV, as "the nicest stream in all my kingdom" but many of the battles that shaped the boundaries and character of Western Europe were fought along it: ancient Pictavi tribes against Roman legions (commanded by Julius Caesar himself); Franks and Burgundians against Andalucian Moors; English Plantagenet kings against French Valois kings; Roman Catholics against Huguenot Protestants; Napoleonic French against a coalition of English, Prussians, Austrians and Russians; and local resistance fighters against German Wehrmacht occupiers.
All rivers, even the most dazzling, those that catch the sun in their course, all rivers go down to the ocean and drown. And life awaits man as the sea awaits the river.
— Simone Schwarz-Bart
The full flowering of the French Renaissance was 'watered' from the Charente. Francois, son of Charles, Count of Angouleme and Duke of Valois, was born on the river's banks, in the grand chateau of Cognac, in 1494. Twenty one years later, he was crowned King Francois Ier and became France's first great patron of the arts and education. He brought Leonardo da Vinci from Italy (to re-design the interior of the Chateau Cognac, as well as to undertake several other important commissions) and established the core collection of Renaissance works preserved in Le Louvre.
Today, the land on either side of the Charente is sleepy, rural and overlooked — even if its best-known product, cognac, is a $US4.7 billion global business. The Charente's picturesque medieval villages, chateaux, fortified barns and Romanesque churches are rarely visited by the several million foreign tourists that, every year, make their way through the region to the more fashionable villages of the Dordogne or the grand city of Bordeaux. But like the sweet-smelling, benign mould the local's call “angel's breath”, the by-product of alcoholic vapours that seep from fermenting cognac casks, history clings to everything here.
These photos by the author were shot on an iPhone 4S while wandering downriver — along tow-paths and vineyard tracks and over old stone bridges between Angouleme and Cognac in the autumn of 2012.
C. C. O'HANLON is something of a 'wild' polymath. Tech'-entrepreneur-turned-internet-apostate, photographer, small press publisher, sea-steader, map collector and ceaseless traveller, his occasional writings have been published in The New York Times, Griffith Review, and elsewhere.
This article first published in The Journal of Wild Culture, March 25, 2013.