A weekend of bubbly

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Flag of France  ,
Monday, July 11, 2005

When we started our long weekend in the Champagne region of France, we anticipated that we would spend a day or two in Champagne then continue down to the Burgundy area. What we quickly learned, however, is that Champagne itself contains enough beautiful countryside and lovely producers of the bubbly to easily sustain a 4 day weekend.

We left on a Thursday afternoon (Melanie worked in the morning) and made it to the French/Belgium border by around 7 pm. We accidentally ended up driving into a small fortified town, Rocroy, with a campsite next to the city wall so we ended up staying there. The town was beautiful, but without much to do - perfect for an overnight. We walked the ramparts, explored the fortifications, then had pizza at what appeared to be the only open restaurant. Really a nice evening.

The next day we continued on to Reims - the home of several large champagne producers including Mumm and Tattinger. We were completely surprised by what we learned on a tour of the Tattinger cellars. Underneath the city of Reims - a fairly large modern city that looks just like any other - are miles and miles and miles of chalk mines dating from Roman times (2-4 AD). The Romans mined the chalk for building materials and later (in the 1200s) monks discovered the mines and linked them together to create a network of caves. These caves are perfect for aging champagne as they keep a constant humidity and temperature - which is apparently critical to the development of good bubbly. Tattinger alone has 14 km of caves under the city of Reims - and they are only one of many producers. It's amazing. We also learned about the composition of champagne, how it is produced, how it is bottled, the classification system of the various vineyards in the area, and a bunch of other interesting stuff that we never knew before. At the end of the tour we were given a tasting. In our case we were very lucky because they were sampling a special vintage champagne made from only Chardonay grapes that sold for Euro 110 per bottle ($150+ in States)! Now that's the way to start a weekend!

Here is a locked part of the wine cellar that has huge bottles of a very rare vintage (who's wedding are they saving it for?):

Reims also has a very special cathedral which is famous for it's stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. The windows are beautiful and, because of the coloring which is used, do not stand out as something so different from the rest of the windows unless you are really looking at the design.

Here is the Chagall window detail:

We stayed at a small hotel in Reims that night, had dinner at a brew pub (yes, really) and left for the vineyards the next morning. On our way out of town, however, we happened upon the most spectacular market we've seen yet. The produce, cheese, bread, and meats all looked spectacular. We bought rolls for breakfast and cheese, fruit, tomatoes and bread for a picnic lunch. Yum. Unfortunately, we weren't so successful leaving Reims. Our guidebook indicated to leave town a certain direction to get a great view of the countryside and the city. When we couldn't find the right road we started to follow signs for "Route Touristque du Champagne". Our map was not detailed enough for the region and when we finally figured out where we were, we had seen some beautiful countryside but had gone entirely in the wrong direction and ended up back in Reims almost in time for lunch (sound familiar, Carol? You can stop laughing now! -- Inside joke....Melanie is notorious for going in the wrong direction). Here is an angel smiling at her sense of direction:

Eventually we made it to Chalons-en-Champagne, where we settled into a 4 star campground, and Epernay, 30 minutes away - the other large champagne town. Epernay is home to Moet and the place where champagne is said to have been invented. At the Eperanay tourist information center we finally obtained a detailed map of the region and immediately started exploring.

The great thing about the Champagne area is that there are many small villages (maybe 50 or more?) that each have 20-40 champagne producers. Upon entering a town, there are signs listing all of the producers and pointing in the direction to go for each one. It's a bit overwhelming if you don't really know what you're doing (we didn't), but still fun. A sign on the road kept you going toward wine growing villages....

The towns also compete in a floral adornment contest. Towns are rated 1-4 flowers based on the quality and quantity of their displays. These ratings are noted on a sign upon entering the village and also on the tourist map. Between towns there are many meandering roads which weave their way through the countryside. The entire area is agricultural. Grapes are grown on the hillsides and wheat, corn and other products in the flat areas. Picnic tables are available along many of these roads. We had a lovely lunch overlooking the vineyards eating our Reims market goods.

We also ate "like real people" this trip, thanks to our newly acquired Michelin red guides. The guide to France is only available in French, but luckily the symbols are universal. In addition to listing those places that have earned Michelin stars, there are many restaurants listed without stars, including some that are great values and some with menus under Euro 15 for 3 courses. This is a great way to find really good restaurants at a fair price. We really enjoyed all of the places recommended by the guide.

In short, this was a wonderful weekend get-away. We saw beautiful countryside, woke to birds chirping in the campground, drank champagne for 4 days, had terrific picnics and "real meals" and generally just had a great time. For anybody looking for something relaxing, we'd highly recommend this area. Just be sure to get out of the cities and visit the family producers - where you sample wine at their dining table, see their cellars, and learn what is special about each different wine.

Here's what 100k bottles of Champagne resting for 6+ years in a cellar (Tattinger's) looks like:

Here was one of the views (more in the photo album):

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