Bubble Country

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
Trip End Oct 08, 2009

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Flag of France  , Champagne-Ardenne,
Saturday, August 22, 2009

  We took a Thalys high speed train from Brussels to Paris before connecting to Reims. It is the most expensive company to book reservations with (versus the TGV in France or ICE elsewhere) pampering we are unlikely to see again this trip. First class on this train really is just like on the better airlines (just without the video entertainment options). The trip is only three hours long, but we had food and drink choices included and the seats were big and comfortable. We could get used to this.

We booked the Best Western for the first night solely because it had a swimming pool. It is semi-indoors (one end opened up to the outside) and we spent the afternoon doing nothing but swimming and laying in the sun. For the most part we had it all to ourselves, so it was really relaxing. Nice break.

Reims is a tourist draw, but the town itself doesn't come across as overly catering to them. We didn't see the packs of tourists led by their flag waving guides trying to keep them together like the cattle they resemble. There is a main boulevard near the train station that is clearly designed to attract tourists (which is where our two hotels were), but most of them appeared to be French. We were concerned that we would be overrun by tours on Friday and Saturday (we arrived on Thursday evening), but it never materialized. In fact, the only tours we saw were to the Reims Notre Dame church - an impressive Gothic structure considered one of Europe's treasures. Construction started in 1211 on the building and it best represents Gothic architecture better than any other building (so the French literature has said.) And it is certainly impressive. Pictures are attached, but, really, there is no way to appreciate the massiveness of the building and it's ornate detail without seeing it in person. Joan of Arc was said to have been here when she heard God's motivational war speech and it was here that a number of monarchs' coronations took place. Easy to see why - it's a place of absolute seriousness (although the tiny kid sized tour train/bus out front sort of detracted from the regalness of it all.) And they clearly take Champagne just as seriously because the most ornate stained glass display in the church (and there are a number of of them) is a three panel piece depicting the local history of the Champagne process and how it came straight from God, Himself. Completely gorgeous.

Big ups to Rick Steves, by the way, we followed several of his book's suggestions and they were spot on. The first night we had checked out a couple of options for dinner and surprisingly chose the one he suggested on the tourist strip - L'Apostrophe. The prices were really reasonable and the food was excellent. Also, it appeared we were the only english speakers in the entire restaurant - which, frankly, is always a good sign. We both chose pasta dishes, but were surprised by the French twist on them. She had the ubiquitous "Fruits of the Sea" pasta dish that has literally been everywhere in the tourist areas. But they turned it into sort of a seafood ratatouille. The sauce was awesome. I had the deux saumon pasta dish that came with cooked and raw salmon (or "tartare") and a yellow sauce that had mustard, lemon and tarragon. We had a bottle of Viognier white wine that was tres bon (hints of apple, apricots, melon for you wine folks), a mozzarella/tomato salad and desert. They treated our bottle like champagne and brought us a standing bucket with ice to keep it chilled. The French know how to treat a bottle of wine. Marisa had an amazing champagne sorbet - potent with enough bubbly in it that it couldn't completely freeze. I had the house made mousse au chocolate that was perfect. We're starting to sound like a Food Network blog, so let's continue on to the Champagne tours....

We started at Taittinger, the most corporate of the three we visited. The grounds are super well kept with an air of professionalism within the tour. You first see a ten minute video explaining the family/business history and the basics of grape growing and production. Afterward we descended down a long spiral staircase deep into the chalk caves. The area is made up of these huge chalk deposits, which absorb moisture and help maintain the consistent temperature and humidity year round. They are the reason this area is at the heart of Champagne country. The tour is about 45 minutes long and winds through the underground chambers while they explain the process involved in creating the world's best sparkling wine. It is rather cold down in the caves, so if you go take a sweater. We were told that they have about nine million bottles held in the caves - some finished and aging, the rest going through the initial fermentation process that requires a lot of handling. Another 25 million are stored at a more modernized site that is fully automated. At the end we got a single tasting and milled about a bit before heading to check out another champagnery nearby, Pommery.

As we were leaving we met a couple from Dallas, Lauren and Andrew. They were also heading that way and we walked there together and really hit it off on the walk over. After signing up for the next english tour, we all decided the hour waiting would be best spent at the park across the street with a bottle of champagne and the remnants of the bread, Dutch cheeses, crackers and Delirium sausage we still had (we came prepared for a picnic in case we had time between tours.) Marisa quickly realized we had no glasses to drink from, so she liberated a couple from the bar area from a pack of them that had been left from a previous tour. One bathroom washing later we had a couple of glasses with which to drink and a couple of new souvenirs. Food, champagne and new friends in a quiet park on a beautiful day. It was another one of those perfect moments in a trip. We had a great time and got back to Pommery just in time.

The Pommery tour took about an hour and started with a long descent into the caves. You may have seen their POP champagne before but that is strictly designed as a club drink - it has a lot of sugar in it and is marketed to a more mainstream crowd that doesn't generally buy champagne. It's funny because they make no mention of it during the tour, but it prominently displayed in the sales and the bar area. Whereas Taittinger has corporate cool, Pommery is all about art and taking the stuffiness out of champaign. We just missed a large art exhibition that was found through the entire building and caves,but the permanent art work found in the caves is fantastic. Over many decades they have commissioned artists to etch huge murals into the chalk walls depicting various champagne related themes. The grounds of Pommery are beautiful and resemble an English estate, which is no accident since the company's history is tightly entwined with English aristocracy (we saw a picture in the sales area of the present Pommery family patriarch palling around with Prince Charles.) They hold three million bottles of champagne here and another 19 million in the more modernized site. At the end we quickly sampled several of their champagnes and stumbled our way over to a very small champagnerie called Martel, a few blocks away (coincidentally we had the same 4 pm reservations as Lauren and Andrew.)
The Martel tour also started with a video and was much shorter due to it's tiny size. It was more centered on the history of how champagne was made previous to modern automated processes. They had what amounted to a library of ancient machinery that all looked suspiciously like medieval torture devices. In the end we were able to taste three different glasses of champagne and for the cost Martel was the most generous in their pours.  The small tasting room was set up with a ring of chairs for the 20 of us and it had an intimacy the other two tours didn't have. We were sad to see Lauren and Andrew leave to catch their train back to Paris, but we hope to keep in touch as they are stellar people (and that's not the champagne talking) and we think they'd like Portland if they wish to visit. One of the best parts of traveling is how a single afternoon's chance meeting can produce such close encounters with strangers/fellow travelers and turn them into friends.
Drinking all that afternoon champagne pretty much killed any ambition we had to go out later, so we snagged some sandwiches and chips near our hotel and stayed in for the evening. Which was fine, I had to catch up on writing and Marisa needed some rest. We've really been doing a tremendous amount of walking, drinking and eating, so some down time was deserved. I sure missed that pool, though, from the precious night. We stayed the second night at The Grand Hotel Continental. I think the main sitting room was the Grand part.  Our room was tiny and for some reason was designed to look like a rustic cabin with wood walls and snowflake motif curtains. Just sort of odd for Reims which is not a winter mountain haven. The atomic air conditioner, though, is probably the reason for the winter theme. It could put ice flakes on the walls if left on for more than 15 minutes. The bathroom was nearly as big as the bedroom and was recently completely remodeled, so that was a saving grace. I watched a little late night TV when Marisa was sleeping and I recalled that back in 1990 they usually had soft core porn on late at night on a national, over the air channel. Well, the times have a-changed. Now they show hard core late at night - the type with harsh lighting and worn out looking "actors". Really low production values. I'm pretty sure it's used to completely turn off young people to sex by either making it appear to be no big deal or by completely disgusting them. I think it may be affective.

The next morning we got some breakfast and just watched life stroll by the cafe. We then went and walked through the church previously mentioned and thought about hitting the Mumm champagnerie near the train station, but decided we may not be motivated to actually leave on time. We cooled our heals at the train station and took the next connecting train on to Strasbourg. Reims had charm to it as it appears to go out of it's way not to be snobby because it is the business epicenter of Champagne country. It came across as a fairly low key town with a slow pace populated with a large middle class that has nothing to do directly with champagne. It was comfortable if not bubbly.

Local specialties tried: It's really all about the Champagne.
Slideshow Report as Spam
Where I stayed
Best Western / The Grand Continental Hotel
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