Lifestyle & Culture

Jackie Harding: I’ll be celebrating the end of COVID – and return of travel – in Champagne

The Champagne region is open and ready for visitors

(Editor’s note: As of early June, some pandemic restrictions are still in place including a curfew. But French officials have announced plans to reopen to tourism, so a trip to Champagne is doable if you have proof of vaccination.)

Like many I am longing to dust off my luggage and have an adventure. When our world begins to look a little safer and opens up to travellers, I am planning to celebrate with a glass of Champagne and where else would be a more appropriate place to do that but in the Champagne region of France?

I have been researching, so I will be ready with a plan when travel becomes less of a dream and more of a reality. Champagne lies east of Paris and is of course famous for the sparkling wine produced there. The largest city is Reims, with the town Epernay a popular alternative choice, and both offer many producers of champagne to visit.

That being said though, the area offers around 450 bubbly creators and cooperatives to visit. So should the smaller, more intimate producers be more your style you could be spoiled for choice! Other than winter, all the seasons offer a reason to go with spring having lots of wildflowers for the photographers among us, and Fall being the time of harvest for those more interested in the mechanics of getting the grapes into the bottle.

Reims

Reims is the official capitol of the region and many of the major champagne houses are based there; Mumm and Taittinger are just two of the famous brands established here.

BUBBLY

Champagne tasting is the reason we are here and there are plenty of choices of where to go.

• All the champagne houses offer tours and tastings but Taittinger is reputed to be one of the more visitor-friendly of the larger houses. You can visit the crayères (chalk mines) 17 metres below ground where you will see remnants of a 13th century abbey, and the guided tour includes a movie about the history of winemaking, and one tasting.

Veuve Clicquot – Ponsardin, another iconic champagne, also offers tours and tastings. Of course, all the larger houses offer tasting and tours so take your pick … or do them all.

CULTURE

Reims Cathedral ~ This is where early French kings were crowned and is a UNESCO Heritage site. The flyiing buttresses, 2,300 statues and stained-glass windows – one of which was designed by celebrated Jewish mystical artist Marc Chagall in the 1970s – make this reportedly one of the best examples of Gothic art. The Palace of Tau next door also had a role in coronations.

Villa Demoiselle ~ a painstakingly renovated Art Nouveau and Art Déco villa that is also on the UNESCO World Heritage list. You can take a tour of the skilled restoration and sample the house Champagne.

Museé Automobile ~ With more than 230 cars this museum is a must for lovers of French cars.

The Champagne region was central to World War I and Reims suffered some of the heaviest fighting. So if that is something that interests you. there are two museums in Reims that share the history of that time.

Fort de la Pompelle in the actual fort houses a unique collection in a major remembrance site including uniforms and everyday objects used by the soldiers in WW I.

Museé de la Reddition (Surrender) that commemorates the signing of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies in WWII here in 1945.

Épernay

More bubbles! Épernay is the unofficial capital of Champagne and the Avenue de Champagne there is home to many other champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon and Mercier and is a popular thoroughfare for tourists.

Moët & Chandon’s tour includes a visit to the longest cellars in Épernay and includes an “immersive” experience.

Mercier is the second largest producer after Moët & Chandon and offers an audio-guided tour and a ride on a small automatic train through the 18 kilometers of cellars.

CULTURE

De Castellane House ~ This beautiful old building houses a museum on the craft of champagne making, a tower that offers views over the town and an opportunity to taste their champagne. Its high point is the Label Room with 5,000 champagne labels from every period.

Hôtel de Ville ~ the city hall was donated to the town by the Auban-Möet family, after the original building was destroyed in WWI. Its gardens, designed by the Bühler Brothers, are the attraction here.

Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers ~ the abbey church is a couple of minutes north of Épernay and is home to the tomb of the 17th century Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon. Dom Pérignon was key in the beginning of the champagne industry’s creation.

Jardin Botanique de la Presle ~ this botanical garden is only 20 years old but features plants from around the world and topiaries shaped like monsters.

FOOD

This is France so there are more wonderful restaurants than you can shake a stick at.

Local foods to try include:

Reims Ham and Reims mustard which is only produced here. Chaource cheese, a soft cow’s milk cheese, pairs well with champagne ad local truffles are finding fame. Les biscuits roses de Reims (pink biscuits) is one of the oldest recipes in France and only made here. “Twice baked” (bis-cuit) makes these biscuits hard and the pink color was added to hide the vanilla specks. The locals happily dip these treats in their champagne. Maison Fossier in Reims has been making them since 1691.

Farther afield

Troyes ~ a 90-minute drive south of Reims is a medieval half-timbered town on the Seine that is shaped, by coincidence, like a champagne cork! Looking like a movie set the lovely old town offers tiny streets to explore, local bakers and restaurants to enjoy and just outside of the town, if you are a shopper, a factory outlet mall. Some of the buildings are famous for their stained glass and the town boasts ten churches. If you have a thing for tools then the Maison et de la Pensée Ouvrière houses 20,000 tools from decorative to everyday.

Artisan champagne producers in the Champagne region are well worth a look and are generally delighted to have you visit and taste. They are equal to any of the bigger names, and you won’t be paying for the label. Find an organized tour and that way you have no need to worry about the local gendarmes!

As Dom Pérignon purportedly said after his first sip of champagne, “Come quickly, I’m tasting the stars.” If Pérignon was still alive I would be calling out, “Pour me a glass I’m on my way!”

About the author:

Photographer/writer Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a long-time expat, she lived in Boston for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past 10 years.

Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and photography.

Contributing to Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat life and issues.

She also covered the Women’s March Amsterdam.

She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.

You can read more of Jackie’s work for Dispatches here.

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