Being in France is all about absorbing its culture and demonstrating that the age-old and insulting ‘Ros-bif!’ remarks remain in the annals prior to the existence of our two nations’ most cordial, current but long-standing relationship. We can stand together and have done so most notably in light of some of the most recent atrocities and tragedies that have occurred. The spines and many of the ideologies of both France and Great Britain are aligned and none more so than when you take a look back through one of the most unifying aspects of them all…the wonderful world of Champagne.

Protected forever in both name and methode (the recipe that turns grapes from a specific region into a sparkling international success), even a recent organisational re-jig in the country has ensured that while the geographic relevance of Champagne is now more concentrated (having been separated from the former Champagne-Ardenne region to individual responsibilities), a greater logic now exists.

driving preferred

While flights to France are perfectly within bounds, the advantage of private mobility is always a personal preference. Sure, you can rent a car at the airport but, unless you plan to ship purchases homewards and entrust their safety to an agent, or two, packing your acquisitions in your own car is much more satisfying. As you will read in our Ardenne feature (this issue, pages 104-109), P&O Ferries is our preferred cross-channel carrier, although its seasonally changing prices are comparable to the several other means of making the trip.

The drive through France is a delight, ranging from the flowing hills of northern France, to the more open plains of the Champagne Region. Whether you elect to travel on the faster autoroutes, for which you can expect to pay around Euros35.40 in tolls, or to enjoy the countryside, using the toll-free Departmente and Routes Nationales, is your choice. Regardless, the drive will be enchanting. However, you are warned to watch out for both ‘speed traps’ on the main roads and the anonymous ‘grey box’ speed cameras on country roads. There are a lot more than you might expect, although they are not as frequent installations as you might be informed.

My first planned destination for a drive that, across country from an early departure from Calais, took me almost five and a half hours to complete was for a late-ish lunch (I arrived at 1.15pm; the lunch period ends at 1.30pm!) at l’Auberge de la Seine, at Foucheres. The Michelin-listed restaurant is located on the River Seine, just 15-minutes south of the gorgeous, Medieval city of Troyes. The chef-owner, Evelyne Nicolas and his son Jonathan provide a fantastic welcome and I guarantee that you will thrill to a stunning, locally caught fish meal that is seasonally relevant. My soup, trout and coffee cost a most reasonable Euros19, although I am aware that a dinner menu selection can cost upwards of Euros65, should you opt for lobster and some very fine scallops. The offer of a glass of Champagne is always welcome (but not if you are driving).

les riceys

Before heading to my first overnight stay at Les Riceys, I figured that I would start the visit proper by getting into the ‘Champagne spirit’. When you drive past the acres as-far-as-the-eye-can-see of Champagne vineyards, you might be struck by the small stone huts that seem to proliferate all across the region. Known as ‘cadoles’ specifically in the Les Riceys area, they date back to the 1700s and many of them have been maintained as part of the cultural relevance of the area. Consisting mostly of flat, locally found stones, they were assembled to form shelters of various sizes and states of rustic grandeur, to provide weather protection for vineyard workers. Although not unique, they predominate in the Les Riceys area and there are three signposted walks, varying from seven to fourteen and 23km in length. 

Although I shall return to sample the longest of the three, I donned my best walking shoes and commenced the first part of the seven kilometre trail. In the company of family, appropriately passported canine and with a picnic, I could imagine a truly dreamy summer’s day outing in the countryside at Les Riceys. It would be assuredly delightful. As it happens, this area is renowned for the outstanding quality of its Rose de Riceys, a delectable pink wine that is worth mentioning as a superb celebratory drink at christenings and weddings but that is eminently enjoyable on a summer evening. It was a favourite of King Louis the Fourteenth.

My destination for the first night was at Le Marius, a blue-shuttered hotel in the heart of Les Riceys. My charming hosts, Madame and Monsieur Josselin, provided me with plenty of information about the importance of this area, after I was shown to my splendidly comfortable and restful suite in a hotel that sprawls across a total of four village centre, interconnected properties. The Privilege room, with its private shower facilities, is in the attic, which provides a superb view of the local castle and the forest and costs Euros83pn for up to two persons. Breakfast is an additional Euros11.

The Les Riceys wineries occupy almost 1,000 hectares of the local countryside and the village actually comprises of three settlements, all of which boast marvellous architectural features. Around 80,000 bottles of wine are produced here every year, by around a score of passionate growers and winemakers. The local heritage is guarded judiciously and the locale incorporates three historical churches, two castles, nine chapels and no less than eight wash-houses. The local Ricetons were builders of such high repute that they were used in the construction of the Palace of Versailles, in Paris, as well as the development of the valleys that would provide French royalty with their preferred wines.

My dinner in the restaurant was exceptional. Following a cold meat platter, my main course of locally caught salmon on a tomato confites was exquisite. A tart tatin with fresh vanilla ice-cream, accompanied by fresh coffee was a fitting end to a fine repast that cost a reasonable Euros27. I slept well, awaking to the gentle cooing from the dovecot located outside the building and sunshine streaming through a gap in the curtains. Breakfast was lovely and set me up perfectly for my first appointment of the day, with Emilie Leboeuf, at the Renoir visitors’ centre at Essoyes, a 20-minutes drive from Les Riceys.

art and wine

Perfect bedfellows, one can appreciate the world-leading artistry emerging from this region and none more so than from the impressionist paintbrush of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Born in Limoges, the pottery capital of central France, Renoir lived in Essoyes in the later part of his life, when he was stricken, in fact, crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Although he died in Nice, it was his final wish that his remains be disinterred and reburied in his beloved town of Essoyes.

I was fortunate to obtain, thanks to Emilie, an early visit to the artist’s former home, which is being opened to the public in 2017. However, the visitors’ centre (Euros8) is a place, where you can become immersed in the life of this spectacular painter, with its gentle background soundtrack of the memories that would have been familiar to Renoir during his period of residence. A short walk away, the studio is a refined and sensitive space, where you can truly feel the spirit of the great man and even elements of his equally multi-talented family. As the surroundings are so evocative of another era, you can immediately understand Renoir’s fascination for the place and many budding followers can be spotted on the riverbanks and in the villages, following their muse, sketching and water colouring pre-emptive works for later completion. If you do not own an easel, make sure that you take your camera to record your own personal memories.

Celebrating Gabrielle Renard, who was Renoir’s most favoured model and muse, is the characterful and delicious Champagne of Charles Collin (founded in 1952). Produced in the neighbouring village of Fontette the Chardonnay-dominant wine, known as La Belle Gabrielle, draws together an elegance, richness and finesse that is pure Gallic extravagance at its best. The Belle Gabrielle Tasting Boutique, in the centre of Essoyes, is a ‘must visit’ location. Possessing a nose with the typical woody notes of Pinot Noir, with a long palate of enchanting complexity and raisin fruitiness, it demonstrates that Champagne is a wine of many talents. A visit to the winery costs from Euros7, with sample tasting sessions costing from Euros5.

The River Ource that provided so much inspiration to Renoir is also home to a lovely inn by the name of Aux Berges de l’Ource, where I enjoyed a brief coffee before continuing my Champagne tour by heading to Urville, around 20kms distant, stopping only at le Plateau de Blu, for a truly splendid panoramic view across the expansive vineyards. It is from this public viewpoint that you truly understand the might of the region, with perfect row-upon-row of vines, the many cadoles and the farmhouses and wineries central to the production of Champagne. It is important to take overviews such as this, not least from an inspirational attitude.

urville and more recent gallic history

Around 2,000 years ago, the Romans were the first to plant vines transported from the hills of Tuscany to this part of Romanic Gaul. Occupied originally by the Cistercian monks from Clairvaux Abbey, now the home of the Drappier family, since the 17th Century, Remy Drappier, the original cloth trader from nearby Reims, which was such an important centre for many trades, created a dynasty that remains one of the most powerful in the area. Yet, wine-making only became relevant to the family in 1803, when Francois Drappier started working the fields. It was the grandfather of the present head of the family, Michel, who first planted Pinot Noir grapes in the 1930s, a decision that was both ridiculed and severely criticised at the time.

By 1952, in a recipe refined over the years, the Carte d’Or Cuvee, with its distinctive yellow label, was launched to significant acclaim. Yet, it was the severe frost of spring 1957, which destroyed tragically almost 95% of the total yield, which led to the introduction, by Andre Drappier, of the Pinot Meunier grape, which is more resistant to low temperatures. The resultant wines, of all vintages, are acclaimed worldwide. A visit to this Urville vineyard is strongly recommended, especially to inspect the Cistercian cellars that still house the family’s wine selection, renowned for its smoothness, fine bubbles and long palate, with a sweet, almondy finish.

The former French President, Charles de Gaulle, was a great supporter of the Drappier vineyards, with his preference for their fine Champagnes, which meant that a visit to the Gallic hero’s home at Colombey-les-deux-eglises had to be on the cards. I booked into the La Grange du Relais for my overnight stay.

As one of the Logis de France, authentically historical guesthouses, the stone-built former coachhouse has gained a local renown for its seasonal cuisine. Its elegant and spacious rooms are immaculate and well-specified, with modern facilities that provide a respite to tourists and busy travellers. My room, of a wide choice of different styles, was exceptionally comfortable, with an especially large double-bed (Euros75-95pn) and a breakfast in-room service at an affordable Euros8.50. 

For dinner, I went to the hotel’s excellent restaurant, enjoying a local ham and cheese platter for a starter, followed by cod fillet, served with beurre blanc and local vegetables, and a dessert of pear pie with Chantilly cream, for a very reasonable Euros21, which included a glass of deeply impressive Claret and a coffee. Armed with the visitor’s guide to Colombey and the de Gaulle connection, I spent a quiet evening planning for the next day.

After petit dejeuner in my room, I headed to a meeting with Thomas Wauthier, who would guide me around the Charles de Gaulle Visitors Centre. With its beautiful hillside view across the surrounding fields, there is little more evocative than looking at the ‘Hero’s statue’ in the main vestibule of the modern building. However, a tour of both floors of the premises serves to highlight de Gaulle’s status to his mother-country. All aspects of his history, including his emphatic work with the French Resistance during World War Two, are underscored through dioramas, films, audio-visual means and active displays that appeal to and entertain historians and visitors of all ages.

Visible for many miles around, the immense Cross of Lorraine (43.5m tall, built in 1972 from 1500 tonnes of pink granite from Brittany) sits atop the highest ground behind the stylish museum and you should allow at least two hours for the visit (Euros13.50). A photographer’s delight, if you desire refreshments, there is an excellent cafeteria and the shop sells a first-class range of quality gifts and souvenirs at realistic prices. However, my tour would not have been complete without a visit to the de Gaulle family home of La Boisserie.

The soldier, war hero, leader of the Free French, Prime Minister and President of France purchased La Boisserie as his family home, in 1934. Located due east of Troyes, it lies in 2.5 hectares of verdant parkland, in the village of Colombey. The gorgeous abode, built originally in 1810, is clad in ivy and was where he could relax with his growing family, write and think extensively. He was responsible for electricity and running water being installed in the property. Sadly, de Gaulle passed away, of a ruptured aneurysm, in the library of his home in 1970, not long before his 80th birthday.

Although it is still owned by the de Gaulle family, La Boisserie has been open to the public since 1980 and is immensely popular for both French and foreign tourists and school-children. With time available to reflect on this amazing opportunity, I partook of a charming light lunch at La Table du Generale, an elegant brasserie, in the centre of Colombey, where I dined on a beef stew, as de Gaulle would have done, raising a glass of Champagne to the great man (Euros15).

My final night was spent at Troyes, the magnificent centre on which I reported in our 2015 Annual, before heading for Calais, a pleasant five hours drive away, and my onward ferry trip to the UK. 

champagne facts:

getting there:  While flying to France is possible, including car rental, to take the best advantage, you are advised to self-drive. Preparation of your own vehicle is easy enough but check your insurance cover, that you carry a warning triangle, a replacement bulbs kit and a first aid kit, as they are legal requirements, as well as a ‘GB’ sticker and necessary headlamp adjustments. There are several methods and carriers with which to make the crossing of the English Channel.

being there:  Remember to drive on the right hand side of the road! You should carry an international Highway Code book, to help you understand some of the road signs, although most are identical to the UK. Most UK sat-navs will guide you around France but a Michelin European map book will be useful.

staying there:  Accommodation rates are broadly comparable to those in the UK. It is practical to be able to use and understand a number of French expressions, although most locations can understand English.