France is our nearest continental neighbour, which is an inescapable geographical fact. Yet, its obvious charms awaiting discovery by eager beavers seeking a weekend vacation, or a longer holiday, lie in its wondrous countryside, which can be reached by train, by plane, or on road (my preferred method).
The Champagne region is a case in point, if you can pardon the pun. It starts in the Ardenne area, not far from the Belgian border, in the north, takes in the fortified city of Sedan (definitely worth a day trip), its notional capital of Reims (pronounced ‘Rance’ by the French; spelt inexplicably with an ‘h‘ by us: ‘Rheims‘), Epernay (Champagne Grand Central) and Troyes (pronounced the same as the French for ‘three’: ‘Trois’) in the south, and that is the order in which I visited these outstanding centres.
starting in the forest
The Ardennes forest is the link between northern France and Belgium. When driving from Blighty to the lovely ‘twin-town’ of Charleville-Mezieres, doing my level best to stick to the routes nationales (RN) and departmente roads (D), the change from the relative flatness of north-western France to the naturally hilly, sparsely populated and more interesting countryside of its north-east is notable and memorably pleasant.
The drive took around four hours, as I was in no desperate rush to reach my hotel. Passing through typical northern French towns and villages adds to the value of the drive, as you can start to breathe in the atmosphere and enjoy the unhurried pace of life. The tragedies of this countryside’s history (both World Wars One and Two) are remembered while passing the many Allied Forces cemeteries, with their faultlessly planned lines of white stone crosses and memorial statues. Even the simpler black crosses of German troop burial grounds bring a lump to the throat and there is much to commemorate on the D943, which takes in St Omer, Arras and Cambrai, before reaching Charleville-Mezieres.
You approach the town in the valley from the tree-lined hills. My hotel, Le Dormeur du Val (the ‘sleeper in the valley’, at 32 Rue de la Graviere), part of the Best Western group, is just off the centre of Charleville. Parking is in the station car park, less than thirty feet from the entrance to the hotel. Thanks to an arrangement, it is free of charge, a pass-out ticket being provided by the hotel.
A remarkably inspirational place, Charleville-Mezieres is really two centres brought together by time and the inevitable relaxing of local boundaries. The local countryside is a sheer delight to experience, with myriad walks, parks and plenty of forest areas to enjoy nature at its untrammelled best. Yet, it is the ancient centre at Mezieres that is well worth exploring, with its historic square, its magnificent Basilica, home to the Black Madonna, with an amazing array of ‘Picasso-esque‘ stained glass windows, and the remains of its fortified walled city.
The local tourism organisation has organised a number of ‘weekend break’ opportunities in the town that include a ‘Wine Discovery Break’ (from a mere Euros60pp, including overnight in a double-room at the three-star Kyriad Hotel; meals at extra cost). Of course, the world famous Marionnette Theatre Festival is worth a visit and there is the museum and school dedicated to the art that are also worth investigating (from Euros130pp, including overnight as above, dinner at the Garden Ice restaurant, two puppet shows and the festival programme).
Ardennes is at the crossroads of the Germanic and Latin parts of Europe. As it is land that has been fought over for many centuries, it offers history seekers a fine opportunity to enjoy a longer break, perhaps even an entire holiday, which might include all the family.
I continued my drive across to Sedan, just 20 minutes away from Charleville-Mezieres, the beautiful Meuse riverside, medieval walled town, with a magnificent fortress at its heart. Second only in stature to Carcassonne (in the Languedoc region), the impressive Sedan Castle will take your breath away with its splendour, from the second you step within its immense ramparts.
Within what used to be the French army barracks is now a splendid five-star hotel, over several floors, with its most prestigious suites located on the heady northern walls. Guided tours of the fortress are available throughout the year and, while parking is possible within the grounds, there are plenty of free spaces in designated areas around the exterior. Within the castle is the most original and fascinating Large Tower, featuring the lime wood structure of beams that has defied woodworm and remains a magnificent example of pre-medieval building standards.
At various times, the feudal fortress, built atop an earlier Carolingian church, has been a triangular castle for the wealthy land-owning La Marck family, from Rhineland Germany, a Benedictine monastery and a vital centre point for travellers from France to the Holy Roman Empire. The remains of the church are being rebuilt now.
Once again, the local tourism organisation (visitardenne.com) has organised local tours and trails for the more adventurous holidaymaker, starting at Sedan. It is not far north to Rocroi and the Belgian border, where you can take in the towns of Chimay, the citadel at Dinant and Rochefort, while a southern loop includes visits to Bouillon and its beautiful castle, Montauban and Montmedy. Medieval re-enactments and festivals take place throughout the year to add to the spectacle. On the other hand, you might follow the Abbeys Trail, the Beer Route, Green Trails, The Smugglers’ Circuit, the Monks’ Route and many other boating, walking, cycling, or horseback trails.
onwards to reims
To many British travellers, Reims is that place on the French motorway system, where you either head due-east to Switzerland, or south to the sun. Until I decided to stay there for the first time, around 20 years ago, it seemed to have plenty of spires, certainly enough to rival our own ‘city of spires’ (Oxford), a canal visible from the autoroute and something of an industrial presence. How wide of the mark could I have been?
To be fair, the industrial aspect of this city, in the Marne departemente of Champagne-Ardenne, was based on wool and much of its early wealth came from textiles. However, in an area surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see, there is no surprise that it is also the central hub of the Champagne wine industry and all of the most prestigious Champagne houses have their head offices above ground and chalk ‘caves’ beneath (where the bottles are stored and rotated constantly at strictly controlled temperatures, to provide their individual characters), in various places around the historically important city.
As with many sites at Reims, including Taittinger, UNESCO World Heritage status has been applied. Recognition of the importance of the city is becoming more prevalent. After all, this was where Clovis, a Frankish king, was baptised in 498, where the Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims now stands. Following that, Reims became the seat of coronation for 25 kings of France.
It is said that Remus, the brother of the founder of ancient Rome, Romulus, was the founder of Reims, which was a Celtic settlement at the time. It would become the capital of the region and of what would become France. Sadly, the Mars Gate, located just off the centre of the city, is virtually all that remains of the Roman buildings, as the city was pounded heavily by German bombs and artillery in both WW1 and WW2 and much of it was destroyed. General Eisenhower used Reims as his operational base during the latter conflict and it was there, on 7th May 1945 that he accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany.
As a sizeable amount of rebuilding took place between the world wars, the Art Deco style predominates, epitomised by the superb Bibliotheque Carnegie (the historically relevant library, funded by the great Scottish benefactor), which is a brief stroll away from Notre Dame. The simply inspirational Notre Dame Cathedral is a prime example of 13th Century Gothic art and, despite incurring terrible damage during the wars, it retains many of its 2,300 statues that adorn both its exterior and interior walls. Alongside the cathedral is the Palace of Tau, which was home to the bishops and archbishops of Reims, although it is now a museum for the cathedral.
The Basilica of Saint Remi, named after the bishop of Reims, was built in the 11th Century and is home to the holy ampoule (that contains the oils used to anoint the crowned Gallic kings) and the bishop’s reliquary. It is also a very beautiful building and worth a closer look, not least at its beautiful stained glass windows and myriad statues. Adjacent to it is a museum that documents the history of the area from Roman times, while its 16th Century tapestries and the lovely Chapter House are all worth visiting.
sat-nav to epernay
Little more than an hour’s drive south of Reims is the lovely farming town of Epernay. You cannot fail to be impressed by the typically rolling hills of this part of central France, which provide its arrow-straight Roman roads with useful features to relieve the potential open country tedium. With Champagne vineyards on either side, which soon turn into fertile farmland for around forty miles, the countryside is peppered with the ‘cathedrals of agriculture’, the grain silos that are used by collective farmers in the region, and the gigantic windmills that power much of the industry, commerce and most domestic locations.
If Reims is the notional ‘Home of Champagne’, then Epernay is the engine room. Its Avenue de Champagne has a concentration of famous names from the history of the wine, within a street containing some of the grandest chateaux in all of France. Yet, as a visit to C Comme Champagne, at 16 Rue Gambetta, proves, there is a lot more to this fine wine than all of the better known brands might suggest.
Its proprietor, Frederic Dricot, is a genuine enthusiast, who is more than willing to help visitors to his boutique and Champagne bar, with its own cave, understand some of the finer aspects of the drink. He represents several of the lesser known Champagne houses, even taking their produce to international shows and client visits. Spending some time with this great man is not merely informative but also exceedingly entertaining. A tasting session will highlight that neither price, nor label are the best indicators of individual taste.
The cave at C Comme is filled with bins from around the region that are colour coded to highlight their locations but which contain some truly fascinating and characterful wines. Having asked if the area produced anything other than Champagne, I was amazed to hear of other methode wines that Frederic’s shop sells and I purchased both a (still) red and a rich, deep pink Champagne, which defies the norm for modern day Champagne purchasers.
Interestingly, the boutique outlet also links to the exquisite Hotel Jean Moet (there might be a tenuous connection to the Moet et Chandon Champagne house), which is on the Rue Jean Moet that runs parallel to Rue Gambetta.
The tourist office at Epernay is one of the most progressive of such organisations, with which I have ever enjoyed communicating. It even offers the use of a Renault Twizy (electric two seater car) to allow visitors a most enjoyable and enticing way to visit the area. In fact, two versions are available, one with a smaller range of around 40kms for trawling around town, while a more potent version offers 80kms for users wanting to visit some of the outlying countryside. A normal car licence will suffice and rates start from Euros40.
If a Twizy is not your ideal mode of transport for sightseeing, the tourist office of Epernay can also rent you everything from a touring bicycle (Euros11 for a half-day; Euros18 all-day) to a mountain bike (Euros15; Euros20), or a tandem, children’s bikes, baby-carriages and electric cycles. All are available for daily, weekend, or week-long rentals.
The office also organises an entire travel service for visitors. One telephone call will result in an entire holiday plan, or just the appropriate (discounted) bookings at local hotels and restaurants for a romantic weekend. In most ways, Epernay Tourism is a one-stop-shop for holidaymakers and weekend-breakers. The town is a shopping haven too, with every imaginable outlet for produce, clothing and special gifts. The bottom-line is that you ought to contact the tourism office for any breaks you are contemplating in Epernay, as it is sure to provide the best possible outcome for you, as a result of its far-reaching interactive services.
southward to troyes
Located a 90-minutes drive due south of Epernay, yet still just 93 miles south-east of Paris, is the gorgeous city of Troyes (pronounced the same as ‘three’ in French). Although it has Roman origins as a major conurbation, ironically boasting an original walled layout that was the shape of a modern Champagne cork, even though the wine had not been invented at the time, most of what can be seen and enjoyed today is of post-Medieval construct.
It is a beautiful place, its pedestrianised centre consisting of several original and superbly maintained streets of half-timbered medieval properties. Due to its location close to the River Seine, it became an important centre from the outset of the Roman invasion, when innumerable canals and waterways were opened, although only a few remain. As a result of the close association with water, the town’s core industries of paper-making (it was the home to France’s first paper mill) and textiles ensured that it became exceptionally wealthy throughout its history. A number of man-made lakes on the outskirts of the town now serve a role in the holiday scene, providing watersports and leisure facilities for both short and longer-term visitors. Yet, Troyes has also experienced periods of hardship, not least when the town was virtually destroyed by a major conflagration.
Much like the Great Fire of London, a single spark in the close quartered streets soon developed into an unstoppable fire (in May 1524) and much of the centre was destroyed, with 1,500 homes and businesses turned to ashes. Fortunately, it was resurrected speedily and sympathetically, to leave the wonderfully photogenic centre that thrills visitors today. Some of the houses look to be precariously balanced, leaning at extraordinary angles, but are actually quite secure and they provide both domestic accommodation, as well as shops, boutiques and historically important properties, most of which can be accessed readily. In fact, Troyes offers one of the best preserved ancient centres in Europe.
However, its history consists of so much more, with close links to the Knights Templar and the Crusades (the Aube departemente was the cradle for the legendary Order of the Temple), while also being the home to guilds of master craftsmen, where the principles of all guilds were established. If you want to discover more about this lovely city, a visit to the Tourist Office, which occupies a brand new half-timbered building, on the rue Aristide Briand, that is built in the medieval style, will grant you access to a superb introductory film about the town, which is also known as ‘The City of a Thousand Colours’.