Bubbly, Ancient History and More in the Champagne-Ardenne Region
A glass of bubbly is always welcome, and a great way to learn more about what you’re drinking is with a trip to the Champagne-Ardenne region of France where locals simply refer to it as “mineral water.” With the introduction of some very old grape varieties and the production of a number of organic options, the story of Champagne is truly magical and ever changing.
Just 45 minutes northeast of Paris by TGV, the city of Reims has a large number of Champagne houses and also provides a chance to explore some ancient history, including some Knights Templar sites. Featured in the book and movie “The Da Vinci Code,” this medieval group of knights protected Christian pilgrims in the Holy Lands centuries ago, and many legends are linked to the order, including the myth surrounding the quest for the Holy Grail.
Places to See
A good starting point in Reims is its magnificent Gothic cathedral. This impressive building houses some of the most spectacular stained glass windows in France including one by Chagall. Take note of the smiling angel on the left-hand side of the main door: she has become a symbol of the city with her cheeky smile and a glint in her eye. Entry to the cathedral is free, and it is a great place to spend an hour or two.
Next up is the Musée de la Reddition (Museum of the Surrender). Housed in a school tucked away by the railway line, this is well worth searching out as it was here that General Dwight D. Eisenhower received the unconditional surrender of all German armed forces at 2:41 a.m. on May 7, 1945, in the war room of General Eisenhower’s supreme headquarters. Located in the Rue du Président Franklin Roosevelt, the museum is open from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., but make sure you are there at least half an hour before closing — otherwise you may be denied entry.
Among the city’s major Champagne houses is the famous Veuve Clicquot — and a tour of the Roman cellars can be arranged together with a tasting. Look out for the different rooms, which are named after their workers. The guides are experts at explaining the process of making Champagne.
If time permits, renting a car gives you the chance to travel to the medieval capital of the region, Troyes, and stop at smaller Champagne manufacturers in villages along the way. About 15 minutes from the town of Bar-sur-Aube is Champagne Monial. Located in the beautiful French countryside, Monial produces a range of Champagnes including several organic and natural varieties. The cellars are Cistercian, and there is even a small chapel inside the house.
Also near Bar-sur-Aube is the Cistercian Abbey of Clairvaux, founded in 1115. Eventually turned into a prison — you can still visit the site, but be prepared for a few surprises as part of it still houses prisoners! Many of the rooms and areas open to visitors are part of the old prison, so you will often come across cells and spaces that were in use just a few years ago. The whole experience is quite strange and spooky imagining who might have been locked in those cells. You will also need to take your passport or driving documents to obtain access to the abbey. This visit is not for everyone, but if you are looking for a different experience, then this might be just for you.
Next up, head to the nearby village of Urville and Champagne Drappier. A much bigger operation than Monial, it is here that André Drappier, now 91, and his son Michel produce a selection of Champagnes that have graced the table of the French President François Hollande. Michel is very keen on bringing back a selection of ancient varieties of grapes and has developed several very different Champagnes which are sold worldwide. A charismatic character, Michel is a true lover of Champagne with a passion for his vines and his product. And I’m sure you will, like me, find it difficult to leave without buying a bottle or two!
There are many Knights Templar links in the area including the home of the founder Hugues de Payns who was born in the early 11th century in a village close to Troyes. He was the first master of the Temple so you might be interested in visiting the Templar’s Commandery at Avalleur and the chapel.
Troyes, the capital of the region, has a large number of medieval buildings, a stained glass museum and Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul’s Cathedral. A number of relics can be seen inside along with several beautiful windows dating back many centuries.
Again there are plenty of places to try a glass of bubbly together with the local drink, Prunelle de Troyes, which has a real kick all its own. It tastes like brandy but has a very strong after taste as it goes down. The building where this is produced is the oldest civic building in the city.
Many medieval buildings were built very close together, and this has created some very narrow lanes where the buildings have had to be kept apart using wooden beams. The city has a number of delightful squares where you can enjoy a drink or meal. Although the region is close to Paris, it feels very different with its sweeping landscapes, pretty villages and elegant cities.
For those who like shopping, both cities have an excellent range of independent retailers. Galeries Lafayette in Reims is quite magnificent with a wide range of designer clothes. A 10-minute drive from center of Troyes is a McArthurGlen Designer Outlet where you can find great discounts on over 300 brands including Armani, Escada and more.
Be sure to grab a copy of the Champagne Tourist Route from the local tourist office which will help guide you through several villages and towns.
Food and (Other) Drink
This part of France is known not only for its Champagne but also for its cheese, which can be purchased from different places such as the Cellier Saint Pierre in Troyes. Local varieties include Langres, which is soft, crumbly and creamy in texture but also — be warned — has a strong smell. Brie, the popular soft creamy cheese, also comes from the region. Here there are excellent restaurants including Le Cellier in Bar-sur-Aube, where you eat in a 12th century cellar built by the monks of Clairvaux Abbey.
Local foods include venison, wild boar and potée champenoise (made from a mixture of bacon, sausage, and cabbage). Pork, rabbit and game pâtés are popular together with some Flemish dishes such as beef braised with onions and beer. You will also come across plenty of fish dishes and duck which can be served in a variety of ways.
Breakfasts tend to consist of strong coffee and pastries, local rolls or croissants with a selection of cheese and cold meats. French people tend to eat more in the middle of the day so look out for specials such as the plat du jour or the fixed menu which is often a very good value.
Many of the local beers have been influenced by Flemish varieties over the border in Belgium. A popular option is Ardwen, first produced in 2006 at the area’s largest brewery located in Launois-sur-Vence. If you get stuck in either city, ask for a recommendation at the hotel or look for places that are full of locals such as Chez Felix or Le Damier, both located in Troyes. As an alternative, music aficionados can check out the scene while also grabbing a bite to eat and some drinks at the nearby Kiwi Bar.
Reims and Troyes are home to a range of hotels. There’s the Hotel de la Paix and the Holiday Inn Reims, both a short walk from the center and the railway station. Troyes has several 5-star establishments including La Maison de Rhodes. There are plenty of other cheaper hotels including Brit Hotel Les Comtes de Champagne, housed in a traditional timbered building with a lot of character. Another establishment you might like to consider is Le Jardin de la Cathedral, set to open July 1, 2017. Two designers, Laetitia and Valery, spared no expense in turning this ancient building into somewhere to stay with a wonderful enclosed garden and beautiful rooms.
As mentioned earlier, the Champagne-Ardenne region is within easy reach of Paris — you might like to start your trip with a visit to the City of Light and then make the connection to either Reims (TGV) or Troyes (Regional Express) for a change of pace. Both have a good tram network and places to rent a car to head to the above destinations, or into the countryside to explore the forests, the lakes and the local amusement park, Nigloland, which some say even includes clues to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail.
Godfrey Hall is an award-winning UK based travel journalist and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He has been in search of elves in Iceland, traveled to the depths of central Australia and been off the beaten track in Bulgaria.