Go Champagne, not for the wine but for the holiday! – Part 2
The ‘default option’ for Gallic travel is Paris, Brittany, or ‘Le Croisette’, which Iain Robertson highlights is wonderful but also a bit ‘thoughtless’, so he drove to and from Champagne, to prove a point, this time he completes the trek south.
Set the sat-nav for Epernay and little more than an hour’s drive south of the city of Reims is the lovely farming town. 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.
Living the Champagne lifestyle
Although the rates vary according to season, my Jeroboam Classique room (Euros140 room rate, rising to Euros180 between 1st April and 30th November) in the 15-rooms Hotel Jean Moet and Spa was beautifully appointed, spacious and exceptionally comfortable. A large bath/shower in immaculate and modern facilities was provided with a comprehensive range of toiletries and accessories, while a flat-screen digital TV, a writing desk and spacious, mirrored wardrobe completed the accommodation accoutrements.
The wife of the owner, Mme Sigita Robert, runs the typically Gallic petit dejeuner in the lovely glazed vestibule of the hotel but also cooks-to-order eggs in any style that guests desire (I chose a ham, mushroom and onion omelette). Breakfast adds Euros15 to the bill. The hotel staff are exceptionally friendly and very welcoming and the overall impression is of a very high-class operation. The high-end Spa offers a range of treatments that many guests can enjoy during their stays.
I returned to Rue Gambetta for my evening meal, visiting the exquisite, if tiny, ‘La Cave au Champagne’ restaurant run by the exceptionally characterful Chef-owner, Bernard Ocio. Quite why this fine establishment does not possess a Michelin Star is slightly beyond my comprehension, as the food it produces is utterly beguiling, served impeccably and represents excellent value for money at Euros38 for its ‘Gourmand Menu’. I should also highlight that there were more British visitors in this restaurant than I expected at the time of year of my meal. Among them was a honeymooning couple from Hertfordshire and another couple from London enjoying a three-night weekend break.
My starter was the Saint Vaast oyster gratin, with vegetable fondue and Champagne butter (utterly heavenly, six fat, fresh and juicy oysters, served in their shells), which was followed by a main course of sliced, perfectly cooked duck breast, with gratineed potatoes and a mushroom mousse, served with fine Champagne grapes, which was slightly sweet and decadent. For dessert, I enjoyed the orange and Grand Marnier soused pancake. Very French, wondrously delicious and highly satisfying. As an ideal spot for a celebratory meal, I can think of few finer, although Epernay does boast an enormous range of restaurants, a comprehensive book of which you can obtain from the local tourism office (ot-epernay.fr).
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’.
Staying in Troyes
While beautiful Troyes is renowned for its innumerable and impressive ‘hotels’, you should be aware that the terminology also applies to some of the grander stone properties that exist in and around the city. Yet, there is a fantastic selection of two, three, four and even five star accommodation in the centre, with prices that range from around Euros35pp to well over Euros250pp.
My overnight residence was a little more Spartan than some but a lot more accessible, at the four-star Hotel de la Poste, a member of the Best Western group. Located in the bustling and fairly modern centre of Troyes (it is not all Medieval buildings), on the rue Emile Zola, parking is the issue. Guests at the hotel can unload luggage at the front door but secure, garage parking is a few hundred metres away, for which the reception desk will provide you an access code.
The theme inside the hotel (from Euros115pp) is horsey, with saddle-like armchairs in the lounge and stirrup-themed bedside lights. Extensively modernised, its room facilities are excellent, with a high-tech bathroom, featuring a spacious non-slip shower for a cleansing ‘downpour’ experience and very tasteful detailing. The double bed was exceedingly comfortable and two bay windows provide a view onto the shopping thoroughfare of rue Poncaire in downtown Troyes.
Although I would have lunch at ‘Rouge et Noir’, a stunning little restaurant in one of the delightful medieval houses, on rue Champeau, an interconnecting door links the hotel with ‘Tablapizza’, a better-than-average fast food eatery next door. My evening meal, which I took to my room, cost Euros24.40 for a first-class, artisan pizza espagnole, a tarte au pommes dessert and a half-litre pression of beer.
Rouge at Noir was fabulous but, to be honest, having experienced almost a week of rich, exquisite food, I was eminently contented with a ‘boudin noir’ (black pudding) salad (Euros32) and a café au lait, before taking a walking tour of the old city.
Champagne-Ardenne for a break?
No matter what type of break you desire, either a city weekender, a few days in the countryside, a driving holiday, or a fortnight exploring a geographical area, France has so much to offer. Narrow it down to a region, such as Champagne-Ardenne, and, as my experience highlights, there is still a veritable mix of religious, historical, gastronomic, cultural and even energetic exploits to pursue.
Language ‘difficulties’ are not what they used to be and even the old ‘frogslegs/rosbif’ references are all but non-existent. I must state how impressed I was with the tourist offices in each location I visited. While that at Epernay percolated to the top for its outstanding array of progressive services, right down to providing a travel and booking agency for visitors, these local government-funded outlets work very industriously with their local hotels, residences, restaurants, suppliers and venues to ensure that only the most satisfactory outcomes result. I doff my cap respectfully at all of them.
While I drove personally in a one-litre Skoda Citigo, which proved to be ideal for many 68mpg reasons, you can fly into Paris and drive, or be driven, to any of the locations above. You can also opt to use the Eurotunnel rail service from London to Lille, or Paris, and beyond. The choice is yours. Regardless, you will have memories galore and the joy of knowing that our nearest neighbour is a lot closer than you might think.
D. Le Neve – Greater Troyes Tourist Information Centre
Office du Tourisme, Epernay)