|A Visit to the Wizards of Fizz|
by Sally Hammond
"You can never get drunk on champagne," they told us when I first visited Champagne. Yeah, right!
"French men," they also told me, "like champagne because it puts a sparkle in the ladies' eyes and gently flushes their cheeks." No wonder someone once dubbed this 'the wine that makes you see double, and act single'.
Beauty and morality issues aside, most people simply go for the delicate flavour, the rush of bubbles, the extravagance of sipping real French champagne. For a sparkling wine can only be called champagne if it is produced in the Champagne region of France, less than 150 kilometres from Paris, almost due east along the motorway, and a swift hour or so if you travel with a lead-foot driver as I did recently.
Any visitor to Paris can whisk away to Champagne for a weekend, a day - an afternoon, even.
Yet you could spend a week in this region of soft light and gentle breezes, never touch a drop of the bubbly brew, and still end up totally intoxicated by the whole place. In fact you might come several times a year and fall in love with Champagne at every turn of the season: spring, when new life frosts a tremulous lime-green haze across hillside after hillside; summer, when swarms of activity sets the countryside abuzz and the scent of grapes everywhere tickles your nose; and scarlet and vermilion autumn that softens slowly into winter when blue smoke from vine-cuttings streaks across the brown hedgehog-bristled vineyards.
And while the initial exit from the capital, is like that from any major city, a dreary march through industrial suburbs, thick with exhaust fumes and streams of traffic, the thrill is that soon you will be free in the countryside. And not just any countryside.
This is an area of small villages, spiked by black-towered church-spires, meticulously planted vineyards covering the land like green corduroy, and affluent champagne houses, many behind imposing wrought iron gates. But Champagne also has great lakes, including the largest man-made lake in Europe that comes complete with man-made beaches, bird sanctuaries and has become the venue for a variety of water sports. Then there is the beautiful Meuse valley and its gorges. In fact while we tend to think of this region as the birthplace of Champagne, it is also the part of France where the infant Seine rises, along with about 500 other rivers and streams.
Factor in a few extra days here as this mystical forested corner of the region where the Ardennes Mountains rise to over 400m, makes it a great place for hiking. Or you could do as I did and take a self-drive barge, a penichette, on the Ardennes Canal dug in the mid-19th century, with a total of 46 locks over its 106 kilometre length. Not to be missed either is le Chesne and its lovely Lake Bairon and water sports in season.
Long before the 17th century Benedictine monk Dom Perignon shouted that he could see stars the night he invented champagne, the Champagne region was crucial to French history. For centuries kings were crowned at Reims Cathedral. Fifteen hundred years ago, Clovis, King of the Franks was baptised a Catholic there and the adjoining Palais du Tau features a 15th-century tapestry depicting this event. Spend some time here as the collections of crown jewels and robes, relics of saints and even Christ's cross, are truly awesome.
The First World War all but ruined the 2000-year-old city, but it derived some satisfaction in 1945 when it became the scene of the German surrender, thus ending the European conflict.
But while Reims (pronounce it 'rance' for a more Gallic sound) has its place in French history, Epernay, 27 kilometres away, is called the capital of Champagne. Here the chalky clay soil, washed down the skirts of older mountains, is ideal for grape-growing. Here are many kilometres of underground tunnels and caverns, ideal for housing millions of bottles of champagne in various stages of readiness, and the bell-like clink of bottles and glasses is the theme-music of this area. There are signposted routes throughout Champagne and within a day's trip of Epernay you could stop at around 25 cellars if you had the stamina. But beware! After a day of tasting, you may need to be very gently decanted at your hotel.
Champagne both a drink and destination; something to spoil yourself with, and a place that spellbinds you; a signal for celebration as well as a romantic region of France. Whichever way you look at it, Champagne - the place or the product - has got a lot to recommend it.
HOW TO GET THERE
Most major international airlines fly to Paris. Coach tours to Champagne operate from Paris, or you can hire a car.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
The Sacred Triangle of Champagne is the area between Reims, Epernay and Chalons-sur Marne. Look for the 600 kilometres of signposted Route Touristique du Champagne that takes in over sixty cellars and champagne houses.
Reims Cathedral, the present building dating from 1211, has some of the world's most beautiful stained glass windows, including the most recent ones by Chagall.
Chalons-sur-Marne has another magnificent cathedral, Notre-Dame-en-Vaux.
Self drive barges are available from Ardennes Nautisme tel 33 (0) 324729465, fax 33 (0) 324297522. Penichettes are available for a minimum of two day's hire from Ardennes Nautisme, www.ardennes-nautisme.com
WHERE TO STAY and EAT
18, route d'Ecry
08190 Vieux les Asfeld
tel 03 24 72 94 65, fax 03 24 38 39 41
LA COTE A L'OS
11, cours Aristide Briand
Tel 03 24 59 20 16, fax 03 24 59 48 30
40, av. Paul Vaillant Couturier
tel 03 26 84 64 64, fax 03 26 04 15 69
ABBAYE DE SEPT FONTAINES (Fagnon)
tel 03 24 37 38 24, fax 03 24 37 58 75
ChAteau du Faucon
tel 03 24 52 10 01, fax 03 24 52 71 56
L'AUBERGE DE L'ABBAYE
2, place Aristide Briand
08460 Signy l'Abbaye
tel 03 24 52 81 27, fax 03 24 52 71 72
FOR FURTHER DETAILS AND BOOKINGS: For further information contact your travel agent or French Government Tourist Office
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