Reims and Champagne
From our mini-city break in Nancy we moved a few more miles, to an overnight stop on the grassy banks of a lake in the small town of Contrisson. We saw no one bar one hardy dogwalker as we suffered a harsh, windy night complete with driving rain that fell in fat, loud drops. Our van was shaken and rocked relentlessly all night, whilst also being bombarded by twigs and branches torn off nearby trees. In the morning all was calm and entirely still, like it had all been a bad weather dream.
We moved off quickly, entering into Champagne country proper. We were surprised to note the lack of grape vines in the fields, compared to other wine regions, with most fields we passed having been ploughed, turned, or recently planted with low level crops. We first reached the large town of Châlons-en-Champagne, but the percussion of raindrops had not ceased, so we had only a quick jaunt around. We were almost the only people silly enough to be outside when we reached the main square, to see the Hôtel de Ville and a giant champagne bottle shaped serving bar. The square was in the midst of having the flower beds replaced or replanted, and the workers seemed to have abandoned their posts to avoid the deluge, leaving sodden soil and dead plants strewn everywhere.
We stepped into the nearby cathedral to avoid a little of the rain, and to compare its majesty to the many others we had seen along the way. We lingered in the central nave and examined the clean, exposed stone structure with little colour or decoration inside except for the rainbow glow of the stained glass windows.
We headed straight back to Benny to shelter, then drove on to our next destination. We overnighted in the small town of Mareuil-sur-Ay, in nice, individually laid-out bays right on prime river frontage shared with moored pleasure boats. We walked along the canal, between two bridges and under the threat of further rain, before snuggling in for a quiet restful night in the shadow of our first Champagne vineyards.
The next morning we moved on only a handful of miles to the large town of Epernay. We parked in a central aire with lots of available room, with only one other camper in residence who had decided, despite a wealth of free spaces, to park in the one designated ‘bus only’ space; must have been French. Still, a perfect spot for visitor day-parking.
We walked to the town centre, to explore what is the main centre for Champagne production, with all the big name producers based here. We passed the grand offices of Moët & Chandon, set on the Avenue de Champagne. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to be open and there were certainly no options for dégustations available, outside of pre-arranged and very expensive organised tours. The entire industry carried a very different feel, aloof, distant and exclusive, in comparison to the wine areas of Chateauneuf-du-Pape where everything was friendly, open and inclusive. We left rather disappointed.
We moved on north from Epernay, through the leafy natural park and passed hilly mounds of bare vineyards to see the celebrated cathedral in Reims and to search for a little more life in the off-season Champagne region. We approached a known aire, but the entry was barriered off and we first thought it had possibly changed and was no longer available. But we looped around the tight city roads and tried once more, this time calling a posted telephone number, where we gained entry from a friendly Kiwi who gave us the gate code.
It only took a few minutes to walk into the centre. We approached the cathedral along a busy road, wide and tree-lined, to reach the front square. The impressive, ornate façade was decorated with detailed stonework with more than 2000 figures, including uniquely sculpted angel statues with open rather than folded wings. Reims was the cathedral used for the coronations of the French Kings and carried that regal grandeur with aplomb.
We had our usual chat in the local tourist office, where we spotted Champagne cork stools, complete with wire cage muselet and plastic cap; a colourful reminder of where we were.
We walked a loop of the cathedral externally before entering to enjoy the highly decorative and sculpture heavy interior. There were stained glass installations ranging from the 13th to the 20th century, each a different stylistic interpretation of a specific religious narrative. The unadorned fluted stone pillars contrasted with the highly ornate walls. One alcove housed a detailed scale model of the cathedral, lit from below so it glowed from within, surrounded by a kaleidoscopic backdrop of modern stained glass patterns.
Afterwards, we walked further around the city centre, seeing many grand squares and neat streets. We reached the Hôtel de ville before turning around, to retrace our steps through the city streets, enjoying simply being outside on the dry, warm day. We saw little evidence of Champagne sales or dégustations in the regional capital, but we instead enjoyed the architecture and weather. Reims was the definitely highlight of our trip around the Champagne region, a beautiful, small and accessible city to visit.