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A sparkling break in Champagne

I have spent many years drinking Champagne – ‘though maybe not as often as I might like ;-).  I hope I could at least differentiate between a decent vintage and something better used for stripping paint but in truth I’ve never really understood a huge amount about it. So when the opportunity to visit the region knocked on my door earlier this year, boy was I going to answer it!

Reims

We kicked off in Reims, capital of the region and just a 40 minute train ride from Paris on the super fast TGV (under a four hour drive from the Channel ports).

Our accommodation was the Best Western Hotel de La Paix. I’ve always felt a little snooty, perhaps unfairly, about the Best Western brand. They actually have a huge range of hotels – from budget to fairly luxurious – and this one was definitely at the upper end. The design is modern, with clean, comfortable, bedrooms. The staff were brilliant – friendly and efficient – and the breakfast buffet excellent. The bar was buzzy and it wasn’t just hotel guests propping it up when we were there . It is very central, too, and made a great base for exploring the city and the surrounding Champagne areas.

We took a walking tour. Much of the city – 80% in fact! – was destroyed during the First World War, so during the 1920s and 1930s there was a building bonanza, resulting in some beautiful Art Deco architecture.

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Above and below: Reims city centre

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Many people come to Reims, though, to ogle the magnificent 13th century cathedral, Notre-Dame, where France’s Kings were crowned from the 6th century. It also was damaged during the war but has been sensitively restored. Both inside and out it is adorned with statues, including the famous ‘Smiling Angel’ (which I actually found a bit creepy!). The stained glass windows here are incredible and range from the 13th to the 20th century. My favourites were the exquisite ones designed by Marc Chagall in the 1970s.

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The cathedral – Notre-Dame de Reims

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The Smiling Angel – she’s the one on the right

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Stunning stained glass by Marc Chagall

Also worth a visit for its stunning tapestries and sculptures is the next door Palace du Tau, palace of the Archbishop of Reims and where the King of France would stay during his coronation and celebrate after the main event.

That first evening we did a cookery class at Au Piano des Chefs. It was a fun experience. We got to watch chef Eric (who was a real character) cook up an intricate feast – probably not one I would attempt at home but fascinating none the less. We all got to help out a bit and then, of course, we got to devour the creations…accompanied by some Champagne bien sur!

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Chef Eric performs the finishing touches

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I’m sure that glass of Champagne improved our cooking technique

On the Champagne trail
Next day we were off to discover more about the world’s favourite celebratory drink. First on the itinerary was a trip to Phare de Verzenay which is, rather unusually, a lighthouse in the middle of the vineyards just a corks pop from Reims . There’s a little wine museum here and, conveniently, right next door is a small Champagne house. Champagne Godme Sabine is a tiny family run affair. We had a quick tour of the cellar with the owner but they are currently renovating much of the winery so it will be a bit of a building site until next season. You can, however, sit and sip their very good Champagne on the terrace with a few nibbles and buy some bubbly to take home. What amazed me here, as in many other Champagne houses, is that you can pick up very decent Champagne for very little money. Their ‘entry level’ bottle is €17 (just over £15 at time of press). Bring your car and fill up!

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The lighthouse and wine museum at Verzany

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Above and below: The cellars at Godme Sabine

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From a little Champagne house to one of the grandest of all – Veuve Clicquot. Our rather special dinner at the company’s HQ was a treat. Now I won’t bang on about this too much as this isn’t something you can just rock up and do, unless you’re there for a private event. But suffice to say it was rather splendid, with Champagne varieties matched to the individual courses.

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Heading up from the cellars at Veuve Clicquot to the tasting room

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Our waiter decants Champagne – it’s a ‘thing’ apparently! – at Veuve Clicquot

What anyone can do, however, is book a tour of the fascinating cellars, carved into a labyrinth of caves and tunnels 30 metres below the ground. We learnt about the different grapes used and about the process of making Champagne. There was also the inspirational back story of Madame Clicquot who, in a show of early 19th Century girl power, took over the reins of the ailing business when widowed at the tender age of 27 (Veuve means widow in French). She found a way to tweak production techniques to her advantage and that, along with her astounding business acumen helped make the company the huge success that it is to this day.

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Above and below: The fascinating cellars at Veuve Clicquot

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Châlons-en-Champagne
Next, we were off to stay in Châlons-en-Champagne. It’s a pretty, small, town. We stayed at Hôtel Pasteur (actually more of a B&B) which has rooms spread across the main old house and some, like mine, in an adjoining annexe. It is beautifully designed, and really comfortable and quiet, even though it’s within an easy walk of all the sights.

A stroll here revealed an attractive main square and yet another beautiful church with… yes, more incredible stained glass windows.

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Above and below: The main square at Châlons-en-Champagne

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Dinner was at Les Caudalies (quirky, great food) . A brilliant post dinner thing to do – other than glugging more Champagne, of course (and in fact we managed to do it whilst glugging Champagne!) – is the town’s Métamorph’eau’ses boat tour. We glided along pretty canals whilst a sound and light show played out spectacularly on buildings, tunnels, walls and bridges.

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Above and below  – restaurant Les Caudalies, Châlons-en-Champagne

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Metamorph’eau’ses boat tour in Châlons-en-Champagne

It was a lovely end to our trip. As we drifted along,  I remembered a quote from Coco Chanel. “I only drink Champagne on two occasions – when I am in love and when I am not”. And why not – surely no excuse is needed to break open the bubbly and where better to do it than in its place of birth?

The lowdown

  • Double rooms at Hotel de La Paix start from around £118 per night. Family suites are also available. Visit bestwestern-lapaix-reims.com/en/
  • Doubles at Hotel Pasteur start at €95 (£83) including breakfast. Visit hotel-pasteur.fr
  • Trains from London to Reims (via Paris) take from 4 hours, 13 minutes, with fares from £90 return. Visit voyages-sncf.com
  • Cookery classes with champagne at Au Piano des Chefs are available for groups of six or more people. The website (aupianodeschefs.com/en/) is not very helpful so it’s best to email Eric direct for details – contact@aupianodeschefs.com
  • Cellar tours at Veuve Clicquot must be booked ahead (minimum two people) and cost from €25 (£22), up to €120 (£105) per person for a longer tour with four vintages, paired with cheese. Visit veuveclicquot.com for details.
  • For more information on the Champagne region visit champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk

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