Contributing editor Carla Hunt recently drank (with proper
moderation) in France's Champagne region. Her report follows:
veryone has heard of champagne,
probably the world's best-known wine. However, le Champagne, where
the famous bubbly is made, is a region awaiting discovery by many
Rich in history and culture, Champagne's farms and rolling
vineyards, medieval churches, chateaux, castles and villages
present an inviting corner of rural France.
The region's historic fortifications and somber cemeteries mark
battlegrounds of two world wars, and its two leading cities --
Reims and Epernay -- sit atop miles of wine cellars.
Driving east from Paris, one heads first to Hautvillers, the
birthplace of champagne.
Dom Perignon, widely believed to be the inventor of champagne,
was a cellarkeeper at the Abbey of Hautvillers, now part of
enormous Moet & Chandon holdings, headquartered in Epernay.
Although the discovery of how to change still wine into the
sparkling variety was made in the 17th century, it wasn't until
1936 that Moet & Chandon used Dom Perignon's name to tag its
first luxury brand.
Today, Hautvillers -- cheerful and flower-filled with sweeping
views of the Marne river valley -- is a charming wine village.
Here one can visit the abbey that was the bubbly's birthplace,
which Moet & Chandon has converted into a museum that provides
a step-by-step description of the art of champagne-making.
An afternoon arrival in Reims allows for a visit to the Gothic
Notre-Dame cathedral in time to witness the late-day sun streaming
through its stained-glass rose window.
Reims is an important city in the formation of France; it was
where Frankish King Clovis, who united the Franks and laid the
foundation for the French monarchy, is said to have been baptized
It also is where the kings of France were crowned, including
Charles VII in 1429, with Joan of Arc at his side.
France no longer has a king, but the grand cathedral, a Unesco
World Heritage Site, remains -- the French equivalent of England's
Many of the cathedral's original sculptures and tapestries -- as
well as coronation robes -- are displayed nearby in the Palais au
Tau, formerly the archbishop's residence.
Another essential site is the Basilica of St. Remi (also a
Unesco site), with its grand Romanesque nave and 13th century
The next morning can be devoted to touring Reim's wine cellars.
There are many to visit, but most impressive are the great chalk
Originally quarried by the Romans, the caves were turned into
cellars in the 19th century and used as shelters for Allied troops
during World War I.
Cellar tours are led by guides who explain the champagne
production process from grapes on the vine to sparkling wine,
complete with tastings and a chance to buy a bottle or a case.
Leaving Reims, drive south for 15 miles toward Epernay. Turning
left at Montchenot will lead you to arrows that mark the Route du
Champagne, which winds around the thickly forested Montagne de
Reims hill. On the hill's slopes lie a number of villages --
Rilly-la Montagne, Verzenay, Bouzy and Ay -- that have lent their
names to some of the region's most celebrated vineyards.
Epernay, too, is all about champagne -- its great houses with
miles of cellars are the main attractions.
The great houses stand side by side along the town's main
street, the Avenue de Champagne, which extends from the Place de la
Republique, Epernay's central square.
Of the houses open to the public, Moet & Chandon is the
largest, with 17 miles of cellar galleries.
Fifty miles south of Epernay is the flowering town of Troyes,
the historic capital of the Counts of Champagne, (a ruling family
of the area) with the Seine River running through it.
The town's lively cafes and restaurants occupy half-timbered
houses in the restored St.-Jean quarter.
The town's Vieux Troyes (Old Troyes) section stands out, famous
for its treasury of stained-glass windows.
The best examples are found in churches, such as the Basilica
St.-Urbain, the city's oldest; Ste.-Madeleine, and the Cathedral of
Travelers should visit the Museum of Modern Art in the
cathedral's former bishop's palace. Its interiors display a vast
collection of paintings by Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne,
Degas and Bonnard.
Troyes, for centuries a textile center, is particularly famous
for its socks.
People walk around with shopping bags full of those prized
purchases, which are immortalized in the city's Museum of
Shoppers come from all over France to visit Troyes' outlet
stores, concentrated in two large suburban malls and carrying not
only French designs but U.S. labels such as Calvin Klein and Ralph
A good reason to revisit Troyes would be to stay again at the
12-room Le Champ des Oiseaux (meaning Field of Birds), which is
tucked away in a quiet quarter containing narrow, cobbled streets
and 15th and 16th century houses.
It's a gem of a hotel, with a tradition of hospitality dating
back to the Middle Ages.
From Troyes, drive northwest back to Paris by way of Provins,
whose 12th century ramparts are largely intact. They enclose a
tranquil town of restored houses with rose-filled gardens and the
landmark Tour de Cesar dungeon.