Champagne's birthplace bubbles over with history

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 U.S. travelers.

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.

The 13th century Notre-Dame cathedral in Reims, where the kings of France were crowned. 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 in 496.

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 Westminster Abbey.

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 stained-glass windows.

The next morning can be devoted to touring Reim's wine cellars. There are many to visit, but most impressive are the great chalk caves.

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.

The town square of Epernay. Some cities have great subways beneath them -- this one has great wine cellars. 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 St.-Peter-et-St.-Paul.

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 Hosiery.

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 Lauren.

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.

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