Champagne: A sparkilng insight into the fizzy stuff
The French prove there’s more to Champagne and Burgundy than parties
�Within minutes of driving off the ferry ramp at Calais, we were burning rubber down France’s almost traffic-free motorways, joining the summer exodus south along the autoroute de soleil.
I’ve always found the handiest, most rewarding stop after that early start and boat crossing is the Champenois city of Rheims – around a two-hour drive from the northern ports.
Whether you go for the Franglais-esque pronunciation ‘reems’ or the more correct nasal cough-like ‘rhince,’ this is low-hanging fruit in tourist terms since the motorway passes within a mile of the stunning city centre cathedral.
It was here that, in the days before the guillotine, the kings of France were crowned – where Joan of Arc’s Dauphin indeed was historically installed as monarch. I’ve an enduring love for the building’s ancient stone flags, worn uneven by centuries of pilgrim’s feet. You pass through the imposing west front to find it as ornately carved on the reverse, before heading to the dimly-lit ambulatory, colour washed by the blue-glass refractions through Marc Chagall’s fabulous windows.
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With our boys Joe and Paddy, aged six and two, we quickly found parking and a picnic spot in a tiny play park right on the main thoroughfare where we could stretch little legs. There’s a good museum in the former Bishop’s palace attached to the Cathedral that explains the city’s prominence in medieval times. But on this day we enjoyed a stroll around the pleasant centre, and a poke around the shops offering tastings of the area’s most famous produce – that sparkling golden joy in a glass that has come to accompany life’s celebrations.
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We managed to hold off buying any since our itinerary was taking us deep into the lush and rolling Champagne countryside where we could buy direct from the producteur.
Many of the biggest names in Champagne production, from Moet et Chandon to Laurent-Perrier are clustered around the nearby town of Epernay. For a fee, some offer worthwhile tours of their impressive cellars, ending of course with a tasting.
But we were headed to the region’s less well known southern growing area where we visited one of the top Champagne houses Drappier and enjoyed a free tour and a talk about the exacting ways of making this prestige product. Once you find out that the grapes must be grown on particular, small parcels of land, are picked by hand, laboriously stored at an angle and turned every day to bring the sediment into the bottle neck, then the cost of the product starts to make sense.
We left Drappier with a case of their biscuitty vintage Champagne tucked away in the boot for special occasions to come, and drove the 20 minutes to our pirate-themed hotel for the night.
Yes, you read that right, the Hotel des Pirates adjoins the Nigloland theme park where we were due to spend the following day.
Firstly, suspend preconceptions about the seventh circle of hell that is British theme parks. You just know the French will do theirs better. And so it proved. If this hotel was in Britain it’d be like eating in a Harvester pub with a bar full of feral kids and inebriated parents sporting more tattoos than the plastic pirates.
But no, this is France and the buffet is exemplary and delicious. The children sit like rocks for hours as their parents plough through multiple courses, before dutifully filing into the auditorium for a tasteful magic show. In Nigloland itself (themed after a cartoon hedgehog since you ask) there are pleasantly shaded, wood-fenced paths, good value food outlets and hardly any queues. Joe loved the log flume and racing cars, but emerged from the indoor space-themed rollercoaster ashen-faced and shaking.
Thereafter we stuck to the many gentle rides suitable for under sevens – going on them again and again until we’d all had enough.
It’s a wonderful thing about France that you can cross country on your way from one famous foodie region to another, picking up delicious local produce in the villages and enjoying it at a picturesque picnic spot.
Some two hours of slower roads – and a stop beside an ancient village washhouse – brought us out of Champagne into the upper regions of Burgundy.
After all those cutlasses and eyepatches, the Auberge de la Beursaudiere – just off the motorway at Nitry – was a treat for the grown ups – lovely beamed rooms packed with gleaming antiques and a gastronomic restaurant staffed by smiling women wearing traditional costume.
On a balmy evening, everyone was dining on the outdoor terrasse, with an adjoining garden with playhouse, where our kids enacted their very own version of The Fugitive watched balefully by a pair of twitching French enfants who-weren’t-allowed-to-leave-their-seats-until-the -last-petit-caf�-had-been-consumed.
It was precisely half way down a bottle of Burgundy – with both kids by now in bed – that we sat back and felt our London-stress depart.
Off the beaten track, this region is hugely untouristy, not to say a little neglected. We encountered few Brits outside the lovely towns and villages like Beaune (home to the golden-roofed Hotel Dieu, a former hospice where one of the world’s most famous wine auctions is held annually) Nuits Saint Georges – where we bought Cassis and fine wine, and Meursault – where we had the nuttiest hour of our lives being entertained by one of the top local producers who was garrulously drunk on his own wine.
Elsewhere, there are miles of rolling green fields full of the prime cattle who contribute so much to the regional dish boeuf bourgignon, and dotted with half empty villages that show alarming signs of the country’s growing urbanisation.
We enjoyed the pastoral peace from the comfort of a rented gite, venturing out to the many local markets to buy fodder for the kitchen.
Bridget Galton travelled to France with P&O Ferries which has a choice of 23 return sailings a day on the 90-minute Dover - Calais crossing with standard return fares (any length of stay) from �70 return for a car and passengers. www.POferries.com / 08716 646464
The company has invested �300 million in two huge new ferries. The first, Spirit of Britain, is already in service and will be followed by its sister Spirit of France later in the year.
Further details on visiting and staying in the Champagne region from www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com
To book the Hotel Des Pirates or tickets for Nigloland go to www.nigloland.fr
Entry: 22.5 euro per adult, 20.5 euro for children under 12. Kids under one metre tall go free.
For Drappier Champagne go to www.champagne-drappier.com
The Auberge de la Beursaudiere can be booked at www.beaursaudiere.com.
Further details on travelling around the region, booking accommodation or visits from