Could the world turn without an occasional sip of real champagne? I doubt it.
Reims (or Rheims) is synonymous with champagne, or so I have always thought. It is no doubt where you should start, especially considering that below the streets deep in the chalk soil are caves connected with miles and miles of tunnels. Nestled below are bottles and bottles of champagne, lovingly cared for and meticulously counted.
Troyes likewise was a definite stop when I headed to France’s Champagne region. But on this trip to the area, I also wanted to explore some of the hidden gems, lesser-known places with age-old traditions. I wanted to find wines and villages of mythical status even if only in the minds of connoisseurs.
In other words, I wanted to be coddled much like a Count of Champagne, devoid of duties. As often happens in France, treasures are found everywhere even off the beaten path; indeed I hope to share a few.
Reims and the Secret Smile
One’s head seems held a bit higher when visiting Reims. I am not sure if it is because it is where most of France’s kings were crowned or if it is just majestic in its position as home to a lot of the best champagne houses.Tough choices had to be made, though, due to the time constraints; stops missed on past trips took precedence. I am fond of the yellow label of Veuve Clicquot found in the US, so it was my first pick to visit.
The Widow Clicquot inherited the business after the death of her husband in the late 1790s and played a huge role in the making of today’s champagne. Beneath the modern house are 11 miles of caverns carved out of chalk, some 2000 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of bottles of perfection are stored for three to nine years and ensure many toasts worldwide. Going into the caves 150 feet below is a thrill in itself.
The silence is only broken occasionally by a passing forklift. After a glass of the Grande Dame in the tasting room, I silently thanked Madame over and over. For so long I have heard the praises of Chateau Les Crayeres, so it was my choice as a place to regally dine. One of the world’s finest culinary spots seemed to fit in the capital of champagne drinking and the aperitif of Rose Ruffin was eye popping.
The Chateau is located on seven superb acres once owned by the Pommery family and oozes stylish luxury. Time is taken as course after course of dishes such as foie gras de canard and tender legs of frog pass by; I feel as a Count of Champagne if not yet a Duke of Burgundy.
My last stop in the city was to France’s Royal Cathedral, the Notre Dame de l’Epine basilica, carved as if out of delicate sponge cake. This place of majestic royal French history is inspiring as well as uplifting.
Perhaps most unusual, yet fitting perfectly, is the glass work by Marc Chagall inside. I stifle a laugh when I walk by the Smiling Angel, a statue well known for centuries on the cathedral’s exterior. The Angel seems to understand my desire for less visited places, it is understood.
Champagne’s Other Capital, Back Past the Musketeers
The half-timbered houses of the center of Troyes echo the days of a royal decree as a market town resounded in prosperity. I found the wines as different from Riems as was the mood, low key and confident, like an aged grandparent, satisfied.
As I entered the ancient but lovingly restored Maison de Rhodes, an inn of only 11 rooms, I felt blessed. It was as if I was one of the Knights of Templar who called it home 500 years ago, safe within its thick walls.
Out of my window the steeple of one of two cathedrals could be seen and the bells heard. A walk around Troyes captures the past; strangely the city is built in the shape of a modern day champagne cork due to the waters’ flow.
I finally reached a place with an amazing past; its current pulls you in, leaving the modern day behind. Countless days could be spent wandering Troyes’ time machine to the past, and that would be enough; finally a treasure that doesn’t blow a horn but just invites.
Truth be told with its array of gothic churches and time-worn narrow streets, Troyes would be one of my top ten places to go while visiting Paris; it is only a short train trip away.
Fine restaurants invite respite and chalk white or yellow champagne is replaced by a local red just as tasty. Our departure was sad but the promise of a visit to one of only two champagne houses allowed to use the term chateau softened the blow.
Read the full story on my blog GoNOMAD
All credits go to Max Hartshorne from GoNomad