Beauty, bites, bubbles: a day in Champagne
Donna Demaio explores the French region of Champagne and discovers just how much you can fit into a day in this stunning part of the country.
Once you’ve experienced Paris, at least a day in the Champagne region is a must. It’s less than an hour by train, or a smidge longer by road, from the French capital — and absolutely worth the effort. There are grand Champagne houses, tucked-away bars, passionate grape-growers, exquisite eateries and, unsurprisingly, breath-taking views.
Here’s how to experience Champagne, even on a tight schedule.
VISIT A CHAMPAGNE MAKER
When visiting Champagne, drop in to Jacquinot & Fils in Epernay and you may chance upon this comparatively small Champagne house on the day it is bottling its bubbles. Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, who has enthusiastically continued the wine-making tradition his grandfather began in 1947, often welcomes visitors. The estate grows three types of grapes including Chardonnay, with Jean-Manuel, propped at the bar, keen to share his passion and expertise in a quaint, teeny cellar on the property. If you ask kindly, there’s also the opportunity to wander through the slippery, maze-like underground chalk cellars where the wines are stored. Prepare for muddy shoes on exit.
STAY AT A BOUTIQUE HOTEL
If time permits, stay overnight. The Hotel Jean Mot is a short walk from the Epernay railway station and next door to a fine bar (see below). The recently-renovated four-star accommodation has introduced eclectic dcor with a modern flair. There’s an expansive foyer in which to enjoy a generous breakfast, with bountiful natural light streaming in as you munch on your third croissant. There are large, comfortable beds in each of the 12 inviting rooms, with the most spacious showers you may ever encounter.
HANG OUT AT A COOL BAR
Step next door from Hotel Jean Mot to find the intriguing C-Comme Bar with a menu peppered with tasty bites including an outstanding charcuterie platter to match a superb selection of local wines and champagnes. With a relaxed, lounge vibe and comfy furnishings, it’s hard to leave once ensconced.
Meanwhile, locating The Perching Bar at Verzy involves trekking through the forest, trudging along an unmade path and gingerly crossing a mini-swing bridge. Your reward includes bright white and yellow leather swing chairs (and snazzy sparkling wine-coolers) hanging from the rafters inside the tiny, sustainable tree-house bar built for those who can admire nature while appreciating a local vintage.
WITNESS THE FINAL RESTING PLACE OF DOM PERIGNON
At the foot of the altar at the beautiful Abbey Church of Hautvillers, there’s the tombstone of the great Dom Perignon — the Benedictine monk who according to legend, created sparkling wine in the 1600s. He was cellar master at the Abbey for decades, overseeing the production of wine, and forging a reputation for perfecting fine, local drops. He’s credited with first using cork and thick glass bottles which led to the first sparkling wines. When meandering through the cobblestone streets of this charming town, look out for Rue Dom Perignon — replete with a bold street sign depicting the Dom himself holding a glass of sparkling. A tapas-style lunch at Champagne bar Au 36 in the heart of the village features culinary specialties, a sun-drenched terrace and delectable, giant macarons.
TOUR THE CELLARS OF AN ICONIC CHAMPAGNE HOUSE
The entrance to the Maison Mumm Cellars in Reims is gorgeous: a huge, modern foyer with high ceilings and quirky, vibrant Mumm-red sofas. And the cellars themselves are entrancing. This is where “Victory” champagnes that are used at major events around the world, including the Formula One Grand Prix, are stored. The cellars are dark and dank yet the stories that accompany meanderings through these tunnels are fascinating. Unsurprisingly, there is a bar at the end of the visit, where you can choose to invest in a fine wine, or simply “taste” the afternoon away.
SEE THE SIGHTS
The city of Reims is positively bursting with history and great places to shop. The Gothic-style Reims Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, is where the coronations of 25 French kings took place. Les Halles du Boulingrin is a gorgeous, restored Art Deco structure in the heart of Reims that regularly hosts fresh fruit, flower and vegetable growers right through to flea markets overflowing with knick-knacks, jewellery, ornaments, crockery and the like. There are fashionable boutiques galore intermingled with luxury brands in the city centre. There’s also outlet-style shopping at the oddly named store Mistigriff where it can be worth hunting through the racks for discounted designer wear.
Ay is one of only 17 villages in the Champagne region with Grand Cru status — afforded as recognition for making the highest quality wines. Accordingly, you will find excellent eateries in Ay, including Rotisserie Henry IV with a menu of local delicacies including foie-gras with mash and rotisserie chicken — a dish the eatery is renowned for and often sells out of.
A nifty, two-person vehicle known affectionately as the “twizzy” is an adventurous way to explore the enchanting hillsides of the region. The vehicle, also known as a “Tuk-Tuk” and collected at the Epernay Tourism office, zips along L’Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, heading to the perfect picnic spot to unfurl a blanket, unwrap a filled baguette and enjoy the calm.