Alighting to a crisp autumn vista of neat vineyards and floral tones was precisely what my wander-lusting heart had imagined for Champagne-Ardenne.
On first impressions, the French province so well known for its exclusive and decadent sparkling whites, is a countryside dream of lavender, daisies and carefully tended cottages all in a row.
With the train line and gentle hills behind me, I strolled into the hushed village of Avenay-Val-d’Or, delighted by the picturesque prettiness . I knew nothing of the village, having chosen to wander aimlessly through the French countryside while the fine weather held. The unexpected exploration proved a treat, as hours filled with photos and parks and fruit-laden vines idled past.
Avenay-Val-d’Or is an easy 7km from Epernay, and is graced with provincial charm, offering a few walking trails (mapped on a sign near the village fountain), a patisserie and some Champagne vineyards where the cogs of the polished Champagne industry are apparent.
Further along the rail line I encountered Reims, the capital of Champagne-Ardenne. My brief visit revealed Reims to be a pretty city; a university city; and a city that offers an interesting clash of old and new.
It has some impressive monuments, most notably the 13th Century Gothic Notre Dame de Reims, with its vibrant stained glass, as well as the grand theatre in the heart of the city. In contrast, the commercial centre is an open-air mall of fast food restaurants, tourist-targeted shops, and on the day of my visit, hundreds of students in green war paint performing some kind of initiation. Of course, there are also boutiques and patisseries and all those other delightfully French things that we would expect to see in a city the size of Reims.
Woven into the grid of smaller city streets are finer dining restaurants, known for pairing the wines of the region with traditional and modern French cuisine.
After a late lunch in Reims, the train journey through vineyards lulled me back into Epernay.
I found Epernay to be a strange little town; it was sleepy in the grey weather, with a compact shopping centre, and residential buildings that scattered into the surrounding vineyards. Although the dining and accommodation options weren’t has diverse as I had imagined for the home of Champagne, there is no denying that the famous Avenue de Champagne is what makes this French town unmissable.
Along the Avenue are prestigious Champagne houses, such as Moet and Chandon,with its subterranean cellars spanning almost 30 kilometres, Pol Rodger, Alfred Gratien, Mercier and many more. Even without the light bubbly delights of Champagne served in tastings and tours along the way, this route is worth a walk. Impressive structures dating back to the 1700 and 1800s are something to behold as they battle for attention, using glamour, decadence and clout to win over awed pedestrians.
Beyond the joys of bubbles, Epernay boasts the trimmings of a town that has succeeded in the world market. Elaborate gardens, gilded and laced gates and expensive cars make Epernay a lovely place to escape for a couple of days of luxury.
Practical Bits & Bob:
Getting to Epernay only takes one hour on a comfy, fast SNCF train from Paris Gare de L’est (east station). Check the regular timetable and buy tickets from the SNCF ticketing machines in the station.
Trains run between Epernay and the Champagne capital, Reims. The little town of Avernay is along the rail line. If there is no ticket machine or conductor at a smaller station, simply board the next train and flag the conductor who walks the carriages selling tickets with a portable ticking machine. Although you see bus stops in Epernay, there are apparently no inter-town buses. Hiring a car or joining a tour seem to be the most common and easiest ways to see the region.
The map near the fountain in the centre of Avenay-Val-d’Or vaguely indicates a couple of short walking routes (5km and 3km) but we just wandered the small town, picking a direction and walking in admiration of the iron gates, blossoming gardens and piles of crunchy autumn leaves underfoot. For more info about the town, try looking here and here for starters.
Reims is best reached by train from Paris or Epernay. There is a tourist information centre to the right as you exit the train station, as well as near the cathedral in the city centre. Many tourists use it as a base from which to explore the region as it has frequent connections to Paris, more accommodation options than surrounding towns and many tour operators offer tastings across the region. If you are a Veuve Clicquot fan, the visitor’s centre is located in Reims, unlike many of the other big Champagne houses that are in Epernay.
The Epernay tourism information centre is at the start of Avenue de Champagne. The centre has lot of pamphlets about dining, wine tours and regional tours. It is best to book in advance for full day excursions. You can also hire bicycles and get information about cycling and walking routes from the information centre. You can also scout for local information online.
The Champagne Houses along Avenue de Champagne generally offer tastings. Some houses offer a set menu for tastings as well as a tour, which often includes tastings. The smaller champagne houses seem a bit more casual. We enjoyed a €5 per head standard tasting (three champagnes) at Champagne A. Bergère, as well as a tasting at Champagne Michel Gonet towards the end of the avenue. Bubbly deliciousness! Find out more about tours and tastings at each house by visiting their website or checking with the tourist information centre in Epernay. Some tours are by appointment only and some during set hours or days only.