Travelling in the Champagne district of France is a bubbly dream! Even the lowly corner restaurant has champagne by the glass and there are more varieties of my favourite bubbly on wine lists than I ever knew existed!
At first I wasn’t that keen on Reims, despite the fact we had been here once before, way back in the early 80s during our first ever trip to the continent. (Oh, we were such babes in the woods back then. We didn’t even know the white bits in our escargot were garlic. I shudder to think that back then, the only garlic we knew came in the powdered form.)
This year we were delayed by traffic, construction, multiple speed zones, and poor navigation on my part. The owner of the apartment we were renting was out of town and a friend of his was meeting us there. We were forced to phone her to tell her we were going to be late. It turned out she had almost as little English as we had French. Over the phone we can’t use hand gestures, point to the map and say, “Nous somme ici.” Then when we finally made it into Reims we were further delayed by hit-and-miss signage, more construction, and a series of unbelievable one way streets. In fact, at the end of one street there were three possible exits. Two said, “Do not enter” and the other was closed off for construction. I kid you not! We had to call the lady again (while driving) and say, “Nous perdon!” (Which means… I think… we are lost.) She let loose a string of French of which I only managed to get: “Ou?” Jeese! If I knew where I was, I wouldn’t be lost, would I? All I could say was, “Je ne sais pas.” (I don’t know.) Repeatedly. Finally Jim grabbed the phone from me while at a red light and yelled, “Dix minutes.” (Ten minutes.) Finally, by the grace of Jim’s good driving skills, while I was still trying to figure out where we were, he called, “This is our street, but it’s one way… the wrong way. Get out and find our lady,” Still dazed, I leap out in mid-street and Jim yells, “Number 6!” as a parting shot through the car window as he drives away to the tune of honking horns.
It all, eventually, worked out. But this rather hectic arrival haunted my stay in Reims. I found the streets and buildings a little, dare I say, bleak? Until we went into the cathedral. Oh! My!
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims was (and still is) one of my favourite examples of Gothic architecture. The lofty ceilings and the columns around the knave just seem to lift the eye heavenward and leaves your mind open for calm. Then the magical light beams through the impossibly tall stained glass windows, reflect off the white stone and fill the whole structure with soft colour. Somehow, once I had been through the cathedral, the rest of Reims seemed to soften in my mind as well.
And then we went for a champagne wine tour of Lanson Cellars. Now there is a good way to brighten one’s attitude! The cellars are long and mysterious, covered with mould and dim light. So strange to think that magic happens here! This is where grapes are transformed into wine and then into champagne. I loved the tour almost as much as the tasting! (Almost.)
The next day we went off in search of vineyards and thus to Epernay. Where Reims is the business centre of Champagne, one might say Epernay is the fun centre, if the number of happy tourists is any indication. There are degustations everywhere that specialize in champagne tastings and there’s lots of parking so you can get out of your car and explore the bright streets with ease.
Driving back to Reims along winding country lanes was a real treat. We hardly even got mixed up at all! There is something very soothing about vineyard country. The lines of green vines are like corduroy for the eyes and the parallel curves wind up, down, and around the gentle hills and vales with picturesque villages nestled in the surrounding green. With the sun shining and the harvest soon to start, there is an air of anticipation. The annual magic of producing champagne is about to leave the hands of Mother Nature and the vintners will take over. Mother Nature has been kind to the vines this year. It should be a good vintage!