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Last updated : Nov 2009
Champagne & Ardennes
Champagne & Ardennes - TravelPuppy.com
The chalky rolling fields of Champagne might have remained unsung and unvisited, had it not been for an accident of history. Towards the end of the 17th century, a blind monk, tending the bottles of mediocre wine in the cellars of his abbey at Hautviliers, discovered that cork made a fine stopper for ageing his wine. After the first fermentation, cork kept air, the enemy of ageing wine, from his brew. But it also trapped the carbon dioxide in the bottle and when he pulled the cork it ‘popped’. At that moment, some say, the world changed for the better. ‘I am drinking the stars,’ he is said to have murmured as he took the first sip of champagne the world had ever known.

This northeastern slice of France is composed of the départements of Ardennes, Marne, Aube and Haute Marne. On these rolling plains many of the great battles of European history have been fought, including many in World Wars I and II.

The Ardennes was once known as the ‘woody country’ where Charlemagne hunted deer, wild boar, small birds and game in the now vanished forests. The area has 3 main waterways, the Seine, the Aube and the Marne.

The Marne Valley between Ferté-sous-Jouarre and Epernay is one of the prettiest in France. Forests of beech, birch, oak and elm cover the high ground, vines and fruit trees sprawl across the slopes, and corn and sunflowers wave in the little protected valleys. The valleys form a long, fresh and green oasis, dotted with red-roofed villages. In 496, Clovis, the first king of France, was baptised in the cathedral in Rheims. From Louis VII to Charles X, the kings of France made it a point of honour to be crowned in the city where the history of the country really began. Rheims and its cathedral have been destroyed, razed, and rebuilt many times over during the centuries. The Church of St-Rémi, even older than the cathedral, is half Romanesque, half Gothic in style. One of the most remarkable feature is its great size, comparable to that of Notre-Dame-de-Paris. Beneath the town and its suburbs, there are endless caves for the campagne. Epernay is the real capital of champagne, the drink. Here, 115km (72 miles) of underground galleries in the chalk beneath the city store the wine for the delicate operations required to make champagne. These include the blending of vintages, one of the most important tasks in the creation of champagne. It is left to age for at least 3 years. Aside from champagne as the world knows it, there is an excellent blanc de blanc champagne nature, an unbubbly white wine with a slight bite and many of the characteristics of champagne.

The perfect Gothic style of the Cathedral of St-Étienne in Châlons-sur-Marne has preserved the pure lines of its 12th-century tower. Nearby, the little town of St-Ménéhould, almost destroyed in 1940, has contributed to the gastronomic world recipes for pigs’ feet and carp, but historically it is known for the fact that the postmaster, in 1791, recognised Louis XVI fleeing from Paris with his family and reported him. Before the annexation of Franche-Comté and Lorraine, Langres was a fortified town. Its Gallo-Roman monuments, its 15th- and 17th-century mansions and its religious architecture make it well worth a visit. Troyes, ancient capital of the Champagne area, has a beautifully preserved city centre with a Gothic cathedral, dozens of churches and 15th-century houses and a system of boulevards shaped like a champagne cork. The city also boasts the Musée d’Art Moderne in the old Bishops’ Palace, a private collection of modern art, including works by Bonnard, Degas and Gauguin. Troyes is becoming increasingly popular as a base for exploring Aube en Champagne, an area that is less saturated with tourists than the more popular champagne areas around Rheims and Epernay. There are many beautiful lakes in the Champagne-Ardenne region, the largest being Lac du Der-Chantecoq. The Fôret d’Orient has a famous bird sanctuary. There is no school of cooking founded on the use of champagne, but locally there are a few interesting dishes that include the wine. Châlons-sur-Marne has a dish that involves cooking chicken in champagne. It goes well in a sauce for the local trout, kidneys and pike which have also been fried in champagne.