Reims was too busy, too full, so rather than stop at what would have been my university town (had I not dropped out), we wandered on to the true capital of champagne, Épernay.
Vines dominate the hillsides, but I understand that the big champagne houses are buying up tracts of south east Britain for planned expansions.
Opposite yet another swimming pool (our third now), there’s good parking for 16 vans. Elsewhere in town there’s a motorhome service point (fresh water and a drain for the loo). Even without its famous product this place is attractive already.
Saturday was bloody cold, but fortunately we ducked into Le Khedive just before the freezing rain started to soak those left on the street.
It has been a long time since we spent the whole afternoon in a bar, so we made the most of the opportunity. Champagne, great food, un pichet de rosé, a plate of cheeses, un pichet de rouge, coffee, calvados. Oh yea!
Little did we realise at the time that friends of friends were dining behind us. It wasn’t until one of the girls shared a photo with her aunt that Annette asked “How come Amanda is in the photo?”
Fortified, and with the sun now shining, we strolled L’Avenue de Champagne, contemplated the prices of the Moët tour (€25 each) and decided to enjoy the product rather than the knowledge. Across the road from Moët in the elegant gardens of the Michel Gonet House our waitress poured a brut and a rosé into beautiful glasses. We felt with lucky to be there.
Épernay is clearly a wealthy town, but while there are displays of affluence (mostly carefree quaffing of their delightful drink) it doesn’t feel overly flash. Even the tatterdemalion KC gets served wherever we go, though I can see the staff hovering between expelling me for a tramp, and welcoming me as someone with deceptively deep pockets. If they knew I lived in a van they’d probably err towards the former.
Camping on fizzy ground.
Less than 20kms down the road we swung into the garden of the Leclere Massard champagne producers in the little village of Chevigny. Here for just €19 we had parking with electricity (should we need it) and a bottle of demi-sec. How good is that?
Lac du Der
We’re determined to drive less on this trip. To explore areas in more detail, rather than explore more areas.
On Monday we cruised gently across 40kms or so of flat countryside made interesting by the wide colourful crop strips.
A hundred metres of oil seed rape might be followed by a simple strip of thrusting dark green cereal which in turn is followed by a freshly planted strip.
There are no hedges, but fortunately green corridors are created by the large area at each end of a field that isn’t reached by the massive tractors. Likewise there are deep areas of woodland that all but join up.
The rewards are plentiful for this generous giving of space. There are far more birds and bugs here than we enjoy at home. Evening time and dawn are close to being noisy as the wildlife sets up its chorus.
Our 40kms took us to Sainte Marie on the edge Lac du Der, a reservoir created in 1974 to become help alleviate flooding of the Seine in Paris. It’s Western Europe’s biggest man made lake and it’s rather special.
There’s deep water, there’re huge fish – we’ve seen a few jumping, there are islands, peninsulas, and beaches. No doubt people and creatures were displaced to create it – but now it’s established as a great wildlife reserve.
As I type there’s a falcon hovering, seemingly still, only 20m away. Run mousy or you’ll be dinner!
We walked a big stretch, we cycled a bigger stretch, but more than that, we kicked back and enjoyed a couple of calm nights, and an extremely relaxed, delightfully warm day.
Amanda just asked, as one of us often does “Is this real?”
Three points on this delicate subject…
Dogs. I can’t imagine there’s a dog owner out there who can say, hand on heart, that they have cleaned up after their pooch every single time. That said, I do believe that in most parts of Britain there’s less poo on the streets than in the past. In France there’s far too much pavement plop, despite availability of bags in most towns. They just don’t seem to care.
Council. France is much better than Britain for availability of public loos, albeit most of them are squat loos, holes in the ground. Britain, largely dependant on tourism, shot itself in the foot when it closed so many of its toilets.
People. What I’d like to know is – how does an elderly person manage with a squat loo? There’s nothing to hold on to. How on earth do they get back up?
Where is everyone?
The great towns we’ve visited were all busy. Lille, Douai, Arras, Epernay and Soissons all had a healthy throng of people keeping the French retail scene vibrant, and the restaurants open.
Leave the urban scene though and there’s no one. Yesterday we drove a hundred miles or so through small towns and villages and hardly saw a soul. It’s almost as empty as winter Greece.
It’s a little odd, but it does make for an easy drive.
The Royal ArchieVan!
Wow! Who would have thought that our humble blog would have such an influence on the young royals. We’re delighted that they chose to honour us by naming their little man after ArchieVan. Thank you both.
For a few days the landscape has been flat. Boredom has been relieved by fancy field patterns, and the sheer fact that we’re in France. But we admit that our chosen road was not the most exciting in the rain.
That changed as we moved into the foothills of the Vosges.
Alsace is new to us both, and today, Friday, has been a beauty.
Big hills, narrow roads, long descents, and such greenery.
Ribeauville, suggested by my sister, came as a complete surprise.
After so many less than exciting French villages suddenly our world took on a more Germanic appearance, with big hills, colourful buildings, and miles of vineyards.
Pulling up on the outskirts of Ribeauville it seemed pretty normal. But a short walk down the hill into the town unveiled a picture postcard medieval village crammed with great food shops and wineries.
It’s surprising to hear the Germans addressing the French in English when Germany is only a few miles away. I guess when I have no hope in a language I revert to anything foreign that I know. I’m likely to use French words with a Slovakian even though she’s more likely to know English.
Only a couple of kms down the road we stopped at Riquewihr, and pulled into the parking area at the back of the Jean Paul Hueber winery in the middle of their vineyard. There’s parking here for a couple of vans, water and a decent toilet – you don’t need much more than that.
You might not need it, but it’s good to also have great wines, beautiful views and a fabulous little village just up the road.
This place has it all.
We did a serious tasting (including a couple of fire water eau de vie) before buying a mixed case of the vineyard’s best, then wandering up to the town.
It was astounding.
In the middle of countryside characterised by little other than vines there’s a beautiful village, scores of producers of great wines, excellent bars and restaurants, and magnificent food.
As we enjoyed an excellent creament in a cellar bar a Czech fellow turned up on his annual quest for the best white wines to take back to Prague. Tonight he was celebrating the birth of his first grandchild and in high spirits telling anyone who’d listen.
Minty and I joined in the fun and had wonderful tarte flambés (think pizza, but ultra thin, and no tomato), more great wines and more eau de vie. We often think how lucky we are – today was particularly good.
Strolling down the street a baker offered a sample of her delicious coconut macaroons. She had me immediately. Just the smell was enough, but combine that with the unexpected coconut and pineapple flavour and I was away. We bought the bag.
From Epernay and its Champagne to Alsace and the best Rieslings, Pinot Gris and unpronounceable gewürztraminerr it has been a special week. Quiet (and wet) in the middle, but topped and tailed by our celebration of France’s finest gifts to the world – excellent food and excellent wine. We’ve had to rethink our schedule again, but we won’t be disappointed to be spending a few extra days in Alsace.