The land of French Champagne
It didn’t take us long this morning to reach France, such was Tournai’s proximity to the French/Belgian border. We had a bit of a run-a-round this morning chasing gas for our motorhome. The gas we are carrying can only be purchased through a “Swap and Go” process, which is generally easy enough. However, each different chain of service station that we came across had its own version of gas and wouldn’t swap ours over.
We hunted high and low for quite some time, until finally just outside Reims, we found ourselves in luck. These gas cylinders also can’t be swapped outside of France so we did well to live off two tanks of gas since we last bought one in the French Riviera, many, many weeks ago.
Soon, the rolling green hills of the Champagne region of France greeted us once more. I remember reading a quote some time ago, probably in a birthday card, that said ” A friend shows you the road before you and knows the path you’ve taken”. I think it could easily have been referring to this very place. It had been a few years since we had driven these roads, but this wonderful region hadn’t changed one bit, and the roads behind, and in front, were familiar.
Arriving in Epernay
Epernay is an incredible city when you take the time to understand its history. As the self-named capital of the region, it has a special place in amongst the green, leafy vines that are known to produce the best champagne in the world. And of course, it is only here, in Epernay, and the broader Champagne region, that you are allowed to refer to the bubbly stuff as Champagne.
Anywhere else in France, and the world, it is meant to be referred to as sparkling wine. Some countries have their own names to reflect their own blends of bubbles, like Cava in Spain and Prosecco in Italy. However, it is only sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne AOC that can legitimately be called by the name of Champagne.
Epernay dates back to around the 5th century when the land was owned by the church but ownership changed many times over the years. Having to endure more than most towns ever would, Epernay, has been completely destroyed around 20 times in its history.
Impact of the Wars
Perhaps the most significant was the destruction caused during the two World Wars. With the Champagne region’s close proximity to the Western Front in particular, the area was subjected to enormous battle.
Ultimately, by the time the war had ended, the impact on this area was enormous. Vineyard growers had been forced off their land. The vineyards were completely decimated and desolate. The leftovers of a vicious and protracted war littering the hills and the fields. Half the population had been lost, and buildings and houses everywhere had been destroyed. World War II brought the troops back here again.
It was during World War II that the Germans plundered the Champagne cellars. Epernay is home to some of the most prolific, global brands in the world, such as Moet and Chandon, Pol Roger, Tattinger, Mercier, Laurent-Perrier, Bollinger and Dom Perignon.
Over 2 million of the bottles of some of these Champagne Houses (plus others) were stolen. Not content with just stealing the bottles, they put guards at the vineyards to protect “their supply” and were also responsible for burning down many of the buildings in the town as well.
Epernay rebuilds itself
Even though many of the buildings in Epernay look quite old, modern history has seen to it that much of the real age, the buildings from the earlier centuries are no longer. Instead, many of the buildings here are from the late 19th century, making them quite new in European terms.
Considering the impact of the World Wars, the Russian Revolution and US Prohibition (which ceased importing champagne) and the Great Depression, the growers of Champagne have always risen to the challenge. French champagne is known throughout the entire world as a premium beverage and I would suggest that it is a testament to the strength and perseverance of the growers and the region that they now produce in excess of 300 million bottles a year.
Take a walk on the Avenue
Threading its way through the town is the famous and extremely prestigious Avenue de Champagne. This is the street where you can walk up and down, stopping to admire some of the most magnificent buildings in all of Epernay. These are the Champagne Houses of the famous labels. Passing one after another, if you know your Champagne, you will be in heaven.
Whilst your wallet may stay in your pocket as you admire your surroundings on the Avenue, if your feet have the need to wander inside the houses, then prepare to have your credit card handy. Remembering again, that these are the premium labels and with that reputation comes an associated price tag. Bottom prices start at €20-30 but it goes up quickly from there. Of course, if vintage is your thing, maybe you might need two credit cards 🙂
Epernay: a tale of two cities.
Above ground, it looks like any other town. Underground however is another story. Covering 110km, underground tunnels and caves dug out of chalk are part of everyday life for the Champagne Houses. At about 30m under the Avenue de Champagne, staff can be seen driving little buggies, checking on wine, riddling (turning) the bottles and taking visitors on tours.
Within these caves are around 200 million bottles of Champagne. Some very quick maths tell you that here-in lies a gigantic fortune!
The idea of learning more about a French Champagne House and being able to get down into the cellars was too much of a temptation. So we bit the bullet and made a reservation to join a tour.
You will be able to see more of these amazing caves and hear about our experience when I write about our tour of the Moet and Chandon caves.
I will admit to having a fascination for European Town Halls. Regardless of the size of a town or city, the Town Hall, Hotel de Ville, or the Mairie as they can be called are usually spectacular.
In Epernay, the building is definitely that. A former mansion, built in the mid 1800’s for a Champagne trader, it was sold to the town of Epernay after World War I.
But, there are so many other wonderful buildings along here. Here are a few examples.
Epernay is a town that can be easily walked and there’s plenty to see (and drink). It’s also a great city for making your base to visit other towns and growers along the Champagne Route. Whilst visiting the major producers can be fun, we really loved getting out into the hills and supporting the smaller producers. The Champagne is of course cheaper, but it’s the stories from the owners that make it so worthwhile.
Coming up soon is my story on our special Champagne House that we found on the outskirts of Epernay.
For now, we’ve worn the soles off our shoes I think walking all over this pretty town. It’s time to head back to our motorhome for the night, and pop the cork off a bottle of local bubbly.
Review of Aire de Service
Rue Dom Perignon
N 49.03615, E 3.95138
N 49°02’10”, E 3°57’05”
- Located within walking distance to centre of Epernay.
- General carpark area with space for two motorhomes around the services. We parked a little further away from the services area and just ran a lead as there were already two motorhomes parked up.
- Adjacent to a petanque ground and church.
- This aire is a little painful as you need to buy tokens from the Tourism Office which is located in town. The instructions at the site indicate that you can also buy from the nearby Palais des Festivals but I have a strong feeling this is only in peak season. When we visited them, everything was shut.
- Tokens can be purchased for €2 for 100 litres of water or one hour of electricity.
- Services can be discharged here.
- This location is great for its proximity to the town, is low cost and quiet at night.
- The drawback is that it is very basic and does not have a great outlook, although it’s fun to watch the men play petanque.
Do you like french champagne as much as I do? What is your favourite?
Or, if you are interested in reading more about Epernay why not check out these posts too. It looks like everyone loves Champagne !
Visiting Champagne on a beer budget