There is a difference between simply drinking a glass of champagne at home and drinking a glass after having toured the champagne house from which it comes from. Not to say that it tastes bad, just that it seems to taste better – or so is my belief after having toured the Champagne region of France this past summer.
Of course, I say all of this jokingly but also in part to express my deeper appreciation for this delightful bubbly since my trip.
The region of Champagne, which was established long before the bubbly was even produced, is located in the Northeast of France a little over a 2-hour drive from Paris.
Sparkling wine is not exclusive to Champagne, as noted during my time touring the Loire Valley, but the quality and flavors of the same made it a celebrated commodity helping to put the Champagne-Ardenne region on the map. There are many other sparkling wines but none produced outside of the region can call itself Champagne, and thus it requires a visit to the area to truly immerse yourself in the history of it all.
Stay, See, & Do
I started my adventure in the former capital of Reims, also called the City of Kings, for being the destination where all coronations of French kings took place. It is the most populated city in this mostly agricultural region, and its proximity to Paris (I traveled by train to get there) also makes it an easy place to visit. Whether you are traveling with your family, friends, or partner, if you want to discover all the champagne region has to offer, Reims is a good place to start.
It’s difficult to really describe the vibe of Reims since my arrival coincided with the World Cup. Everywhere I went, especially when the French were playing, there were crowds on the streets surrounding the open cafes with large television screens tuned in to the games. To a certain extent, particularly at night, the scene in central Reims was loud well into the night, but I suspect that it was all part of the overall excitement and energy throughout the country, if not the world around the games.
I stayed at the Grand Hotel Continental, located right in the center of it all and a short walking distance from the train station. From here I could easily walk to all the cafes, restaurants, museums, shops, and historic sites. The hotel was once a mansion built in 1862 and though it looks large on the outside, the rooms were cozy and intimate. They have a wonderful restaurant there as well where I often enjoyed a light French breakfast.
Room with a view
I had a lot of great food in Reims. My most memorable was at Cote Cuisine, about a block from the hotel, where I indulged in a serving of asparagus and wild mushroom risotto with a glass of champagne, of course.
Though there are a lot of visitors in Reims I enjoyed that, unlike larger cities such a Paris, the French experience isn’t watered down, nor played up, for tourists. I really enjoy the authentic cultural experience that I had dinning at Cafe du Palais, established in 1930 in Reims. It was one of the first times that I tasted the red wine from Champagne – as until then it didn’t even occur to me that they produced many wines in the region. When here, try the goat cheese and beef salad. The flavors are far more interesting and delicious than it sounds.
Stop in to walk through the Cryptoporticus, an underground grain storage area believed to be built in 3rd century AD, during the Roman-Gallo empire. It was covered up when an above ground market was built around 1840. It was only discovered in 1920 efforts to rebuild the market exposed the row of pillars that have supported the underground structure all these centuries. It is only opened during the summer months.
Of course, you can’t leave Reims without visiting the Notre-Dame Cathedral. It is not only a display of 13th century gothic art, but also the place where many French kings were coroneted. A guided tour up the church towers (yes, climbing stairs is required) is a highlight for any visitor as it not only takes you to the top of the cathedral, but also shows you the inner structure of the same. It is was one of the coolest activities of my visit there. The Cathedral itself has such a rich history, the marks of which can be seen throughout. I would say give yourself a good day to take it all in. It truly is beautiful.
Another fun tour is that of the Carnegie Library, built after World War I from donations made by Andrew Carnegie. The art deco decor is symbolic of many Carnegie-funded buildings I am familiar with (think Carnegie Hall in New York City). It now serves as a heritage conservation and reading library for the large university population in the city.
A dining experience that brings you a bit closer to a countryside feel was at Restaurant Le Vieux Puits, in Ay-Marne, about a half an hour drive from Reims city center. This restaurant serves locally sourced, seasonal products which you can enjoy inside or, on warmer weather, while overlooking the colorful garden outside. This is also home to a romantic, very French, B&B lodging experience.
The mountain is also 950 feet high and is a popular place for hiking and enjoying the outdoors while visiting Reims. It is about a 30-minute drive from the city center. This is home to the largest concentration of Fau of Verzy beech trees in the world and is also a popular site for those taking the Champagne vineyard tours, as the tour takes many visitors right through the park which has many champagne grape vines.
This is also where city dwellers and visitors alike come to enjoy the unique “tree bar” experience offered by the Perching Bar, an eco-friendly treehouse bar in the heart of the park, serving up some of the most celebrated champagne of the region as well as stunning views of the area.
I didn’t get to visit the champagne house of Dom Perignon, the inventor of champagne, but it was enough for me to sit at the hill tops overlooking the massive lands that make up their vineyard territory. A visit to Hautvillers will surround you with Dom Perignon history, and the village church where he has been laid to rest is open to visitors.
The Champagne Houses
There are over 100 Champagne houses and over 19,000 small vine-growing producers in the region. During my time there, I only visited two champagne houses and many more vineyards. But with more time and with the help of the tourism office of Reims, you can easily tour many more than that.
Taittinger was founded in 1734 by Jacques Forneaux and has grown into a brand known throughout the world, with wineries in the Loire Valley and California, as well as in Reims. Their wineries are located in the center of Reims and those wishing to learn more about the family and the business can schedule tours of both the winery and the Chateau La Marquetterie. After touring the expansive cellars, guests can shop to their hearts content for bottles often only exclusive to the French market, as well as their favorites. I complemented the experience there with a tasting, as well as with the purchasing of a bottle of their Prestige Rose Champagne.
Ville Demoiselle Vranken is a museum owned by the Paul Francois Vraken, President of Vranken champagne. Tour this historic art deco villa, beautifully restored over the past 5 years, and finish your visit while sipping on some of the best Vranken Champagne selections while taking in the views of the villa’s garden.
Many people who visit Reims do so as a day trip from Paris. I would highly recommend giving this area more than a day or two because of all there is to do and see. During my short time there, I drank and tasted more champagne than I ever had in my life, but it was worth it as the flavors and varieties vary so much and the history of each producer is so diverse and fascinating. The architecture of Reims is worthy of many more photos than I took and their collection of museums along could take you more than a day to see.
For more information please visit the Reims Tourism site.
Disclosure: This experience was in partnership with Atout France and their partners. All opinions are my own.