I don’t do many road trips. Full disclosure – I really hate driving. Back in the US, I never go over the speed limit, never turn right on a red light, and barely ever venture into the passing lane on the freeway. I even went through a year-long period of driving anxiety where I’d avoid driving whenever possible, and often chose back-roads over the highway on the drive to and from work. That all being said, I’ve found driving in Europe, especially Belgium, to be a lot easier than California. I still mostly drive only for work, and with the exception of a five hour work drive to Germany a couple years back, I haven’t driven over 90 minutes straight my entire time over here. That all changed the first weekend of May, when I decided to drive to the champagne region of France. I’ve wanted to make this trip ever since I’ve been out here, but I’ve always put it off since I knew driving was the only option, as the train connections to this region are poor. I finally decided to jump in head first and make the trip, and it definitely helped to have some Estonian company with me!
The drive was remarkably pain-free…really only two roads the entire time…and there was a cheap parking garage adjacent to the hotel. Walking around this city, it was clear Reims was more than just champagne. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is a beautifully imposing structure, though the outside is much more picturesque than the inside. I did like the stained glass window patterns near the back of the church, but the seating area and altar were somewhat ordinary in comparison to other European churches.
This cathedral is where many of the French kings were crowned throughout history, and in fact Joan of Arc was present for the coronation of Charles VII in the 15th century. I guess she was a fan of King Charles, as at the coronation she knelt down, hugged his legs, teared up, and said “Noble King, now is accomplished the pleasure of God, who willed that I should raise the siege of Orleans and should bring you to this city of Reims to receive your holy coronation, thus showing that you are the true King, him to whom the throne of France must belong.” There’s a very nice statue of Joan mounted on a horse and wielding a sword right outside the cathedral…I always love a strong woman!
On the walk around the cathedral we ran into a library funded by Pittsburgh’s own Andrew Carnegie…it was nice to get a taste of home from across the Atlantic.
I already said I don’t often drive long distances…the other thing I don’t do is dine at expensive restaurants. However, I saw an opportunity for a unique experience and I booked reservations at a Michelin 3-star restaurant in Reims. However shell-shocked I was at the prices was quickly replaced by shock of how good the food was. It started off with a fine bottle of white from Languedoc…a wonderful asparagus dish, then an amazing mushroom risotto, followed by breaded artichokes in an incredible sauce…pre-dessert of local french cheeses, then a chocolate-pistachio cake for dessert. They also brought out handmade chocolates and lollipops after dinner as well. This must be a place for people living the high life…I even met a Canadian gentleman who was friends with Wayne Gretzky. I think the experience was worth the price, and I must thank my brother for the tie he got me for his wedding the previous weekend…it really looked sharp with my black shirt!
Saturday began the champagne part of the trip, with the Veuve Clicquot house being the first stop. I remember having this before at weddings, as it’s the second ranked champagne in the world. The tone of the tour, mostly due to the deadpan demeanor of the tour guide, was very business-like…they clearly take their champagne seriously here. Our tour guide reiterated that the only ‘real’ champagne is from this specific region, and meticulously went through the three different grapes used in its production. She even spoke of a regulatory committee that exists to ensure the quality of the champagne in the region. I thought she would’ve been a better tour guide for World War II sites, as I think it’s okay to make a champagne tour a bit more loose and fun. Regardless, she really knew her stuff, and even spoke of the bubbly as if it were a living organism…that you shouldn’t ‘wake up’ the champagne too early in the aging process, or else you might shock its system and ruin the flavor.
The tasting part of the tour came last, and it was good, not great…I often can’t tell the difference between good and bad champagne…I figure it’s an acquired taste and I simply haven’t drank enough of it yet in my life. I ended up taking a great picture with a super-large bottle of champagne that was very Facebook-worthy.
Before heading to the next town, we walked around Reims, through the Mars Gate, and ended up at the WWII surrender museum, one of the sights I had circled for this trip as a ‘must do’. It was a timely visit, as we were only a week from the 70th anniversary of ‘Victory in Europe’ day. The museum is housed in a red-brick schoolhouse that served as General Eisenhower’s headquarters during the war.
This was a rather simple museum when thinking about the major event it represented, and the best part was the well-preserved room where the Germans signed their surrender across the table from the Allied forces. I was surprised that one of the German generals pleaded for mercy on the German military in the days, weeks and months ahead…not sure they would’ve granted us that same mercy. I liked the display of various articles from local US newspapers at that time celebrating the event, but also cautioning that the war wasn’t over as Japan hadn’t surrendered yet. I wonder if the people then had any idea that 70 years later this would still be the ‘last great war’ of our time.
The next town on our schedule was Epernay, one of the hearts of the champagne region. This ended up being a rather sleepy town overall…whereas Reims had more than just the champagne legacy, Epernay seemed to be a one-trick pony. The tour of the Mercier champagne house was the highlight, and I thought it was much better than the Veuve Clicquot tour. You had to take an elevator down into the caves below, then take a train to tour the production area.
Eugene Mercier, the founder, was a visionary with the intent of making champagne accessible to all people…I took this to mean maximizing the quality while also keeping the price reasonable. He introduced his champagne at one of the Paris annual fairs, lugging a giant champagne barrel on horse and carriage all the way from Epernay. He also knew how to make a stylish entrance, as at one of the other Paris fairs he arrived in a giant Mercier hot air balloon. Interestingly, he also was responsible for one of the first ever film advertisements in a further attempt to market his product. This was probably the best champagne I’ve ever tasted…I even ended up buying a few bottles!
I’m not even a lover of champagne, but this is definitely worth a weekend trip. For those vacationing in Paris the drive here isn’t so bad, and they have many tour packages available on www.viator.com. As I write this, I’m raising a glass of Mercier champagne saying ‘Sante!’