champagne & reims

Marian Parsonsa slice of life, Travel28 Comments

As I was planning out our France leg of the trip, the number one thing I wanted to do was take a day trip to Champagne.  For me, it wasn’t about the grapes or the tastings, but it was about seeing the French countryside…seeing tiny villages nestled in lush green hills and checkerboard fields.

So, I booked a private tour for our group with Artventures.  If you’re planning a similar trip, private tours are more expensive than group tours, but they offer a lot more flexibility.  Since both John and I wanted to be able to stop and take lots of pictures, this was going to be the best option.  Also, when you split the tour between four people, the price is more reasonable.

(As an aside, this is a tour we paid for and this post is not sponsored.)

We were picked up at our apartment early in the morning by Celine, a petite woman with a neat blonde ponytail, big blue eyes, and a pouty lower lip.  She had a youthful, fresh-faced appearance that led me to assume she was in her mid-20’s.  She eased gently into small talk as we tuned our ears to her accent.

We weren’t 10 minutes away from our apartment when there was a problem with our van.  “Oh no.  Our tire is flat.”  She quickly got on the phone and arranged to exchange vans with a guide who was staying in Paris and would be able to better deal with the deflated tire.  It became clear, through her quick and collected response and the way she directed her coworker that she was older and more experienced than I originally thought.  That was later confirmed when she talked about her life and how long she has been working as a guide.

With the van trouble solved, we made our way out of Paris to the Champagne region.  As we were driving through the city, Celine pointed to buildings of note and answered questions we raised.

There was one specific building that I asked about.  It was the building where the French Academicians met.  She told us that members are voted into the position and serve for life.  They meet once a month, wear a uniform, and carry a sword as a symbol of their duty to defend the French language and culture.  There are supposed to be 130 Academicians, but five seats are currently vacant.   Four of them will be replaced, but one of the vacant seats is supposedly cursed.  Apparently, everyone who has accepted that seat dies within a year or so!  So, Celine expects it will remain vacant.

We left the city and drove two hours to the Champagne region.  City turned to suburbs, then to open fields with small collections of buildings, typically surrounding a church steeple.  Flat land became rolling hills.  Celine chatted most of the way, sharing bits and pieces about Paris, life as a guide, and her childhood in Champagne, working with her family during the grape harvest.  Her grandfather worked for Dom Perignon, so her Champagne roots run deep.

The more she chatted, the more she revealed her wicked and delightful sense of humor.  When John asked a question about Burgundy, her face puckered and she declared, “We hate Burgundy!”  You could practically hear her spitting under her words and she broke into stories about having to take tours to Burgundy and the negative reaction she sometimes drew due to her Champagne accent.  She added the final comment, “There is such a thing as cheap wine.  There is no such thing as cheap Champagne.”

The day was gray, overcast, and threatened to spit rain on us all day, but as we arrived into the Champagne region, the blue sky showed itself and white puffy clouds appeared.  It was just the weather I was hoping for in order to take lots of reference photos for paintings.

And, the region was beautiful.  It was everything I hoped it would be.

The day was crisp and sunny.  Anytime Celine pulled the van over for us to get out, I would breathe it all in, willing time would slow for just a little while.

We had arrived the day before the majority of the grapes would be picked.  Apparently, the entire region picks grapes within an 11-day period and they coordinate who picks when, so there will be enough pickers for all of the growers.

Celine was an amazing guide.  She told us all about the business and personal side of being in a “grape family.”

Our first official stop was to tour the family-run Champagne house of J. Charpentier.  The J. stands for Jackie.  He was born shortly after WWII and was given an American name.  He joked that the name Jackie wasn’t well-suited for a Champagne label or marketing.

As the owner of the Champagne house, it was surprising that Jackie himself gave us the tour of his cellars.  He didn’t speak English, so Celine translated for us.  Jackie shared the entire Champagne-making process, showing us bottles, barrels, and machinery at each stage.  He was proud of his work, but wasn’t pretentious.  I felt warmly invited into his world.

For those who like Champagne, one thing to look for one a label are the letters RM.  RM means that the entire process is under one house from growing the grapes to shipping out the finished bottles.  Many larger Champagne houses buy grapes from many growers.  Not being a Champagne or wine officiant, I can’t speak to whether one is superior to another, but if you want to support a family-run Champagne house, look for the RM.

He stayed with us for the tasting, bringing out three different Champagnes and even joined in by pouring a glass for himself.  We asked if he still loves Champagne after working with it his whole life.  He smiled, nodded, drained his glass, and fetched another bottle.

Celine noticed we were more taken with the scenery and villages, so she took us to the village of Epernay she grew up in for lunch.  She told us stories of tradition…lands being passed down through generations.  “When you marry someone from Champagne, you also marry their grapes.”  She talked about vinegar mothers or bread starters that are the same ones used by her grandparents and great-grandparents.

After lunch, she took us to a larger Champagne house were she worked as a guide for several years – Champagne de Castellane.  We were not permitted to take photos during that tour, except in the cellars.  The cellars from Epernay are an enormous network of interconnected tunnels that run under all of the Champagne houses.  These cellars were used as bunkers during WWII, housing a school, hospital, and more.  They go on for miles.

We had a tasting at the end of that tour as well.

I’m not a big wine/Champagne drinker, but when you’re in a Champagne house in Champagne, you need to at least take a sip!  So I would try it and then typically pass my glass to my mom or John to finish off.

From Epernay, we drove to Reims to see the cathedral, Notre Dame’s sister.

This is the cathedral where the French kings were crowned and it was absolutely breathtaking.  I saw Notre Dame last year, but it was at the end of a tour and a tiring day, so it didn’t impact me as much as seeing the cathedral in Reims.  I was literally in awe.  It was hard to take in the scale and detail of the building.  I stood for several minutes, camera put away, and just stared at it.

I admired the workmanship…the architecture, the engineering, the artistry.

As amazing as the cathedral was outside, it was just as impressive inside.  The ceiling was impossibly tall.  It seemed to defy gravity.

The town of Reims was charming and I was sad that we didn’t have enough time to explore the streets.  Our tour was already running late and we needed to get back to Paris.

Reims and I will have to meet again one day.

On the way home, I took more pictures for my out-the-window painting series… bucolic scenes of fields, barns, cows, sheep, and airy clouds.  I have more reference photos than I could paint in a year.

We ate leftovers, a baguette, cheese, and fruit for dinner that night, enjoying our balcony and digesting the day.

The next day would be our last in Paris before we took the train to Florence and it was completely unscheduled.

Oh, the possibilities…

champagne & reims

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28 Comments on “champagne & reims”

  1. The cathedral is an amazing piece of architecture. I am always fascinated by these old structures that have survived decades and centuries, and the hardworking people who created them
    – history at its finest. Thank you for sharing your beautiful adventures.

  2. My favorite cathedral in France is Chartes………….with its rose window. You drive and drive in open areas and then it is there before your eyes!

  3. Oh what a lovely day – wow! Reims is gorgeous and I do hope you are able to one day spend more time there as well.

    Celine and Jackie sound wonderful – touring wine houses is the best.

    There really is no such thing as having enough time in France, to be sure.

    Enjoying your travel posts, thank you!

  4. Breath taking cathedral. What a lovely visit to the Champagne region. Their famous bubbly is unique and costly,
    not something you drink every day. Funny to read about de Castellane, we drank it last Saturday at a large party,
    I kept the metal top that crowns the typical cork, and I have tried to read the colorful pattern with a red cross and many tiny details that I can’t make out even with a magnifier, did you keep one as a souvenir?
    Your guide seems only partial to her local drink, she should not compare Champagne to red or white still wines produced in a multitude of varieties since each region has its own types of vines, soil and climate, making those wines all different in taste, quality and price too. Burgundy has many wonderful wines and landscapes to love, you may give it a visit on a future adventure.

  5. The cathedral in Reims affected you the same way Notre Dame in Paris affected me. I didn’t even know I was crying until my companion pointed it out to me-“What’s the matter? Are you OK?” The minute I walked into Notre Dame I could feel the impact of centuries of prayers. All the births and deaths, illnesses, marriages. During WWII, can you imagine. I lit a candle for a friend who had brain cancer (!!!) and prayed. I am happy to say that she is alive today-not the same-but alive. We joke that it’s all because of me. People can think that history is wars and dates, but it’s people at their most basic. You haven’t mentioned visiting the burned Notre Dame. Did you see it?

    1. We saw it from a distance. It has a lot of scaffolding around it, obviously, while it’s being repaired.

    2. I react to churches and other sacred sites the same way. The impact of centuries of people pouring their hearts out leaves a very specific energy to a place – it’s very moving and makes you feel part of a way bigger whole.
      “People can think that history is wars and dates, but it’s people at their most basic”, yes, we are all together in this wild adventure called life.

  6. I am enjoying your French travel adventures so much! Thank you for sharing it with those of us that can’t
    travel to these wonderful places. It is also entertaining to hear about the people that you have met along the
    way. I am looking forward to the next installment!

  7. It is so amazing at all the work that went into creating the reims, no telling how long it took and those stained glass windows. I don’t blame you for going on a tour so you could see the countryside it was a wonderful experience, so many memories for you and your mother.

  8. Visited London and France last year. Totally amazing. So jealous you got to go back. It is so amazing.

  9. As a creative myself, I notice details, and love the matching tops you and your mom are wearing out on your balcony 💕

    1. So funny that you say that! That is actually a picture I was taking of Wendy & my mom on the balcony and I thought they were wearing matching shirts, too, but it’s the reflection in the glass of my mom’s striped shirt!

      1. I see it clearly now.. and thought it was such a cute statement of you and your mom~ Thank you for pointing it out to m.,. so much for my details :))). Take care!

  10. WOW!!! To the Reims cathédrale ……unbelievable beauty. I too would have to just stand there and take it in. WOW!!!!
    I have to laugh at “we just enjoyed our balcony….” and your mom and Wendy are on their phones!!!
    Love hearing about your trip. Glad you all home safe and sound!!!

  11. Marian, thanks for sharing your pictures, it brought back once-in-a-lifetime memories for me.

    I, too, loved Reims when I visited France while taking classes for my Master’s Degree (as an adult). I spent my wedding anniversary in Reims & Paris. A tour of the Reims Cathedral and of the Moet & Chandon winery, where Dom Perignon, where the head of their Marketing spoke to us about the town and townspeople and how the bottles down in the cellars are turned by hand by townspeople employed there. We were told that they would never change this tradition since it employed many of the townspeople, even though automating the turning would save money. Automating would wreak havoc on the local economy. Amazing, no?

    After our lecture, we were brought on a tour of the cellars… massive indeed, and brought to their private gardens for champagne tasting and light snacks. This garden is where Napoleon would rest under the tree drinking Champagne and plan his military moves, or so we were told.

    Upon return to Paris, my professors took me out to dinner to help me celebrate my anniversary… my hubby was home as this was a school trip.

    We also visited Germany, Austria & Hungary too. A trip of a lifetime for 24 wonderful, cultural-filled, educational days! I’ve got pics too.

  12. Wow, loved the beautiful pictures and all the information about your visit. Makes me want tp go. Thank you for sharing some of Paris. The buildings are amazing.

  13. Thank you for sharing all of your wonderful photos, along with your delightful tales of your experiences!

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