What if I told you there was a champagne bar seven metres above the ground in the heart of the Regional Natural Park of the Montagne de Reims in Verzy? A bar that you could only reach by a series wooden walkways and suspension bridges?
Yep, I was too.
The place is the Perching Bar and your admission fee includes a glass of the bubbly stuff.
All around is the whoosh of zip-lines of varying heights for zip-liners of varying ability (and courage) but up here in the trees sipping on a glass of Bollinger (bolly… sweetie) all is grand with the world.
The view’s not bad either.
I love what they do with the corks and the top thingies.
Want more info?
The Perching Bar is open from April to mid-December and as only a certain number of people can be up here at any one time, reservations are recommended.
Imagine if you will, fields of golden canola glistening in the late afternoon light, a long table dressed for dinner in a sun-drenched courtyard, the buzzing of bees as they flit from blossom to blossom, aperitifs in amongst the birches. Now take that image and pop it into a quintessentially French village in Champagne on a sunny Saturday afternoon in spring and you have dinner at Aupres de L’Eglise.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Aupres de L’Eglise is in Oyes, Champagne. Oyes is a village – or commune – near Sezanne and about 29 kms from Epernay. It’s perfectly situated for all that Champagne has to offer. We stayed here for two very comfortable nights. Our hosts – Kiwi expats Glenis and Mike.
To get here we drove through acre after acre of sprawling canola fields – or colza as they call it in France. From a distance, it appears as though the yellow has been painted into the green. When we get out of the car to take a photo it’s almost as tall as me – which, admittedly, probably doesn’t mean a whole lot…
The property itself is full of surprises – a wall left unpainted except for the mason’s scribbles, a dividing wall comprised solely of bookcases, an arrangement of daffodils beside a publication from the late 1960’s titled “The New Zealand Gown of the Year.”
The four of us had the run of the big house – which was way larger than what we needed, but a treat indeed.
Downstairs is a large double room, a smaller room with two single beds, a bathroom and a large open plan kitchen, dining and living space. All of us said we’d have loved to be there when it was cool enough to have the log fires going. As it was the weather was so great we were in t-shirts and thongsjandalsflip-flops.
Hubby and I had the upstairs rooms.
A large space divided by a clever wall of bookcases, an alcove -for tea and coffee making, and a well-designed bathroom overlooking the church.
The church over the back fence only has services once a month, so the bells don’t chime – the only noise in the morning being cockerels in neighbouring yards.
The highlight of a stay at Aupres de l’Eglise – as an aside, the literal translation of the name is “near the church” – is the evening meal.
What we ate…
We started with an aperitif of local champagne drunk in the courtyard under the birches.
To go with this Glenis had made a “cake” of cheese, peppers, eggs and herbs. It was sort of like a cross between a frittata and a loaf cake. I’ve asked her for the recipe, so watch this space.
Also on offer were bowls of pink radishes and butter mixed with salt flakes. Radishes served with butter and salt is apparently a very French hors-d’oeuvre – and one that I’m borrowing for a scene in my current novel. It’s simple, but really tasty – and perfect with champagne…although isn’t anything?
We moved across to the table and then the food arrived. So much food – all of it home-cooked and from produce that’s as local as possible.
First out was a quiche made with local cheese, perfect pastry – I really must practice making pastry – served with sun-dried tomatoes and rocket.
Mike and Glenis joined us for our main course – served platter style. There was a Moroccan style lamb surrounded by broccoli and peppers spiced with chilli, bowls of oil-brushed potatoes roasted in their skins, carrots glazed in ginger and coriander, and a celery, walnut and cauliflower salad with pomegranate molasses dressing.
Cheese followed, and to finish was a baked cheesecake that Glenis had covered in cream and scattered with plump blueberries. Sadly I’d given up trying to fit anything else in my tummy after the cheese!
It was a fabulous dinner, with great food, great company and lots of conversation. Speaking of which, I need to email one of the other guests with the recipe for Annabel Langbein’s Strawberry Cloud Cake (if you’re interested you’ll find the recipe here). I also need to ask Mike for the details of Careme’s banquet that took place in one of the villages near to here. I think it was Montmort-Lucy…although I could be wrong.
Then there was the story about how thousands of taxis in Paris were commandeered to bring soldiers to reinforce the army facing the Germans in what became known later as the Battle of the Marne. France needed troops brought in – and they needed them fast. The trains were already full, but the taxis weren’t.
It’s a fabulous story that I really must research a tad more. Like most great stories, I suspect there’s a reasonable amount of myth interspersed with the facts, but isn’t that what makes a great story?
Anyways, where was I? About to tell you how you can find Glenis and Mike if ever you’re looking for great accommodation in Champagne.
We wandered around the village and through the canola fields before brekky – speaking of which, if it’s in season you must try the tomato and basil compote on a fresh baguette. The village is small but pretty, and worth the stroll.
A few kms out of town is Mondemont- Montgivroux and the monument to the Battle of the Marne. At over 35 m tall it can be seen for miles.
Ok, I get that this was a very important battle, but the best that can be said about this monument – locally referred to as La Carotte, on account of its colour and shape – is that it’s large and ummm more than a tad phallic.
It is, however in a gloriously photogenic spot, so all other visual offences are forgiven.
Next time – Another 24 hours in Champagne: Ruinart, Reims, and a treehouse bar.
Epernay, the capital of Champagne. As we drove through the streets we saw all the big names in the champagne world. I called them out one at a time. Names, darling, names.
This is a city that’s not only been made prosperous by champagne, it’s built on it. Literally. Under these streets, under the carparks, the buildings, the shops, is over 100kms of tunnels holding hundreds of millions of bottles of champagne – much of it the best champagne in the world.
Avenue de Champagne
They say that this is the most expensive real estate in the world – not just for what’s on top, but also for what’s held below.
This boulevarde positively fizzes – with both the bubbly stuff and with history. Napoleon walked these streets and he and his entourage stayed here as a stopover of sorts on their way to and from various battlefields.
I drink champagne when I win, to celebrate … and I drink champagne when I lose, to console myself.” – Napoleon.
Of course, that was back in the day when only royalty and generals could afford to drink champagne. Bottling hadn’t yet been invented, so only those who could spring for a whole barrel of the stuff could enjoy it.
Moet et Chandon
F, who has been here a number of times, told us that if we only do one caves tour this trip, it should be at Moet. She was right. It’s absolutely fascinating.
We learnt about the crus – or villages – and how the system of classifying grapes works.
Grapes from villages designated grand crus status fetch the highest prices. Next is premiere crus. As this designation determines both grape prices and land prices, it’s strictly controlled and managed. These are without a doubt the world’s most pampered grapes.
While most champagnes are a blend of grapes from different vineyards and villages, most prestige cuvees will only contain grand crus grapes. Moet’s Imperial non-vintage cuvee or blend contains grapes from both grand and premium crus.
While on the subject, most champagnes are non-vintage. Vintage champagnes, such as Dom Perignon, are produced only in exceptional years.
I won’t bore you with the process as such, but what really interested me is how Moet’s Imperial Cuvee tastes the same from year to year. You know when you pop that cork what you’ll be tasting. In a way, it’s a tad like the McDonalds of the champagne world.
This involves a practised blending of wines – including wine held out from the previous year. There can be grapes from 100 villages in each bottle. Remarkable.
Moet has 28kms of caves, with caverns within these caves holding thousands of bottles. We saw one that held 40,000 bottles.
Imperial wines are kept down here for 2-3 years, and vintage wines for 7 years before they are riddled, or “turned”…a quarter turn a day. Riddlers turn 35,000 – 50,000 bottles a day. Vintage wines are still turned by hand, although the process for non-vintage is mostly mechanised these days.
Following this, they are “disgorged”, have their final cork put in, are rested again for 3-6 months and then “dressed” for sale.
The sommelier serving us our tasting glass at the end of the tour said that there was a Moet cork popped somewhere in the world every second. Now, there’s an image.
Before I leave Moet, there’s another little reminder of Napoleon deep in the caves – a barrel that was a gift from the little general. It originally contained port.
Book ahead for tours which leave hourly. Moet et Chandon is, like most places in France, closed over lunch.
Come brothers, hurry, I am drinking stars! – Dom Perignon
Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk attached to the abbey at Hautvillers, a village in the hills not far from Epernay. He was tasked with overseeing the vineyard at the abbey and is credited with perfecting the methode champenoise.
Much of this story is a myth. The first record of sparkling wine in France dates back at least a hundred years before old Dom was born. Even the quote above is said to have been created by advertisers in the late 19th century. Seriously though, it’s a good story, so I for one am happy not to let the facts get in the way of it.
All of this leads us to Hautvillers – where Perignon died and was buried. Moet et Chandon bought the land and, presumably, the story and now produce Dom Perignon, the vintage bubbles – still made largely by hand.
As for the man himself? He died in 1715 and his tomb is in front of the altar in Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers.
Is this the prettiest village in all of Champagne? I’m not sure about that, but it must come close.
After walking up to the abbey and giving thanks to Dom, we sauntered back into town for lunch, stopping at Champagne Pierre Fedyk.
The board advertised La Planche Champenoise – a plank of nibbly bits that go with champagne – for 18 euros a head. The view was free.
We ended up sharing two boards between the three of us. On each board were a skewer of boudin blanc (white pudding), skewers of smoked salmon, another of zucchini and peppers, a slice of pate en croute – pate in a puff pastry crust – baguette and brie, and thin slices of a local raspberry sabayon cake.
All washed down with glasses of the house bubbles, it was supremely civilised.
Back in the car, we headed back down the hill, past vineyards planted for Moet et Chandon, towards Sezanne. Sezanne is at the southern end of the Champagne district and was close to our accommodation for the next 2 nights in Oyes.
Another medieval town, Sezanne is 40kms from Epernay and has been populated since Gallic days ie for a very long time. It has, as many of these towns do, a history that involves invasions, rebuilding, a massive fire that almost destroyed it, and some more rebuilding.
It’s full of quaint, crooked, half-timbered houses that we were to see more of in Troyes. Sezanne also has possibly the weirdest looking church that we’ve seen so far – and the most interesting.
The style is gothically flamboyant, yet also quite jumbled with the base of the church holding workshops that used to house boilermakers, tailors, shoemakers, notaries (lawyers) and is now home to the Tourist Office.
Inside was some fabulous art and the same serenity that we’ve found in other churches so far. This one was manned by two gorgeous old ladies who were proud to show their church off and would rush to wherever we were to try and explain what was important about that part.
Much of it is under restoration, but one piece stood out for me. Way up in the towers is a tiny priest walk – a semi-circle from one tower to the next. It’s impossibly narrow, exposed to the elements and way up high. If I closed my eyes I could picture someone making the dash across in a dark and stormy night.
Where we ate
G was driving down from Lille to join us this weekend, so we were back into Sezanne for dinner at Le Flow. A blackboard menu where 2 courses were 22 euros, and 3 courses 27E, the stand-outs were the asparagus flan I had as an entree, the pretty pea veloute with a bacon foam that hubby had, and the berry bavarois we shared to finish.
The capital O and E together is not a typo. In French, it looks as though the two letters are joined. I’m typing in English, though, so you’ll need to trust me on that.
This dinky little town might be difficult to pronounce (it’s something like wee-yee) but it’s seriously cute in a grey-stone quintessential French village sort of way. It’s one of those towns that make you want to see what’s behind the shutters, what’s on the kitchen tables, why there is fake grass used as fences. Yes, fake grass on fences. Bunnings is missing out on a whole market there.
There’s a well and a centre of town that I like to imagine was just like the tiled pictures in the photos below.
OEuilly has a 13th-century church that sits on the top of the hill and has views all down the valley. In the churchyard are five white marble gravestones – for RAF airmen who died on May 4, 1944. They must have been in the same plane or the same formation. There was the pilot, two gunners, the air bomber and the wireless operator. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
OEuilly is located on the Vallee de la Marne Champagne Route (you’ll have to imagine that the accents that should be over some of these letters are actually there) it’s about 13kms from Epernay and 27kms from Reims in the heart of Champagne.
The town also has plenty of champagne producers and a museum devoted to wine-growing – the Economusee d’OEuilly. Again, you can put the accent thingies over the “e” yourself. Early in the morning as we walked through town, these strange tractors moved from field to field. They looked like monster trucks but in an agricultural form – so designed to be able to drive through the vineyards without damaging the vines.
Although we came to the region for the champagne, it’s not why we were here in OEuilly. OEuilly was the first stop on our foodie road-trip and we were here for Jean-Eric’s cooking. Well, not just Jean-Eric’s cooking…but it’s as good a reason as any.
L’Oeuillade en Champagne
This charming little gite in the heart of Champagne was to be our home for the first night of our road-trip – and it didn’t disappoint.
Choosing accommodation for 3 people when 2 of them are a couple (me and hubby) can be a tad difficult – as well as we get on together, we do also need a certain amount of our own space.
L’Oeuillade had plenty of living space and 3 good sized bedrooms. If we’d been inclined to cook, we had all the facilities to do so. Cooking, though, was the last thing on our minds.
What would be on our mind? Champagne, of course…in the garden.
We’d dropped in for a sneaky bubbly tasting at Epernay on our way in – to pick up some supplies for the evening – and this is where we settled…pretty much for the night.
And why not? It was a glorious Spring evening and we had plenty of champagne, portable speakers, comfy chairs, and views like this.
Best of all, because we’d reserved dinner in-house, Jean-Eric, our host, and his lovely wife brought our meal to us. Bliss. Great food with no washing up. Their house was across the road, and that’s where they brought each course of our meal from.
We started with champagne which Jean-Eric had hubby open sabrage style – with a champagne sabre. The video was on Instagram, but essentially the sabre breaks the neck and the cork of the bottle away. It’s all very dramatic.
The meal that followed was one of the best we had in France. It was, without a doubt, the best value one we had too.
What did we eat?
Parmentier de Foie Gras sauce au vin – sliced potatoes with pate and a red wine sauce. I would never have thught of this combo in a million years but it worked.
Papillote de Rouget au Champagne – Red mullet with champagne sauce cooked “en papillote” ie in paper. THE best fish dish we had in France. I’ve found a recipe I’ll be experimenting with, but I doubt it will be as good as this one on a warm Spring evening in Champagne with champagne.
Sorbet au Marc de Champagne – the marc is a brandy made from the discarded skins and seeds in the process of making champagne. It was poured over the sorbet as a very tasty palate cleanser.
Joues de Porc à la Bière de Marne – pork cheeks cooked in local beer. Sorry, no pic…but very yummy.
Assiette des Trois Fromages – a selection of cheese. I especially loved the cream cheese which was similar to the cervelles de canuts that we would later taste in Lyon.
Sabayon de fruits et ratafia – a sabayon served with berries and a glass of the local ratafia, a spirit that is essentially a fortified grape brandy.
And all washed down with the “supplies” we’d purchased in Epernay. It was the type of meal that memories are made of. And all for 35 euros a head*
If you’re heading to Champagne and want to know more about L’Oeuillade en Champagne, you can find Jean-Eric’s website here. We, however, found him on Air BNB. Hde and his wife were brilliant hosts.
Welcome to Lille – the base for Stage 1 of our La Grande Tour and home to the Aussie friends we’ll be spending the next couple of weeks road-tripping with.
Known also as Rijsel (in Flemish), Lille just happens to be (in my humble opinion) a very under-rated city.
What makes Lille different to many other French cities is that it wasn’t French until – in European terms – relatively recently. Louis XIV captured it in 1667 for the French. Before that, the city – along with much of Belgium and part of the Netherlands – belonged to Flanders. To this day it’s that Flemish influence that is responsible for much of Lille’s charm with the Flemish influence evident in its buildings, its food and its beers.
Vieux Lille by old car…
The best way to see the old town – or Vieux Lille – is on foot. The next best way to see Vieux Lille is the way we did, in a Citroen 2CV with a local to guide you.
These cute little cars are narrow enough to get into the narrowest of the cobbled streets – and Lille old town is full of narrow cobbled streets. Plus they’re super fun.
We were fortunate in that our guide/driver was a local, Louis, who happened to be studying architecture and was able to tell us – with passion – about all the different architectural styles: Flemish, Spanish and French.
Vieux Lille by foot…
I could have wandered these streets for hours – picture perfect cobbled streets with everything from High Street fashion brands to artisan chocolates to homewares to cheese and charcuterie to…you get the idea.
Lille Cathedral, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille…
This is not your average cathedral.
For starters, it’s relatively new and a divisive mix of gothic and contemporary styles. As Louis told us, people either love or hate it.
Although building commenced in 1854, two world wars slowed progress substantially to the extent that the front was pretty much boarded up in 1947. This temporary wall was destroyed in the early 90’s and the new contemporary wall – very different from the remainder of the cathedral – was installed.
What’s really interesting about this wall is that it’s constructed of 110 sheets of thin marble that take on a glorious orange sheen when lit by the sun. Another cool thing about this front is that it’s not actually moulded to the rest of the structure.
The marble also apparently contains some symbols that you wouldn’t expect to see on a cathedral – symbols like the belfry of Lille, E=mc2, and even cosmonauts. I would have paid more attention had I done my research before-hand.
Inside, just like outside, is a mix of old and new. Contemporary abstract art is combined with more traditional French styles and is both surprising and refreshing.
Warning – airborne calories…
These cute little shops in Vieux Lille contain not so hidden dangers of the calorific sort. Oh. My.
One of these, Meert, has been serving exquisite chocolate and patisserie to those who could afford it since 1761 – which, back in those days were kings and generals and the like.
We bought a merveilleux from Aux Merveilleux de Fred – apparently the only place one should ever purchase merveilleux from. What is it? Light as air.
The merveilleaux is comprised of two feather-weight meringues sandwiched together, coated in whipped cream and rolled in chocolate shavings. Aside from a thin crispness to the bottom of the meringue, the rest of the merveilleaux dissolves in a puff of air. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
Where we ate…
Brasserie La Paix – a little bit of art deco glamour amongst the cobbles.
This was our first introduction to Prix-Fixe or a “formule” – fixed price menus.
These are great options. Originally designed to fit in with lunch hours, most restaurants offer 2 or 3 courses at a good price. In the case of Le Paix, it was 5-star French service for a 3-star price tag.
For 18 euros you got either an entree and plat (main) or plat and dessert. Not bad value.
I chose the salade aux trois fromages (three cheese salad) and Dos de lieu avec endives braisees et sauce maltoise – essentially fish with braised endives and an orange sauce to cut through the bitterness of the endive.
Where we stayed…
With our friends in a village about 10 minutes from Lille. There was a boulangerie about 10 minutes walk away that sold amazing croissants for less than a euro and farms and gorgeous gardens in the other direction.
In the North East of France near the Belgian border, Lille is just an hour on the TGV from Charles De Gaulle. We paid 45 euros for a first class seat – after spending the previous almost 24 hours in a cramped economy seat we were happy to pay for some comfort and a little extra luggage room. As an aside, Lille is also a short hop to London – 90 minutes by Eurostar…just saying.
Unless you’re one of the handful of people I haven’t mentioned this to, I’m off to France in just over two weeks…and I can’t wait.
This will be the first holiday since I can’t remember how many years when I haven’t taken my laptop to keep up with blogs or to finish freelance jobs. I’ll post to Instagram when we find free wi-fi. In the meantime, I have a heap of posts that I’ve scheduled through April for my A-Z of Books and Writing…more on that over the weekend.
I have some ideas for potential stories, so will be recording pretty much everything in my journal. Naturally I’ll blog heaps once I’m home in May.
Anyways, we’re doing a road trip that is about as close to Le Tour as I’ll ever get – given that I’m not into cycling. In the spirit of Le Tour (note how I’m throwing some French terms in?) I’ve divided our trip into stages. And the pics? They’ve all come from Instagram – other people’s pages.
Stage 1: Lille and Western Flanders
We’re starting our tour in Lille, in northwestern France – about as close to the Belgium border as you can be without being in Belgium. It also happens to be where the friend we’ll be road-tripping lives.
Here we’ll be checking out all things Flemish. There’s an old town to explore – Vieux Lille – and it’s a quick drive across the border to Bruges and the Somme and Ypres.
What am I most looking forward to on this leg aside from catching up with my friend? Bruges and moules et frites – ie mussels and chips…oh, and Belgian beer.
Stage 2 – Champagne
This is where our road trip really begins. We’ll be exploring Reims and Epernay. I’d also like to get down to Troyes and maybe even Renoir’s Essoyes.
We’ll be checking out vineyards and caves – the type they keep champagne in, not the underground ones that make me claustrophobic – and possibly even sampling a drop or three.
The Air B&Bs that we’re staying at are both run by chefs so we’re taking the opportunity of doing a chef’s table dinner at each.
We’ve also booked a Moet et Chandon tour. I can’t promise not to do the Eddy and Patsy thing though. Luckily hubby will be there to pick up the pieces.
Stage 3 – Burgundy
Yes, there is a wine and food theme running through this trip.
We’ll be doing an all-day cooking class in Dijon – that’s where the mustard comes from – exploring Beaune and Dijon and checking out some of the countryside and medieval villages. We could possibly also sip some more wine – the vineyards of the Cote d’Or are apparently spectacular.
I’m especially looking forward to the cooking class we have booked in Dijon. The emphasis is on market shopping and French home cooking and I have very high hopes.
Stage 4 – Lyon
Of course, I’m telling anyone who’ll listen that Lyon is a city named after me – my maiden name is Lyons. Ok, so it’s not true. Lyon, though, is a foodie paradise. We’re staying in the old part of town and have a foodie walking tour booked.
We’ll also be checking out the markets or Les Halles de Lyon. Also on the list is a genuine bouchon or two. A bouchon is similar to a bistro, but one that serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine – which is quite piggy in emphasis and nose to tail in technique. I can’t wait.
Stage 5 – The Loire Valley
We have four nights here to check out the chateaux, the countryside, maybe even taste a drop, and explore Orleans and Tours and some of the gorgeous villages in this part of France.
As yet we haven’t narrowed the list of chateaux down to the ones we really want to see, but Chemonceau and Villiers are on my list.
Our accommodation does a Chef’s Table on Saturday night, so we’re looking forward to that too.
Stage 6 – Paris
Hubby and I are staying on to finish our trip in Paris while F goes home to Lille. We’re staying in Le Marais – the Jewish Quarter – and have great plans to walk and walk and walk.
What else do we have planned for Paris? Nothing. We’re going to see how the mood and the spirit takes us.
We did the whole Tour de Eiffel thing when we were here twenty years ago and I don’t believe (the Tower) has changed that much. I also spent an afternoon in the Louvre that trip and would like to instead have a look at the Musee d’Orsay this time.
On the list for exploration is Montmartre, Pere Lachaise Cemetary, Montparnasse and some of the back streets. I also need to find a bowl of the spaghetti bolognaise that my geographically challenged daughter is convinced comes from Paris. When I think of the money we spent on school fees…