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.
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.
I’ve taken on the challenge of an A-Z during April – one post each day on a chosen theme. My theme? Books and writing, of course…
L is for Lyon
We’ll be in Lyon later this month and there’s so much about the place that’s already firing my imagination. Sit back while I weave the beginnings of a tale…
If you were to look at a satellite image of Lyon – which you’re probably not inclined to do but please, go with me on this – you’d see a few streets running parallel to the river but not many side streets connecting them that actually run down to the river.
This isn’t a problem if you’re a tourist – so you have to walk an extra 200m, what of it? But it is a problem if you’re a 15th-century silk trader and you’re carrying heavy bolts of fabulously precious silk.
Ok, I’m going to stop right there for a second as the image and the idea develops – 15th century and silk trade.
So, you’re a 15th-century silk trader carrying heavy fabric and you need to get to the river quickly…what do you do? You start to take shortcuts through houses and courtyards and private passageways to get your precious cargo between the river and the city and vice versa. That’s what you do.
We now know this network of passageways as traboules – a word that comes from the Latin trans ambulare which means “to cross” – and Lyon has hundreds of these.
Another pause while we picture this – 15th century, silk traders, a network of passageways to the river and a waiting cargo ship. The colour of the silk striking against the murkiness of the candlelit passageways. Yep, the image and the idea is beginning to get clearer. I’m thinking smuggling and other dark deeds…
Right, back to the history. Although these alleys were associated with the silk traders in that the traboules kept the fabric dry as well as provided a convenient shortcut, they’ve been in Lyon at least since the 4th century.
You see, back in the day, Lyon was a bit of a poster child for the Roman Empire. Signs of this are still around – with the structures apparently still quite impressive. I’ll let you know after we visit them. It makes you wonder what the Romans knew about building back then?
But I digress. Lyon was important – or Lugdunum as they called it, which doesn’t have quite the same ring as Lyon – partly because it was a handy stop-over point, but mostly because it has two rivers. The Rhone curves through the centre of Lyon as does the Saone.
Anyways, once the Romans reluctantly left town, the aqueducts bringing water to the city started to fail – a little like an iPhone at the end of its warranty. People started building closer to the river and the first traboules were built around this time to allow people to get from their homes to the water quicker. Yeah, not much of a story there – I think I’ll stay with the 15th-century silk traders.
These silk workers, known as canuts had to eat… so let’s move forward a couple of hundred years to the 17th and 18th century to talk about the other thing I’m looking forward to in Lyon – les bouchons.
The Bouchon is a restaurant serving Lyonnaise cuisine – which is heavily meat-based and does, shall we say, use the whole of the animal.
These were originally places where silk merchants stopped to have a meal, clean their horses and maybe stay the night. The term Bouchon was used then to describe the twisted straw brushes used to clean the horses. Don’t say you don’t learn anything from this blog.
Most of these Bouchons were run by women – Mere Lyonnaises (the Mothers of Lyon) who left their positions as cooks in middle-class households to start their own businesses. I’m beginning to see another strand of a potential story and I haven’t even visited yet!
Then there’s the tradition of machon (the a has a little upside down triangle over it). This is pretty much charcuterie and all bits porky served with pots of Beaujolais in the early morning. The silk weavers – or canuts – of La Croix-Rousse would all get together to share these meals at dawn after they finished work. My kind of breakfast.
Tired and down-trodden silk workers, hungry bellies, pork and litres of red wine before the sun is properly up – I’m seeing the perfect environment for the hatching of dastardly plans.
Maybe there’s a way of making this trip tax deductible after all…
It’s Lovin’ Life Linky time…
It’s Thursday, so it’s time to look for our happy and share it about a bit. The Lovin’ Life Linky is brought to you by Team Lovin’ Life: Deep Fried Fruit, Debbish, Seize the Day Project, Write of the Middle, 50 Shades of Age, and, of course, me.
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