Walking with Pepper along the CBR

It’s a beautiful crisp, cold and slightly foggy day today here in Champagne, so I decided to step away from the computer and take Pepper for a longer than usual walk.

I love walking, especially with my dog.  It’s so refreshing to be in nature, to hear the rustle of the trees, the birds singing and the quiet solitude of the forest.

My favourite walking trail is definitely the CBR which stands for Chemin de Fer de la Banlieue de Reims – a former railway line spanning over 400 kms and connecting 180 villages in the Champagne region.  It was built in 1894 and played a very important role during the first World War carrying ammunitions, materials and indeed the wounded.

This is an old picture of the station in Verzy which is now a private house.  The stations are easy to recognise because they all look the same, built to the same specification. However, as time went on, the railway network was used less and less, and like many European suburban railways, was sadly dismantled in 1966.

But what’s left is over 400kms of trails for us to enjoy on foot or on bicyle around the region.

The bit which passes through our village, Verzy, is now part of the old pilgrim trail to both St. Jacques de Compostelle in northern Spain and the Via Francigena which leads to Rome.

When I walk just a little bit of this trail, those destinations sometimes call to me.  How about you?

Rent a Renault Twizy 45 in Champagne

Have you ever wanted to try out an electric car ?  How about drinking champagne in the region where it’s made?  Well now the Tourist Office in Epernay is combining these two dreams into one.  Discover the vineyards and the champagne houses of the champagne region by hiring Twizy, an electric car directly from the Tourist Office and… grab a free bottle of bubbly to drink for yourself!

You can hire Twizy for an hour, a half day or a whole day.

Where can you go with an electric car in Epernay?

Start off by driving up the Avenue de Champagne, calling in at Moet et Chandon for a swanky, stylish guided tour of their cellars and a glass or two of bubbly afterwards.  Did you know that there are approx. 21 kilometres of cellars just under Moet’s building and 110 kms of cellars under the whole town of Epernay!  Incredible, but true.

After your visit to Moet why not drop into Champagne Andre Bergére, just a short drive in your little car further on up the Avenue.  Maxime or Stephanie will be happy to welcome you and introduce you to their smaller but good quality champagnes, made at their production facility in the Cotes des Blancs but on sale here on the Avenue.

And then further on up the Avenue, drop into Champagne Mercier where an elevator experience will descend you down into their cellars and then onto their cellar train for a guided tour.

Aftwards, Champagne de Castellane will introduce you to the mechanics of champagne making where you’ll get to see the bottling and labelling room – fascinating.  And for the best view in Epernay, climb the steps up to the top of the de Castellane tower.

You’ll probably be hungry after all that, so try La Banque on the Place de la Republique for a well-earned bite to eat.  Or La Table Kobus, behind the church, where you can take your own free bottle of bubbly to drink there.

Whatever you do, you’ll have a lot of fun.

Bunjee jumping in Verzy!

With the torrential April showers hopefully behind us now, we can turn our attention to what’s happening in May in Champagne.

May is the month of the brocantes – those street markets which sell cast offs and collectors items, featuring everything from used tyres (?) to champagne caps.  Verzy’s brocante was last weekend, and needless to say I didn’t buy anything.

There’s a brocante every weekend now in several villages in the region, and if you like milling around bric-a-brac and looking for a bargain, then don’t miss, come on down.

The highlight of events in Verzy (not to mention the Summer Dance Gala on the 16th June, where yours truly will be dancing!) is the Fete Patronale which is happening on the last weekend of May.

I’m really excited about this because last year it was an absolute hoot on the Sunday afternoon.  We were drawn into the music and entertainment of the drag artists singing and dancing in their luminous outfits and unbelievable wigs.  Sipping champagne in the sunshine with friends and enjoying the ambience of the real France was incredible, and this year promises to be even more fun with the opportunity to participate in bunjee jumping.  Needless to say again, I won’t be jumping, but you can!

Join us if you can, we’re looking forward to meeting you in Champagne!

The French are rude!

Living and working in France has and still is one of the most enriching experiences of my life.  I love it here!  I even left it once, only to return “home” as soon as I could.  Why?  I find the French philosophy on life refreshing and it just makes sense to me.

Here in Champagne, the people are warm and friendly, and there is a sense of community, that long-forgotten feeling that used to prevail in the homeland, the UK before it all went wrong.  The French are attached to the earth, the “terroir”, the planet in a way that makes me feel safe and secure, and even loved.

You can imagine my surprise then, when friend and business partner Marion Ryan sent me this article this morning.  Apparently the French have been voted the most rude country to visit for tourists!

Yes, yes, I know that sometimes they are rude, but isn’t everybody?   But what I’ve learned about the French during my many years among them, is that it’s NOT intentional.  My daughter describes them as “direct” and that’s a good description.  They don’t put up with nonsense, poor service, poor food, rules that don’t make sense to them, working harder, working longer (remember they only work 35 hours a week!)  and their lives are much more important than any commercial transaction.

There is a respect here for each other, with the essential “Bonjour Madame or Monsieur” whenever you meet someone in the street.  Eye contact is normal and people smile.  Old people are respected and children are cherished.  People help each other in a distinctly and guarded French way, but nevertheless the support is there.

Of course, I may have to eat my hat if Marine Le Pen wins the next election! God help us!

Reiki and Champagne

I’ve just received the monthly newsletter from the Tourist Office in Epernay (pity it’s only in French) and I’ve noticed that there is a “Reiki Conference” happening on the 31st March.  (The Tourist Office’s website is undergoing some maintenance at the moment, otherwise I’d put a link in here for you).

I know that alternative health treatments are pretty popular around the world, but so far, in France I’ve yet to discover much at all. In fact one of my English students whispered that that sort of thing isn’t welcome in France. And I’m not surprised. The French are pretty wedded to their mainstream medical system, and anything natural or slightly “out there” would probably be shrugged off.

In fact, many of the “spa” treatments the rest of the world has to pay for privately, are offered on the French national health system.  A good friend of mine recently had a heart operation and he was sharing with me recently, that the option to take a “spa” treament was part of his recovery package!

But now, we have a Reiki conference taking place at the stunning Hotel Royal Champagne on the hills outside Epernay on the 31st March, starting at 4pm. I’m certainly going to be there. Anyone else?

Fete Henri IV in Aÿ

If you’re planning to come to Champagne this summer, then you won’t want to miss the Bi-annual Fete Henri IV in Aÿ (pronounced aye)

Aÿ used to be the capital of Champagne, over 400 years ago, and at that time was most famous for its still wines.  It’s still home to some of the big well-known champagne houses,  such as Bollinger, and some of the best grapes of the region are to be found in its vineyards.

The best time to visit Aÿ is every other year (even years)  when they hold the Fete Henri IV.  In 2012 it’s on the 6th/7th/8th July.   Many of the champagne houses large and small, open their courtyards, gardens and doors to visitors, where you can sip a glass or two and relax.  It’s a lot of fun.

If you come to the Fete, you’ll be able to walk in and taste some of the little known gems of Ay plus enjoy the atmosphere of a typical champenois event, where the music plays, the food is plentiful and the champagne flows.

Launching an App feels like giving birth….

Finally, the day has arrived when you can now have your own personal network of contacts in Champagne downloaded onto your iphone or ipad!

Champagne Day App is being launched at 12 noon GMT tomorrow and I feel as though I’m going to give birth!

It’s been an exciting few months, contacting old friends, making new ones, gathering information, shooting videos, getting the files ready and then sending everything over to our wonderful appman Simon Williams.  If I’m the mother, Jiles is the father, and Simon is definitely the midwife!

And so the “baby” is about to be born, packed full of exactly what you need to plan and enjoy your Champagne experience.  It will introduce you to and take you to meet and see the people and places you probably wouldn’t find on your own, but where we know for sure you’ll have a great time.

To take a look inside the App, before it’s launched tomorrow, by clicking on the video below.  If you’re not already on the VIP Priority List where you can get your App tomorrow at the special one-day-only price then you’ve only got a few hours left to do that, by clicking here. 

I’m looking forward to meeting you soon in Champagne.  Cheers!

Fete de la St.Vincent in Champagne

The patron saint of the “vigneron” (grape farmers) is St.Vincent and every year on the 22nd January sees each village celebrate with the traditional brioche and champagne.  The day begins with the “vin d’honneur” (reception drink) at one of the local champagne makers’ homes, and then a procession in traditional costume with lots of singing and bands playing, as they make their way to the church for the blessing.

Afterwards, the procession continues to the village hall or “Salle des Fetes” where lunch is served with of course more champagne.  All the champagne producers of each village are invited to contribute some of their champagnes, so there’s definitely no shortage of champagne flowing.

Cheers!

Choosing accommodation for your French vacation

Your destination, France, is decided.  The flights/travel dates are booked.  Now you can turn your attention to where to stay.  How do you decide?

If this is your first visit to La Belle France, then there’s a treat in store.  France is the most visited country in the world.  And no wonder.  With beaches, mountains, unspoilt landscapes, food, drink, culture and heritage to name but a few reasons to choose this fair land, plus a favourite re-location destination for “les anglais”, who can resist?

Choosing a B&B or a hotel.  What’s the difference?

The B&B experience offers a unique opportunity to get an insight into the local way of life.  Many B&B owners are passionate and knowledgeable about their local area, and can direct you to people and places you wouldn’t find on your own.  They will make reservations for you; recommend restaurants based on their own experience (not because they get a commission).

They will spend time talking to you about what you need, and can respond quickly to problems and challenges you may have.  They can be your place of refuge in a foreign land.

You will often become part of their family during the time you stay with them, sometimes meeting other family members and their friends.  Sometimes you’ll have dinner with them and the family, and with the other guests.

Dinner choices are not normally offered, but usually good quality home-cooked food is served in a B&B.  You’ll get to meet other travellers too, and make new friends.  Recipes may be shared, and insights gained.  Childrens’ toys and books may be available for you.  You’ll experience a “home from home” atmosphere, that larger hotels cannot provide.  A truly enriching experience for open-minded travellers.

Hotels on the other hand generally provide higher levels of comfort and amenities.  If you’re looking for 4 or 5 star service, discreet waiting staff to attend to your every whim at all hours of the day and night, then a hotel is probably a better choice for you.

Look for B&Bs (and hotels) with lots of positive reviews from past guests when choosing your place to stay.  Customer reviews are far more reliable than anything the owners, managers or websites say.  Think about your expectations and how you’ll feel if they’re not met.  Know what you need and want, and then choose your accommodation accordingly.

Happy travelling!

Boating in Champagne

On my theme of introducing you to non-champagne activities in Champagne this year, here’s a fun way to pass the time here.

On the River Marne, just on the outskirts of Epernay is the Municipal Camp Site.  If you park your car at the entrance and walk through the campsite, following the signs for Blue Nautic, you’ll reach Christine’s great little boating business, right there on the banks of the river.

Imagine a summer’s day, your picnic in hand, perhaps a bottle of bubbly you picked up the day before when you visited the underground caves of a small champagne producer, and the kids in tow.

Christine will welcome you in English and help you into your life jackets.  You step into your electric boat, take the wheel and you’re off!  Crusing your own little boat down the river.

Over to the right is the famous village of Hautvillers where Dom Perignon the father of champagne, and his monks perfected the art of keeping the bubbles in the bottle by initiating the second fermentation.   You could explore that village tomorrow, and stop by the wonderful Au36, a tasting room and shop dedicated to the smaller, unknown champagnes.  Beyond the hills are more vineyards and pretty villages to discover.  Another “maybe” for the next day, or the next…

You could spot a heron on the river bank, or some swans nesting in the reeds.  Just relaxing on the river, letting the quiet engine sweep you along.

You’re travelling downstream towards Cumieres where they make not only great champagne, but also “Cumiere Rouge”, the red wine used to blend with the white champagne to make rosé.  Maybe you’ll stop off at a small producer there tomorrow and discover another hidden gem.

What could be more relaxing and fun that this?