Let the train take the strain as you sam­ple the re­gion’s best bub­bly.

Trav­el­ling by rail left Kathryn To­masetti free to en­joy a flute or two of bub­bly as she ex­plored this fas­ci­nat­ing wine re­gion

France - - Contents -

Iused to think of my­self as a sea­soned trav­eller. Com­pact wheelie suit­case? Check. Hand lug­gage only? Bien sûr. But since the birth of our twin sons two years ago, stan­dards have slipped. Now my lug­gage is a cornucopia of stuffed toys, pic­ture books and whizzy cars.

For­tu­nately, my hus­band and I are long-time train afi­ciona­dos. These days, trav­el­ling by rail – where we are wel­come to take all the lug­gage that we can carry – has never been more ap­peal­ing. The bonus? Unlimited bag­gage works both ways. We are tak­ing the Chan­nel Tun­nel route to Cham­pagne (the his­tor­i­cal re­gion), not to be con­fused with le cham­pagne (the bev­er­age I plan to im­bibe and then put in my suit­case wrapped up in two sleep­sacks).

A snappy 2hr 12min Eurostar

jour­ney sees us swap­ping break­fast in Lon­don (good­bye Pret À Manger por­ridge) for an early dé­je­uner in Paris (hello croque-mon­sieurs). After a ten-minute stroll from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de l’est, we are soon on a TGV, speed­ing 45 min­utes east­wards to Reims, along­side rows of vines and the gen­tle rip­pling of the River Marne.

Reims is the big­gest city in the cham­pagne wine-pro­duc­ing area and be­came part of Grand-est in the shake-up of the French re­gions last year. Much of it had to be re­built after the dev­as­ta­tion of World War I. We ad­mire the re­sult­ing art-deco fa­cades dur­ing a ten-minute am­ble from the rail­way sta­tion to the ho­tel. Like its neigh­bours, the fam­i­ly­owned Hôtel de la Paix flaunts its curved cor­ners and mo­saic tiling. Bet­ter yet, it is home to a trendy cham­pagne bar favoured by Reims’s je­unesse dorée. Our first flute of bub­bles, on the out­door sip­ping ter­race, puts us in the mood to ex­plore.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, we hire a bike from the ho­tel and cy­cle to the Cathé­drale Notre-dame, with its daz­zling stained-glass win­dows cre­ated by Marc Cha­gall in 1974. It was on this site that 29 French kings were crowned be­tween the 11th and 19th cen­turies.

How­ever, the bub­bles soon lure us across town to Les Crayères, for­mer chalk quar­ries that are now used as cel­lars by fa­mous cham­pagne houses in­clud­ing Mumm and Tait­tinger. Lit­tle won­der: the 200 kilo­me­tres of sub­ter­ranean tun­nels are ideal for stor­ing cham­pagne, maintaining a per­fect 11-12°C tem­per­a­ture and 90-95 per cent hu­mid­ity.

Cel­lar tour

We opt for a crash course in cham­pagne history through Veuve Clic­quot’s ‘Foot­steps of Madame Clic­quot’ walk­ing tour. Estab­lished in 1772 and taken over by the widow ( veuve) Clic­quot in 1805, the cham­pagne house is now one of the world’s most recog­nised brands.

Our tod­dlers are strapped into slings dur­ing the chilly cel­lar tour, where staff take time out from their chores to ex­plain why they use three dom­i­nant grapes (chardon­nay, pinot noir and pinot me­u­nier) and how a dou­ble fer­men­ta­tion gives the drink its unique fizz. Best of all, the slowly age­ing Yel­low La­bel bot­tles we wit­ness en route can be bought di­rectly in the bou­tique for far less than in the UK. Eurostar al­lows pas­sen­gers to travel with six bot­tles of wine per adult.

Next day, we take the 25-minute train jour­ney to Éper­nay – Cham­pagne’s cultural hub and un­of­fi­cial cap­i­tal. Our two lit­tle boys are en­chanted by the pic­ture win­dows that take in tiled vil­lage rooftops pierced with sharp steeples and a che­quer­board of gen­tly rolling vine­yards.

Un­like most wine re­gions of France, Cham­pagne’s vines are sec­tioned out into pe­tite fam­ily-held parcels. It is not un­com­mon for coun­try­side plots to be owned by the lo­cal phar­ma­cist or the

vil­lage boulanger. Un­less the pro­pri­etor is an in­de­pen­dent pro­ducer, each in­di­vid­ual vine­yard’s harvest is promised ev­ery year to a fa­mous cham­pagne house and pegged with a sign. Case in point: we spot sign­posts from the train not­ing grapes des­tined for top-end houses Louis Roed­erer and Krug.

Once more, ar­riv­ing by train is ef­fort­less. The Gare d’éper­nay was once the start­ing point for ex­port­ing tens of mil­lions of bot­tles of cham­pagne, so the big-name houses in the town cen­tre are just a five-minute walk away. His­toric build­ings dot the af­flu­ent cob­ble­stone streets. Éper­nay’s pâtis­series even dis­play cham­pagne-flavoured mac­arons.

The big­gest draw in town is the Av­enue de Cham­pagne, an el­e­gant street hous­ing many of the most pres­ti­gious cham­pagne houses, but un­der­neath these im­pos­ing fa­cades lie 110 kilo­me­tres of cel­lars, stor­ing 200 mil­lion bot­tles of bub­bly – a fig­ure that helps to keep the global sup­ply at around 1.4 bil­lion bot­tles.

The ma­jor­ity of the cel­e­brated houses of­fer tours. Moët & Chan­don’s 28 kilo­me­tres of labyrinthine caves make up the largest war­ren of cel­lars in the re­gion. Out­side the house stands a sculp­ture of the leg­endary Dom Pérignon, re­puted in­ven­tor of cham­pagne and a Bene­dic­tine monk in the nearby vil­lage of Hautvillers. His steely gaze eyes us up. Is he im­ply­ing that it would be rude not to stock up straight from the source? We bag a cou­ple more bot­tles of Moët di­rectly from the gift shop.

The twins de­mand an af­ter­noon’s de­tour in Aÿ, just four min­utes by train from Éper­nay. In­cred­i­bly, this com­pact coun­try­side vil­lage (pop­u­la­tion 4,500) has no fewer than 55 cham­pagne houses, in­clud­ing a scat­ter­ing of fa­mous names, such as Bollinger, Deutz and Ay­ala. The sur­round­ing vine­yards are criss-crossed by hik­ing trails, a healthy ad­di­tion to our sched­ule after two days of an­douil­lette sausages, chou­croute and fizz. For en­thu­si­asts, the Musée des Métiers du Cham­pagne de­tails the process of cham­pagne-mak­ing.

Flashes of river­side

The UK re­mains the lead­ing ex­port mar­ket for cham­pagne, with much of it ar­riv­ing by road. But two cen­turies ago, bot­tles were taken by boat along the River Marne via Éper­nay to Paris, be­fore being shipped across the Chan­nel. We fol­low the river’s tum­bling route west­wards, the rail­way line of­fer­ing stun­ning flashes of river­side walk­ing paths and weep­ing wil­lows as we trace the Marne’s south­ern banks all the way to Château-thierry. It is ap­par­ent why this en­tire val­ley was awarded Unesco World Her­itage sta­tus in 2015.

The re­mains of a 12th-cen­tury cas­tle crown Château-thierry, a bustling mar­ket town that marks the fi­nal stop on our jour­ney. To the east sits Cham­pagne Joël Michel, a fam­ily-run or­ganic pro­ducer that has been a lo­cal in­sti­tu­tion since 1847. Un­like any­where thus far on our trav­els, the vine­yard features both Ja­panese and me­dieval gar­dens – ideal for our boys to scram­ble around.

I take my sud­den burst of free­dom to sam­ple a house brut, dec­o­rated with a 1920s-style la­bel, which I def­i­nitely wouldn’t have stum­bled across back home. Then it’s Lon­don call­ing. We re­set watches on the Eurostar sprint home, al­low­ing us ex­tra time for bed­time sto­ries and more bub­bly. No air­port queues for us.

MAIN PIC­TURE: Vine­yards around the vil­lage of Ville-dom­mange, near Reims; RIGHT: A TGV on the jour­ney through Cham­pagne

ABOVE: Vine­yards in the Cham­pagne re­gion; BE­LOW RIGHT: Av­enue de Cham­pagne in Éper­nay; ABOVE RIGHT: A sculp­ture in the cel­lars of Veuve Clic­quot

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