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
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.
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.
ABOVE: Vineyards in the Champagne region; BELOW RIGHT: Avenue de Champagne in Épernay; ABOVE RIGHT: A sculpture in the cellars of Veuve Clicquot
MAIN PICTURE: Vineyards around the village of Ville-dommange, near Reims; RIGHT: A TGV on the journey through Champagne