Raise your glass
From Champagne to Cognac, we explore four places famous for their tipples
Wine is undoubtedy France’s most popular alcoholic drink, but the country has countless more famous tipples to its name. After all, the social get-togethers in France are endless and they often call for something other than a glass of red, white or rosé. Whether it’s an apéritif with friends or a late-night rendezvous, there is something for every occasion.
If you love the idea of starting a new life among the picturesque vineyards of Champagne-Ardenne, or you could see yourself in the vibrant city of Marseille watching the world go by while enjoying a pastis on a sun-lit café terrace, we’ve picked out four very different places in France which are famous for producing an alcoholic drink. Read on to find out why living in these towns, cities and villages is worth celebrating.
Many people move to France to embrace the country’s famed joie de vivre, and where better to enjoy the good things in life than in the part of France where celebrating with a glass of fizz couldn’t be easier? While the region may be best known for its bottled glamour, life in Champagne is all about appreciating the small things: popping open a bottle with friends, trekking through a vineyardcovered hillside or pottering around one of the region’s endearingly sleepy villages.
In the flower-filled village of Hautvillers in the Marne department lies the tomb of Dom Pérignon. Here, wrought-iron signs of local tradespeople hang outside houses and shop fronts and painted champagne barrels sit along narrow streets, where legend has it that cats jump between rooftops because the alleyways are so narrow. A similar old-world charm can be found in Oger and Troyes, a town of cobbled streets, timber-framed buildings, a 13th-century cathedral and a daily covered market where locals shop for cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and charcuterie.
Those looking for a bit of glitz and glamour will find it in Épernay, the selfproclaimed capital of champagne. Winston Churchill once called its Avenue de Champagne “The world’s most drinkable address” thanks to the number of champagne headquarters located there. Épernay is said to be the best place for sampling champagne, perhaps because of the 200 million bottles stored beneath the town’s streets in its subterranean cellars. The town is also a popular base for exploring Champagne’s vineyards and so it could be ideal if you are considering making a living by running Englishspeaking tours. While in the UK a bottle of champagne is seen as a splurge, here it is simply the local brew so you can order a bottle of the restaurant’s finest, without breaking into a cold sweat when the bill arrives. But even if you’re a teetotaller, Champagne has lots to offer. The region has over 5,000km of signposted footpaths, in addition to parks including the Montagne de Reims nature park and the Faux de Verzy, home to hundreds of dwarf beech trees. The Forêt d’Orient in Piney provides lots of opportunities for sailing and windsurfing, while those with a head for heights can take on the high canopy walkways, monkey bridges and zip wires at Parc Arboxygène near the village of Verzy. There is also a champagne bar in the treetops that you can enjoy, naturally. And if you really want to get hands-on with the process of producing champagne, why not join the 15,000 wine-producers in the region and start making your own brand of bubbly? Now that would certainly be something to raise a glass to.
Encircled by the vineyards that produce many famous Loire Valley wines, Angers evokes visions of a crisp Sancerre or a smooth glass of Pouilly-Fumé. But the city itself has been producing the orangeflavoured liqueur Cointreau since the brothers of the same name founded the distillery in 1849. Ever since, the drink has been served as both an apéritif, digestif and more recently mixed into a cosmopolitan all over the world. The drink appeals to both young and old, much like Angers itself.
As a university city with 30,000 students, Angers has a lively, vibrant feel. Streets of shops, bars and restaurants lead onto the central meet-up point of Place du Ralliement where people of all ages make the square come alive: couples drinking coffee in the sun, children having a spin on the traditional carousel, people dressed up for an evening of opera at the 19th-century Grand Théâtre.
The city is open to people of all ages, and to those from all walks of life. “Angers is conscious of being accessible to everyone,” my guide Olivier tells me on a tour of Angers. Strolling about the city, you will notice a number of ramps and smoothed pavements running alongside cobblestone streets. Simple, practical adjustments like these across the city make a difference getting around whether you’re in a wheelchair, pushing a pram or tottering around town in heels.
Many people move to Angers because of its eco-friendly credentials and in 2017 it was voted the greenest city in France by Observatoire des villes vertes. Walking around the city, it’s easy to see why it won the accolade. There are few cars around Angers’ roads; people cycle, walk, or take the tram to get around the compact city. Public green spaces take up 14% of the city and there is on average 40m2 of green space for each resident who lives here. The local theme parks have nature in mind too, like the Terra Botanica that is entirely devoted to plants, and where you can float through the rose gardens by boat, and see it all from the air on a hot-air balloon.
Set along the River Maine, the city makes for great, easy-going biking. Set off from the centre and follow the path along the river to one of the nearby village vineyards. Domaine du Closel in Savennières is a pleasant two-hour cycle away and they happily replenish visitors with a taste of their local Sancerre. On your way back to town, you can stop for a casual dinner at a guinguette. These riverside restaurants are very popular in Angers mainly for their delicious, simple food, live music and rollicking atmosphere.
“It is the liquor of the gods,” Victor Hugo once said about cognac. Centuries later and in the little town of the same name on the banks of the River Charente, the double-distilled spirit is still as revered as it was in Hugo’s day.
Situated in south-west France, Cognac is quietly busy making the famous brandy all year round. Tractors bumble through the centuries-old vineyards, craftspeople make the bottle’s corks and locals work in the distilleries. The town is home to some of the biggest brandy names including Hennessy, Courvoisier and Martell and the local economy thrives on its star product. Most of the cognac houses offer tours and free tastings and you can also discover the history of the drink at the Musée des Arts du Cognac. Probably best to make the museum your first stop though.
But while it can seem that the town lives and breathes cognac, you don’t have to work in the brandy business to enjoy Cognac’s pride and joy. Ancient thoroughfares and medieval streets with timber-framed houses are home to a busy social scene and provide the perfect backdrop for savouring a taster of the local drink, known as eau de vie. Swirl a tumbler around, and take in your new surroundings.
The Charente department is the second sunniest corner in France, so you can’t spend all your time tasting brandy. The gentle landscape around Cognac is perfect for walking and cycling and there are lots of paths to follow for those who want to explore the area on two wheels. Cycling along the river to the village of Jarnac is an idyllic day out and it also offers spectacular views of the Hennessey estate. Alternatively, you could take a cruise down the river on a traditional gabare boat. Once used to transport cognac and salt, it’s now one of the best ways to sit back, relax and discover Charente.
“For me the most important ingredient in pastis is not the aniseed or the alcohol but the ambience,” says Peter Mayle in his book Toujours Provence. “I can’t imagine drinking it in a hurry.”
It’s little wonder, then that pastis hails from Marseille, the Provençal capital where azure Mediterranean waters and year-round sunshine compel residents in France’s second largest city to take life at a slower pace.
Many locals like to enjoy the traditional tipple at the Vieux Port where views of boats bobbing up and down and fishermen emptying their catch from the quayside bars encourage drinkers to take their time. There are also many seafood restaurants in this part of town to choose from. The locals’ favourite dish remains bouillabaisse, a traditional seafood stew typically served with rouille, a spicy mayonnaise spread on thickly sliced bread. If you want to cook the dish yourself, you’ll get all you need for it at the Vieux Port’s colourful fish market that takes place every day from eight in the morning.
Since its year as European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseille has seriously smartened itself up and across its 15 arrondissements, the city sparkles with a renewed sense of positivity. New Zealander Rowan Gide moved to Marseille three years ago and says in that time, he has seen a real change. “I’ve witnessed the city evolve over the last three years with the introduction of new infrastructure and it’s clear both the local council and its influencers wish Marseille to be a southern hub for both France and Europe,” he says. This new energy can be seen in Cours Julien in the sixth arrondissement. Its graffiti-covered streets that are filled with bookshops, pavement cafés and quirky boutiques are ever-popular with the bohemian crowd.
A similar artsy vibe can be found at Le Panier, the city’s oldest quartier where dockers, sailors and fishermen lived until the 60s. Nowadays, the labyrinth of narrow streets is home to colourful houses, beautifully restored apartments, galleries, restaurants and shops. It’s where Rowan lives and it’s clear he feels right at home. “It’s seriously a cool place to be,” he says. “It’s full of tasteful street art, artists and their workshops and plenty of local artisans who ply their trade by creating all sorts of objects and products, notably Savon de Marseille.”
Yet while Marseille has hung onto its heritage, it is also home to vibrant, modern quarters, such as the Euromediterranée zone. A favourite among city slickers, the complex features swish new offices, apartments, a retail centre and the city’s only skyscraper.
Regardless of where in Marseille you live, the city offers a more dynamic lifestyle along France’s sun-drenched southern coast and at a much more affordable cost, too. While residents here can spend the afternoon soaking up the city’s thriving cultural scene, they can just as easily cycle to the nearby beaches of Prado or Prophète or walk along the limestone calanque creeks by the coast. There is also a cluster of islands close by, from the charming port of Cassis where restored village houses look out to a golden beach and Bandol, famous for its local wine.
For Rowan, Marseille is now home. “People always ask me ‘Why do you live in Marseille when you could live in New Zealand?’ However I’m a firm believer that if you love where you live and you feel like you’re a part of a larger community, then keep living there for as long as that feeling remains.”
Above: The village of Oger in Champagne is surrounded by vineyards
The River Maine runs through Angers
St-Maurice cathedral overlooks Angers city centre
The Pont-Neuf bridge over the River Charente in Cognac
Le Panier is the oldest quarter in Marseille