We’re now in the Champagne capital of the world: Epernay. Hold on.. I think we’ve said that before.. Oh yes, in our last blog! Both Epernay and Reims claim to be at the heart of this marvel of marketing: The ‘Champagne’ region of France. In fact, we are now a few miles south of both heading down the river Marne.
We left Reims just over a week ago and have a short run of 238 and only 37 locks, a couple of tunnels and a swing bridge (rare in this region) into our winter port of l’Arsenal in Paris. From here (Damery) we know this stretch of water, having taken the same route last year in late November, but this year with the ‘vendanges’ (grape harvest) in full flight it’s a completely different experience. It’s buzzing with activity and excitement (more to come on this).
We loved Reims, some highlights:
- The Cathedral and in particular for this visit (our second) the illumination of the spectacular western facade which brought the history of the cathedral to life, colouring the statues as they would have looked at their creation.
- The beautifully renovated classic art-nouveau covered market at Boulingrin and later the Pique-nique (picnic) beside it one night with our friends Phil and Caroline. We also loved the contemporary art exhibition taking place on the mezzanine level with works from local artist Armelle Blary.
- Touring one of the great Caves of this Champagne city, Pommery: First with other friends from Australia, John and Lyn and then with Jonney and Felicity (Hawkey).
- The Reims Port de Plaisance (marina) was excellent – despite works going on to improve the cycle and pedestrian ways (we love them), with main roads either side, but otherwise with high standards in a perfect location near the Cathedral.
- Visiting the Surrender Museum (Musee de la Reddition) where the German Third Reich officially surrendered to Allied forces in World War II. Last year we visited the Armistice Clearing, near Compiegne, the site of the 1918 Armistice with Germany that signaled the end of World War I.
- Several lovely restaurants with our favourite which included music one special night: Le Cornichons near the covered markets.
- A live music festival at the Forum, around the remains of the old Roman cryptoportique.
Epernay .. on the other hand .. we found a bit challenging. The Port de Plaisance has few moorings available, it’s on a steep slope down to the river making it difficult to handle the wheelchair, and the mooring is a bit rough. The clubhouse is charming and the showers and toilets immaculate, but we don’t use these having everything on board.
Then the town (of Epernay): a messy experience to get from our boat to the only well-maintained part of the city (it seemed to us), the Avenue de Champagne. Here is where Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët and Bollinger have their headquarters. But we had only two nights here (as opposed to almost a month in Reims) and on our second day were joined by our friend Janie, from Australia.
In town we visited a cafe in Avenue de Champagne for a glass of bubbly and the efficient hostess brought our half-bottle to the table and seemed to relish having to open it, ask us to taste it, and on approval pour it for us just like a top quality restaurant. It wasn’t expensive and it wasn’t Moët & Chandon which was right next door – I said “pas (not) Moët & Chandon”. Non, she said, much better, were her words (in French)! And the next day Janie took the Moët & Chandon wine tour and said it was one of the best guided tours she’d ever experienced.
In between these two competing Champagne cities we visited Sillery just 10 kilometres from Reims. Jonney and Felicity had travelled with us from Reims, and later collected the car. Very handy as we could visit the delightful Francois Seconde Champagne house and send them back with a dozen bottles of Champers and wine for Christmas coming up. We’re planning on Christmas in Cornwall.
And then Tours (sur Marne) to revisit one of our favourites, the Auberge ‘La Touraine Champenoise’ where Sylvain and his mother (“the boss”) warmly welcomed us back.
This section of our journey has been the last of the ‘new’ waterways for the year – we are now heading back down the River Marne just as we did last year but a month earlier.
This means we are catching the tail end of the grape harvesting. At the lock at Mareuil-sur-Ay the vineyards creep down the hill all the way to the lock-keepers house and this year we saw the fleet of grape-pickers busy at work. Almost too busy to take note of us, one of the few boats passing by at present, until one man finally stood and waved as I took photos.
The weather is warm, the Champagne excellent .. we toast the health of our friends and family.