David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Spring in Champagne/Reims, May 2005

We left Nice for a one-week house-swap in a town just outside of Reims (spelled Rheims in English!) in the Champagne region of France. Enroute we stayed in Meursault, a charming little town in the Burgundy region. Burgundy is a lovely area, somewhat like the Cotswolds but with terrific food and wine. We did a degustation (wine tasting) in a 15th century cave-like place and ended up buying a few bottles. Then we walked all over the tiny town which is surrounded by ancient wineries. Our hotel, right in the middle of town, was owned by a young couple with a tortoiseshell cat ruling over all. Our room was basic but had an interesting loft area where we pictured our grandsons sleeping and giggling. Next time! Luckily the church across the way stopped the bells from 10 at night until 7 in the morning.

We had a wonderful dinner at the same hotel. We don't usually eat a lot for dinner, preferring to have our main meal at lunch. I had only an entree (first course) of ravioli stuffed with foie gras in a vegetable broth with beans and asparagus. It was to die for. David thoroughly enjoyed his lotte (monkfish). For dessert I had a pear in wine while David had the apple tart.

We arrived at our exchange home the next afternoon after driving through rainstorms all morning: a large 3 bedroom/several fireplace home with the third floor given over to a huge workout and computer room. The place is filled with antiques, including 4 ceramic stoves, and mementoes from their worldwide travels. Later we discovered there was not a television in the whole place! Alain and Helene showed us all around and then they left for our place in Nice.

We spent one rainy day driving up to Laon which was the capital of France from 840 to 987. It is perched on a plateau over the plains with fabulous views on any clear day I am sure. The Cathedrale Notre Dame was started in 1160 and finished around 1230 and is in the early Gothic style. It has been the inspiration for many other cathedrals including Chartres and Reims. The town is surrounded by ramparts and several of the gates are still standing.

We went on to Soissons where we had a wonderful lunch of four courses: escargots; farfalle with scallops; a cheese course; and a pear tart for dessert. Too much food and we wished we had a doggie bag! Afterwards we took a long walk around the town, visiting their cathedral - equally impressive, including paintings by Rubens - and the ruins of the Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes.

Both towns are in the Picardie region and there were many memorials and cemetries along the routes commemorating the men who died in the War to End All Wars. In the church in Soissons there was a special plaque commemorating the more than one million English soldiers who died in the war and most of whom are buried in France. Another day we went to Chateau Thierry, to the nearby American memorial at Belleau Wood where 2289 young American men are buried. So sad. There are many other memorials in this area where so many men died. One cemetery I particularly liked had dark crosses instead of the usual white - they looked just like vines growing.

We spent one day in Epernay which is the heart of the champagne region and where all the major houses have their beautiful chateaux and caves. We went for a tasting at Moet & Chandon, founded in 1743 by the Moet family, and were the only people on the English-speaking tour. Our guide, Mercedes, was Catalan and had a degree in restaurant management; she worked on ships for several years, seeing the world. We saw a few of the rooms of the chateau and then the tunnels where the wine is kept while she explained the whole process to us. Naturally at the end of the tour there was a tasting of a delicious glass of champagne. When I expressed amazement at the number of bubbles, she told me the secret - don't wash the glasses with soap, just rinse them with very hot water. The 'cleaner' the glasses, the fewer the bubbles! We also stopped at nearby Hautvillers where Dom Perignon is buried at the Abbey founded in 660. He died at 77 years in 1715, apparently well preserved!

We spent a sunny day in Chalons-sur-Marne, a town filled with half-timbered buildings. We visited Notre-Dame-en-Vaux, built in the 12th century, a beautiful church with lovely stained glass windows. Both the magnificent cathedral, St. Etienne, and the tiny Eglise St. Alpin were closed, but we admired the Hotel de Ville and especially enjoyed Le Petit Jard, a garden with many flowering trees, well marked, and a floral clock. We ate in a typically Ardennois (an area north of here) restaurant with food very similar, we thought, to Alsace which is not far to the east.

To return to our exchange, we followed the Route de Champagne through many tiny, idyllic towns and past hundreds of vineyards. There was acreage owned by Roderer, Veuve Cliquot, Taittinger, Mumm, and many other less famous names. At Verzy we walked a couple of miles in the strange forest of "Les Faux de Verzy", dwarf, mutant beech trees of magical appearance with thick, tortured lower branches and thinner, dense upper branches forming curious caps, some thick enough to live under like in a tent.

We spent a day in Troyes, about 60 miles south of our exchange home. The old town of Troyes, famed in medieval times for its fairs is in the shape of a champagne cork. By legend, Attila the Hun was here but didn't destroy the village because St. Loup offered himself as a hostage for the safety of the town. There are hundreds of half-timbered buildings and several churches of interest. We most enjoyed Eglise Ste. Madeleine the oldest church, built in the 12th century. There is a 'jube' - sort of an awning - at the entrance to the choir that is carved and embellished in the intricate flamboyant style. Another church, Basilique St. Urbain, was built by Pope Urban IV, who was from a poor family in Troyes, to honor Urban I.

After a great lunch we drove on to Provins, a small town with a very well-preserved feudal old town complete with ramparts and gates. Edmond of Lancaster, brother of the English king, became the overseer of Provins. He added to his coat of arms a rare red rose which grew here, imported from Syria during the 7th Crusade, the rose that became the symbol of the house of Lancaster in the War of the Roses 150 years later. We actually enjoyed this town so much that we came back and spent another day here, exploring and enjoying another wonderful lunch.

Both of these towns Provins and Troyes, are too charming for words, although I seem to have found several. Provins is very close to Paris (about 60 miles) and would make an easy day-trip on your next visit to Paris. Highly recommended!

Of course 'la piece de resistance' of the area is Reims (pronounced to rhyme with a french prince - sort of 'rancid' without the id!) and we spent a couple of days exploring it. In 496 St. Remi baptised Clovis in Reims, starting the reign of Catholicism in France. Nearly every French king has been crowned at the Reims Cathedrale de Notre Dame, including Louis IX (St. Louis) and Charles VII, the Dauphin led here by Jeanne d'Arc. Of particular interest inside the church are the beautiful Chagall windows. All the windows that Chagall has done - including the ones at the Art Institute in Chicago - were done in Reims, so famous for its stained glass.

The city itself is very pleasant to walk around, with many pedestrian zones and little traffic elsewhere. There are no high-rises, giving a very relaxed feel to the place, and few tourists. We visited several of the museums - the Museum of Fine Arts, Antique French Automotive Museum, and the Hotel Le Vergeur Museum which was a private home and is filled with beautiful furniture and the collections of Hugues Krafft (1853-1935), a world traveler.

And of course we enjoyed a wonderful lunch, starting with an aperitif of champagne, which seemed only right. David had duck with andouillette while I had salmon on pureed pumpkin, a great combination. The waiter was very friendly and seemed to enjoy that we were Americans, telling us of his time in New York.

When our week was over, we headed back to Nice, stopping en route in Vienne a charming town with Roman ruins. It rained most of the drive but cleared as we reached this town, giving us a nice afternoon to explore. Then Sunday it was home to Nice.


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