For 2020, we’re going to have a brand-new tour, of Champagne and its region.
The origins of this tour are quite complicated. Reims, with Epernay the twin capitals of the Champagne wine region, holds a very important place in French history. This is where French Kings and Queens (and a well-known emperor from Corsica) were crowned. It’s a strange set-up – they were crowned in Reims, and buried in St Denis, just outside Paris. When we tour the Loire Valley, we learn how Joan of Arc persuaded the future Charles VII in France that he should claim the French crown and ‘boot the English out of France’. Claiming the French crown meant travelling to Reims, through hundreds of miles of English-held territory – that’s why it was such an important declaration. There was much more to it than “Hi everyone, I think I might be the King!”.Why Reims (pronounced Rance – trust me)? Typically of all these stories, the origins are cute, and utterly ludicrous. At the coronation of Clovis I in 496 AD, a white dove delivered the ‘Holy Ampulla of chrism ‘ for the ceremony. “The Holy Ampulla of what?” Chrism – that’s Myrrh to you and me. Now, would you forgive me if I slip in an ‘allegedly’ around this whole story? But this is the ampulla used in the coronations of all subsequent French Kings and Queens.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Reims is absolutely *!%$@~! stunning – Michelin refer to it as ‘…one of the finest cathedrals in Christendom’. The current building dates back ‘merely’ to the 13th century. As well as some of the most beautiful rose windows I’ve ever seen (on a par with Notre Dame and St Denis), the exterior boasts more than 2,300 statues. It might offer consolation to people worried about the fate Notre de Dame de Paris, to learn that this beautiful building was almost lost to fire in 1914, destroying the roof, splitting the stones and melting the lead in the stained glass windows. And you should see it now! Funnily enough, it’s enjoyed a huge upsurge in visitors since the damage to Notre Dame. Notre Dame de Reims, for me, is a far more significant building. Worth a joruney in itself, as Michelin would say.
Incidentally, the cathedral is not the oldest church in Reims. The cathedral is so stunning, and has such history, that it’s easy to overlook the UNESCO-listed Basilica of St-Remi, less than 2Km away.
I have a bit of a soft-spot for the very best cathedrals and abbeys, and these two qualify.
ChampagneOf course, we’ll also explore the champagne, which has made the region so famous. Next month, February, I’ll write in detail about the history of wine-making in Champagne, dating back to pre-Roman times. Everybody has heard of Champagne – sparkling wine, made from grapes within a strictly-defined geographical region in Champagne.
There are upwards of 250 Champagne houses, including famous names like Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Mumm (no relation). They all have big visitor centres, and offer highly professional visitor experiences. I hope it goes without saying, we visit some other places.
Our newest guide, Lydia, lives in Reims, and her partner Romain, who some of you will have met in Languedoc last summer, is in the drinks trade. So we’ve been extremely lucky to have two local experts choose the most interesting and beautiful champagne houses for us to visit.We start our tour North of Reims, and on the 2nd day, cycling towards Reims, we’ll visit the champagne house of Bourdaire Gallois in the village of Pouillon.
Later in the week we’ll visit the museum and champagne house of Vranken Pommery in the beautiful setting of Villa Demoiselle. And after leaving Epernay, we’ll visit Champagne Launois.
We’ll learn all about the process of making Champagne, the rules that the growers must obey, and in the most beautiful settings.
The Champagne region is about 100 miles East of Paris. One thing that surprises the visitor is how lovely the landscape is – you’re reminded that wine-growing is basically farming, so you’re looking at beautiful countryside all day long. In Champagne there are some hills involved, on the plateaus to the North and South of Reims and Epernay. So the cyclist gets to enjoy beautiful scenery, with rolling hills. Nothing too scary, but enough so that we can enjoy beautiful panoramas and landscapes throughout our week.
Two years ago, in 2018, we organised a bespoke trip travelling from Champagne to Burgundy for Geoff Brookes, his family, and friends from Australia (hi Geoff). This was my first opportunity to see Champagne with an eye to the cycling. It’s perfect cycling country. Not busy, lots of sites of interest, beautiful scenery, and rolling hills.
So why are we offering a new tour of Champagne? Because of Reims cathedral, because Champagne is famous, because Lydia lives there (and raves about it), and because Geoff Brookes cycled there two years ago.
In a nutshell, that’s it. And I think you’ll love it.
Next month, I’ll show you the route, we’ll look at how Champagne is made, we’ll check-out the cuisine, and the places we stay. We’ll also explore the strange little rule that means some American winemakers are legally allowed to produce Champagne. When we visit the Champagne chateau, they’ll tell us that nobody is allowed. We’ll know better, but let’s not get into arguments!