Having waved goodbye to the white cliffs and England, our first stop on the other side was a “hypermarché”. Although amazingly for foreigners shopping in Calais there was no booze in our trolley. Travesty! I hear you cry, but with Charlie practically bursting at the seams already and the fact that we were on our way to Reims, we thought we’d wait for the good stuff.
Our first camping spot was in a small village called Val de Vesle, very close to where the Grand Cru grapes are grown. Once checked in, we headed to the village shop and were chuffed to find a bottle of champagne that was actually made in the village chilling in the fridge. So once we’d set up, we enjoyed a first meal of bubbles, steak and salad, with a bit of cheese to keep us going while the coals heated up. Nice!
The next morning we were greeted by the bread man, who announced his arrival with enthusiastic honking on his van’s horn. Fresh pain au chocolate and coffee for breakfast … who said camping had to be unsophisticated?! We then had a relaxed morning pottering about with just a few chores – the first morning like this for what seems like a long time! We’d pre-booked a champagne tour with a guide called Cris – recommended by the people of trip adviser. Not only did this mean having someone who knew their way around and could take us to some of the smaller champagne houses, it also meant someone else driving, so we wouldn’t have to pack everything up only to have to unpack it again a few hours later!
We shared the tour with two other couples, both from America, who’d taken a day trip from Paris. Cris first took us through a few of the villages close to where we were staying. We drove past fields upon fields of vines, each with a stone depicting which champagne house they belonged to: Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Tattinger, Bollinger, Pommery … the list goes on. Cris then explained to us in his broken English (much better than our French I hasten to add), the importance of the height of the vine (1m 20cm), the chalk, the natural growing process and so on. Next we went to Lemaire, one of the houses, to hear about the grape pressing, blending and fermentation process. And then onto the fun part! Here we tasted three of their blends. The Grand Cru, the Blanc de Blanc and the Grand Reserve – we all concluded that the Blanc de Blanc was the nicest and each made a purchase. Typically it was the most expensive of the three, but at €18.20 a bottle we weren’t exactly complaining. After the tasting we went to the resting place of the father of champagne, Dom Perignon, to pay our respects (and give thanks!). Then with another tasting under our belt, it was time for home. However, Cris, the ever-enthusiastic guide, took us on a little detour to drive us past the Cathedral, Basilica, Madam Pommery’s impressive estate, as well as the Ruinart cellars.
Although we didn’t always understand what Cris was trying to explain to us, we’d definitely recommend his tour as a way of seeing a bit more of the region and try out those smaller, but equally nice, producers of champagne. And at 60 we were very impressed to hear that after dropping us at the campsite his next task was to speed skate a mere 30km!
The next day (Wednesday) we packed up so we could head back into Reims and check out some of the sights. The cathedral, the Notre-Dame de Reims, was incredible. It was built around 1211 and is where previous kings of France were once crowned. The spires, sculptures (of which it has over 2,300) and stained-glass windows were awe-inspiring and what was really nice was that it wasn’t particularly crowded, so we could look around without constantly bumping into people. After this we went along to the Basilica, which is much older and far simpler than the cathedral. However, its simplicity has its own charm and there was a real air of peace there. We’d considered doing a tour of one of the big champagne houses to compare to the previous day’s visits, but time ran away with us, so we settled on buying a bottle of Ruinart to enjoy at our leisure (one of Marcello’s favourites, but that Karen hadn’t tried before).
This was to be our last night in the region as we had a long drive ahead of us the next day to head South. It was nice to start the trip off at a relaxed pace and it was very noticeable how much quieter everywhere seemed to be on this side of the pond. One thing is for sure, Charlie certainly draws attention and plenty of admirers. It makes camp life very sociable as people come to have a look around and share their travel stories. It’s always interesting to see other people’s set-up and what they’ve brought along to make their camping experience that little bit more enjoyable. Our favourite so far is the 1950s style caravan that seems to be particularly popular in the Netherlands (see the photo with the red and white striped blinds). So far no other Landies, but I’m sure Charlie will find some friends along the way.