Thursday, April 23, 2009

Champers alright with you?

The golden sculpture atop the tower in the center of the Bastille roundabout.

We began our tour of the Champagne region like most people, from our hotel in Paris.

Our guide book (actually almost every guide book we read) tell you one thing about driving in the city of Paris - DON'T. Something about being either brave or foolish; even the locals are frightened; and that we should basically take the train to the furthest reaches of the suburbs, rent our car there and return it there on our way back. Well that was not scaring Lyle off.

If you are foolhardy enough to drive in the French capital, here are tips on how to drive like a native Parisian:

You know those lovely big French roundabouts with no lane markings whatsoever - like Charles de Gaulle Etoile, Bastille and Place de la Concorde? The rule for use of these roundabouts is under no circumstances should you use your indicator to show people what your intentions are. Instead, weave in and out of the ‘lanes’ in a random fashion, and then cut off several lanes of traffic when you reach your exit. (Lyle did this on our return to the city!)

Learn to park the French way! Nudging the bumpers of the cars adjacent to your space is perfectly acceptable, and indeed expected. I once spied four people lifting a Fiat Uno sideways out of a space it had got hemmed into. (I did this when we parked the car on the way back, bang-back, bang-forward, bang-back...)
So the start was auspicious as any other, we walked over to the nearest car rental agency we had selected... so close... okay it took 25 minutes. It looked closer on the map. Then they took 25 minutes to get our paperwork all ready, then they gave us the wrong car (4 people in a two door? Hello? Not happening. "It's not a two door, it's a three door!" Yeah, no one is climbing in through the back hatch.) So it took about an hour and half to get the car. Already behind schedule.

But it all faded away when we got on the highway and within minutes we were free of the city. It amazes me how in Europe the city just stops. It falls away, there is a pasture. No mall sprawl, not lingering housing developments. City/country.

It would have taken about an hour and half to get to the chateau we were staying at, but the beauty of a car is "OH LOOK! PRETTY! PULL OVER! STOP THE CARRRRRR!!!!" And so we did that a few times.

And then we arrived at the Chateau d'Etoges.
Robb & Lewis had gone last year and encouraged us to stay here. Since we were only staying one night they also recommended splurging on the upgrade to the premium room. Good call!

A dog sculpture? We knew we'd feel right at home.

We unloaded out luggage and got right back in to the car. We had only two days to SEE IT ALL. And you know we were never going to make that. But we lurched out of the driveway and immediately went the wrong way. Except there really was no wrong way. Except that we were going the opposite of the most direct route. But then wasn't that supposed to be the great joy of the freedom of the open road?

As we took a country back road to head towards where we should have been going before, we came upon this ahead of us:
Above was our view from the road.

Below, as seen from above.
The Château de Montmort is a stately home built on the site of a medieval castle in the region of Montmort-Lucy in France.

A castle existed as early as the 11th century and there is still evidence of its existence in the ramparts and ditches. The present buildings seem to date from the 16th century, the time of their reconstruction. The lower structure exhibits mullioned bays characteristic of the early Renaissance. At the sides, two flush towers were built to hold cannons. Two wings of the lower structure were removed in the 19th century. The higher structure, built later, carries the date of 1577. The building plan corresponds with a reference to the former castle in an old document: a square keep confined by circular towers. One tower includes an inclined ramp to allow horse to reach the higher levels.

The Montmort website goes on to say that is "a must during any trip to Champagne." So we stopped. Though the sign said it was only open during July and August, Lyle rang the bell anyway. And no one answered. And then an older woman pulled up, ignored us in our car outside her gate, got out to unlock the gate for herself, did not acknowledge Lyle, so he walked over and asked if we could have a private tour. (don't you love Lyle?) And her response was wagging a finger in front of Lyle and saying, "Non, non, non, non." And then getting back into her car.

Back to the road we went.

We had been coached by friends who had previously toured the region that you just drive down the road, any road, and there will be signs pointing you to champagne producers. Drive up, get out, and ask if they are giving any tours today. Or ask for a tasting.

We saw a sign along the road, turned off and went in to the village of Vinay. We stopped at the first location, Lecomte Pére et Fils. Lyle bravely walked into the courtyard looking to inquire about tour. Finding no one, he continued inside the open doors in the back. The rest of us hung out like sheep waiting to make a run for the car when the locals came after us with pitchforks.

Instead we were invited inside to watch them work on today's project by the owner himself.

Translated from their website:

Since 1859, five generations of vine growers followed one another of father as son. We continue to carry out in family all the stages of the wine making in the respect of the tradition. Our vineyard is spread on the chalky slopes of the prestigious soil of Vinay, located at the south-west of Epernay. We will be charmed to accommodate you in our storerooms all the year, of the Monday to Sunday morning.
And charming they were. We watched as they went about their business with the owner explaining in mostly French with a little English and a lot of pantomime. Lyle somehow understood and explained it back to us in mostly English, maintaining some of the pantomime. After watching for a bit, we went in for a tasting. It was AMAZING. So fresh and light and tasty. Drinking champagne at 3 in the afternoon definitely agrees with me.

Worried about how we would get a whole case home, we each bought three bottles. I wish we'd bought a case. We left there and decided to go into the "big city" of Epernay.

Epernay is billed as The Capital of Champagne. The tourist brochure calls it "a coquettish town of 26,000". And it also tells me that in 2007 over 338 MILLION bottles of Champagne were produced. I know we drank at least 10 bottle last year so we are definitely doing our part. This is where you will find The Avenue de Champagne which is home to Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët and Mercier to list just a few.

Lyle and Richard in front of Perrier-Jouët.

But it was late in the day. Now we knew how close it was and we knew we'd back the next day to see more. The tourist office did warn us that we were very much "off season" and many places may not be open. But don't be shy, drive up and ask, they told us (well, Lyle).
We walked about in the village and forced Lyle to pose for a photo.
Why did I feel compelled to take a picture of Lyle in front of this shop...?

I can't remember where this photo was taken...

We returned to our gracious Chateau d'Etoges and gazed out our window into the moat.
We were warned by a sign at the front desk that the swans were nesting and could be more aggressive than usual. So I lived in fear of the swans.

In this painting in the drawing room the lady in the center seems awfully blase about having killed that beast on the floor. Maybe a cherub did it for her.

See that musical instrument on the trophy head? I'm pretty certain that is a French Horn hanging off a French Horn. Get it?

Artistic shot of our gracious accommodations.

We ate that night at the restaurant in the Chateau. Stunning gourmet food that all blurred together in my mind and in my stomach. Lyle's "lobster 3-way" stood out in a visual and edible sense.

After three courses came the cheese course. Christine was so excited as she is from Wisconsin and really loves her cheese. I am not from Wisconsin and am afraid of getting stinky cheese.
If only we had known what Lyle would read 2 days later. Fun fact: In France cheese is presented in a clockwise direction. At 12 o'clock is the mildest cheese. Going around the clock in order the cheese gets progressively stronger with the strongest cheese being at 11 o'clock. This is where you will normally find Blue cheese, at the 11 o'clock spot. If only I had know, I would have stayed between noon and one.

Our fifth course is dessert. Ah, French dessert.
Christine and I had this. I remember it being pink. I think it was raspberry. It was delicious. But I was really stuffed by this point.

This was Richard's. A chocolate fudgey cake with a dulce de leche sauce on the side. I think.

Here is Lyle's. I know it was rhubarb. And again, so deliciously tasty...

But what is a five course meal without a little 6th course of second dessert, compliments of the chef so how can you say no? It was carmel. It was tasty. It hurt to waddle away from the table later.

This is an antique map or deed to the estate. The red line I put in shows the road we drove in on and then we turned and drove up the driveway to the square in the center that represents the chateau. Nice piece of property you've got there.

Louis XIV, the Sun King, was astonished by the sparkling fountains you will see in the miniature lakes in the grounds of the Chateau.

Another day in champagne and we got a nice early start!
Richard and Christine are on the Route Touristique!

We saw a pretty building up on the hill, we turned off and went to look at it. Instead of heading directly back to the main road we wandered off on the narrow side roads through the petite villages up on the hill. This way, that way, go left the first time, go right the next time. Just really enjoying the scenery.

And then we saw the sign to a place that Christine's friend Marg had visited the year before. We hadn't even started looking for it when it popped up in front of us. GO RIGHT! There it is! And amazingly they were open for a quick tour and tasting. Denis Frézier in Monthelon. We were graciously given a quick tour and longer tasting, all in French by Agnes Frézier and of course, we we each purchased 2 bottles.
I will be turning my empty bottle into a lamp just like this!

Sadly we did not purchase a bottle this size. Something about carry on restrictions.

Finally we made it back to the Avenue de Champagne and we were ready to take a tour of a large producer with even larger caves and best of all a larger English vocabulary so we could finally understand what the heck all this stuff was.

We arrived at Mercier at 12:15 pm and learned that all tours were done for the morning at noon. The next tours would begin at 2 pm. Ah oui, lunchtime in France!

So we gave ourselves a small tour of the lobby and learned that this MASSIVE cask had actually been in use before being placed on display.
Note the people in the background for scale.
This is the story of the cask.
You can click on it to make it bigger and easier to read.

And here is an illustration of the arrival of the cask in Paris for the exposition.

I love Richard's hat!

Not wanting to sit still for two hours, we drove out of the city and headed towards what we had been told were two quaint and picturesque villages. Though we were headed towards the lower village of Cumieres, all of a sudden (as in whiplash sudden), at the last minute Lyle took a sharp right and headed up the hill to Hautvillers. There is more to tell about this amazing village, but I will place it in another post.

It was DESPERATELY picturesque!

Are those large doors, or am I touring with a midget?

We left Hautvillers and decided to find our way towards the highway in a leisurely pace. That is when we found our final stop of the champagne tour, Champagne Yannick Prevoteau. Yannik spoke the most English of any of our producers so far. So we made him answer all our questions.
This time Christine and Richard bought 2 bottle and we bought 3. I wanted an even number and I was now at 8. EIGHT bottles?! How was I gonna get all that home? Oh, just to let you know, I packed it all in my luggage and it got home just fine. I could have packed 6 more bottle easily.

Finished with our champagne tour, we still dallied our way home and would up stopping in Chateau-Thierry.
On a whim, we decided to climb... up there...

The view from "up there" looking back down where our car was parked (its in the red circle I made).

So what the hell is the big deal about this chateau site up at the top of the hill?

In 946 the castle of Château-Thierry was the home of Herbert le-Vieux, Count of Omois of the House of Vermandois & Soissons.

Château-Thierry was the site of two important battles. The Battle of Château-Thierry (1814) in the Napoleonic Wars between France adn Prussia, and Battle of Château-Thierry (1918) between teh United States and Germany.

This hill had been the site of a castle or fort or chateau since 946. Ok, I get it. That is a bit of a big deal... but in these shoes...?

We decided that this is where you would pour hot boiling oil into the lower circle and then is would flow out the ducts in five locations to stop the invading army.
It was getting late and we were casting long shadows.

We passed by what I poorly translated and the former insane asylum (I think it just means hospital) as we headed back to our car and off to Paris.

Our tale ends where it began, at the Place de Bastille. But what a two day adventure in between!


dit said...

what a dream trip! I am so glad you had such a wonderful time.

jason said...

oh my god...I wanna go...I wanna go! It's like delicious torture!