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Champagne Paris

A French Summer in The Champagne District

June - July 2002

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In celebration of Carole, my younger sister's 30th birthday my parents came over to the UK and we all went to France together for a great visit to both the Champagne District and Paris.

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We spent a few days in the Champagne District staying at the luxurious Chateau de Etoges just south of the town of Epernay. The village of Etoges is very small and set in the middle of numerous vineyards and beautiful countryside. The chateau also had a few bicycles so Annie and I went cycling to see the vineyards up close.
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Click to enlarge Click to enlarge A short drive took us to Reims, the capital city of the Champagne District and home to the magnificent Cathedral Notre Dame which started construction in 1211 on the same site as previous cathedrals dating back as far as the year 401! This particular cathedral was also the place of French coronations from the Middle Ages until 1825 and was later was damaged in both the French Revolution and World War I. Since then there has been a great deal of restoration and now is famous for, amongst other features, spectacular stained glass windows including a 13th century rose window, a number of Chagall designed windows and a number of other windows depicting the champagne growing processes of the area.

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Click to enlarge Click to enlarge After such beauty it was time to enjoy the "fruits" of the area in their final form, champagne! First stop was the Champagne House of Mercier. Apart from being famous for champagne, Mercier has a very different claim to fame; in 1889 the Mercier giant champagne barrel was taken to Paris to enter the Universal Exhibition. This required a number of teams of oxen to pull the barrel and, as it was so big, some of the roads and bridges along the way had to be made wider. The Mercier barrel was given second prize in the exhibition, beaten only be The Eiffel Tower!! Mercier is built on a hill with the cellars some 300 metres deep to keep them at the right temperature. Another innovative part of the cellar design is a tunnel and door built into the side of the hill leading directly from the cellars to the train siding so that the trains can be easily loaded with champagne and sent off to Paris.

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Click to enlarge Click to enlarge Visitors are shown a short film on Mercier's history, then taken down in a lift "tour" showing the different stages in the champagne process and ending with a small train tour of the cavernous cellars. Some of the walls have carvings depicting the monks of the early champagne days as well as one of the "Champagne Floozy", a lady before her time who decided it was OK for ladies to join in with the drinking of this fine champagne. It is quite mind-blowing how big the cellars are and the number of bottles of "bubbly" there are lining the walls. Although the method has not changed the manner of turning the bottles has changed from by hand to by machine with the exception of the mega-expensive bottles, those are lovingly hand-turned by the cellar master. The tour ends in the tasting rooms where the sipping starts, Mercier Champagne is excellent! We could not leave without all buying some to take home.

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No visit to the Champagne District is complete without a visit to the most famous of all Champagne Houses, Moet et Chandon where you even get to meet the master of all Champagne Monks, Dom Perignon. The opulence is obvious right from the start with a chandelier made out of champagne glasses! We did not go on another tour but just wandered around the shop where my parents bought some of the "real stuff" to take to my sister in South Africa.

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge Another important aspect of the Chateau de Etoges was eating. Each morning was a typical continental breakfast with cereal, fruit, bread, cheese and boiled eggs, all in abundance. But when it came to dinner, each night was a different menu of at least four courses ending with the "Cheese Chariot". This was a sight to behold, a trolley loaded to groaning with different cheeses and fruit and accompanied by bottles of Port ranging in age from 10 to 40 years old. Needless to say the meal each night was ended with a glass of 40 year-old to accompany the cheese.

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge The culmination of all this eating was a "Menu Gastronomie" on the last night for Carole's birthday. WOW is the only way to describe it! Six courses, each more impressive looking than the last accompanied by various champagnes and wines and ending with the now-accustomed Port. By the end of the stay we were all definitely "eaten out" but what an experience it all was.

On leaving the chateau, my parents, Annie and I all headed for Paris for a few days of exploring one of our favourite cities...
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