It would be a fair reflection to say that Hautvillers was shut for the day!
We were doing the Vallée de la Marne Champagne route and this village was described as one of the region’s prettiest. Indeed it was, but it was also pretty much asleep.
The general store, cafe, restaurant, art gallery, tourist office, wine shop and gift shop all had closed signs emblazoned across their entrances.
No leisurely lunch to be had here as planned, but happily God’s House (Église Abbatiale) was open for our delectation, I mean contemplation.
Hautvillers is generally accepted as the place where Benedictine monk Dom Perignon created champagne and we were able to go in and see Dom’s final resting place in the church, signalled by a plaque extolling his God given deeds in finding the secrets of the fizz that had brought vast wealth to the region.
Only the bubbly produced in the designated region could be called Champagne, the other pretenders being mere sparkling wine and no comparison to the REAL stuff.
This had the result of pushing up the value of the vineyards in the official area, illustrated by the battle to achieve ‘champagne status,’ as the Champagne governor’s have decided to expand the official area by 2017 to accommodate growing world demand.
Unbelievably, this will see the lucky landowners that are selected as meeting the required standards see their land value rise as much as 30,000% to €1 million per hectare!
Can you imagine the corruption and arguing that must be going on? Age-old friendships will be severely tested if one neighbour is successful whilst another is not.
Thankfully the next village had a shop selling tasty cheese baguettes, great value too. Brie and grape somehow tasted even better in the Champagne air.
We spent the afternoon driving around the small roads that crisscrossed amongst the vines. The wealth was there for all to see, magnificent maisons, well-tended gardens and acres and acres of vines.
The red roses dotted about the viticultural fields made lovely contrasts against the prevailing green, like baubles on a Christmas tree.
As before, the haves were over-seeing the have-nots working their sweaty butts off in the fields. I imagined it had been all DIY for their forefathers.
We stopped at a couple of champagne producers on our rounds, but one was closed to visitors and the other had such indifferent and rude staff that we turned on our heels.
Apart from that we just drove about enjoying the views, also having three short stops, one by the green-tinted River Marne, secondly in a village called Châtillon-sur-Marne for some refreshment plus a climb up the hill to see the twenty-five metre high statue of Pope Urban II, and finally to see a wartime graveyard with casualties from the Battle of the Marne.
That was when our enjoyment stopped. We had to return the car by 17.30, but far from being a conspicuously large car rental lot, we had to find a tiny franchise location.
To make matters worse, Épernay centre had some pretty major roadworks and the traffic was absolutely awful.
We drove around aimlessly and frustratingly for seventy minutes before eventually stumbling across our quarry. I tried to call for directions but the Hertz lady only spoke French and fast French at that. No chance!
I arrived hot and irritated, but at least got there five minutes before closing time, thus just about avoiding a fine.
It was à pied for the rest of out stay. We were pretty fatigued, but summoned the energy for a beer en route to our hotel.
We unwittingly had a perfect view of a wreath laying ceremony at the war memorial, complete with military uniforms and brass band, as we supped our Stellas. A banner fluttered in the light breeze proclaiming Épernay as a stage start in the forthcoming Tour de France.
We didn’t fancy Pierre’s moussaka so elected for an unremarkable Italian in town and a nightcap cocktail to help us sleep.
Champagne For Everyone
Despite doubts right up until the day itself, we obtained confirmation that our planned departure to Paris was indeed running as planned later that afternoon.
Our plan for the day was to leave our luggage at Pierre’s and take a leisurely stroll through town to visit one of the twenty plus Champagne Houses on Avenue de Champagne.
Despite the obvious allure of Moët & Chandon, we had plumped for the Mercier tour, where we were to learn that the bubbly created there is France’s favourite, with only 10% of production exported.
First we strolled around the delightful gardens at the bottom of the boulevard before strolling to our champers tour. I plumped for the two-glass tour, whilst Rania settled on one.
The tour started with an explanation of the absolutely huge barrel that dominated the reception area. It had been built for the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1889. Stats were recounted – lots of wood, lots of craftsmanship and lots of money. Quite a feat to get the giant structure from Épernay to the capital.
It seemed Monsieur Mercier was a bit of a showman and the exhibition was to put his champagne firmly on the drinks menu throughout France.
We were then led into a special lift. The rear was made of glass and a sound, film and light show told the Mercier story as we floated down into the depths of the limestone cellars.
This was followed by the tour itself as we sat in a train steered by infrared lights that bounced off the walls, barrels and thousands of bottles in situ.
We traversed the web of tunnels and learned all there is to know about the bubbly liquid, most of which I instantly forgot.
After thirty-minutes, we rose back up in a bog-standard lift to the bar area, cleverly positioned next to the shop.
Light headed tourers shopped with their guard down and like us bought far more booze than it was easy to carry.
Mystifyingly, we also purchased two Mercier posters that are never likely to see the light of day outside of their cardboard tubes.
We were to pay for this weight burden wise. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Pierre could be stirred to get us a taxi, meaning we had to struggle the twenty-minutes across town laden with luggage and packages.
We however made it in good time and were soon dozing away, fatigue coming on quickly as a result of our bubbles intake and bag carrying exertions.
When we arrived in Paris Gare du L’est, it was chaos. La grève had halted the Metro and brought the bus network to a standstill, so the roads were gridlocked.
We had an expensive taxi crawl to our central hotel. Forty-five minutes in, the taxi driver stated the journey would usually have taken fifteen minutes tops. It was to eventually take sixty-five and cost us €30!
The coup de grace was that the apartment I had booked was an absolute dump. How could this have happened when they had such a good rating on the hotel booking site? I soon realised when I checked the site again to show my less than impressed wife.
The photographs depicted bore no resemblance to the room where we now sat, waving away the flies and taking in the disgusting kitchen area and bathroom. No wonder the owner/receptionist had made us pay upfront.
There was no way we were staying there. The rude and indignant hotelier refused to refund us, but we left anyway and booked another hotel near the Opera Garnier. I was to get my €300 back later on through my credit card company, who agreed that the photos we had taken were indeed a case of taking money under false pretences.
All that faffing about meant we were now pushed for time to take in the England v Uruguay World Cup game. We ate as we watched England lose and bow out of the competition after just two matches. Oh well, best have some cocktails then!
We usually visit Paris in the spring or autumn (aside from a couple of Christmas stays) and agreed that the summer was not the same. A very nice picnic was had in Les Jardins du Luxembourg on the Friday in glorious sunshine, but it still didn’t quite cut the moutarde.
That night we watched the blue, red & white wigs & painted faces become exultant as Les Bleus trounced the Swiss 5-2 in their Mondiale match. A great experience, making me in not the least jealous after England’s ignominious early exit from the tournament!!
We would be back next spring for our more typical Parisian experience.