Wanting to get away for the weekend from the UK, but don't want to break the bank? Take a drive down to Reims and Epernay in the Champagne region and get to try lots of Champagne too
Isn’t it funny how short breaks can end up just as expensive as a week’s holiday in the sun? In the current ‘credit-crunching’ climate, we were looking for a weekend away that didn’t blow the budget.
Somewhere in France was ideal, as it meant we could go by car to save money. In the past we’d ended up at Le Touquet or Paris, but this time we wanted to do something a bit different so we chose Champagne-Ardenne, an area in France famous for a certain, quintessentially French product, which just happens to be my favourite tipple.
It was 270 miles from London, a perfectly manageable distance by car for a weekend break. We took the Eurotunnel to France, and then headed south, sticking to the tree-lined minor roads, wending our way through the Normandy countryside, then onto Nord-Pas-de-Calais, stopping for breakfast in Arras, then into Picardy. It was a fabulous and thought-provoking drive as we passed cemetery after cemetery, consisting of little but rows upon rows of white wooden crosses lined up perfectly symmetrically, marking the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in the first and second world wars. We also did a detour into Laon, to see its Gothic cathedral. My knowledge of the French language came in handy for the first time in ages.
Eventually we came to Reims, a city famous for the numerous well-known champagne houses based there including Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Krug and Tattinger. Most offer tours of their cellars but you need to book in advance and there is usually a charge.
We went on the Veuve Clicquot tour (www.veuve-clicquot.com; +33 326 895 30) and it provided a fascinating incite to the world of Champagne. It took two hours and took us right down into the depths of the cool cellars below. The cost was 13 euro per person and included a glass of champagne.
TOP TIP: Book tours well in advance as they get busy and some are closed at weekends.
Reims is steeping in history, with cobbled streets and tree-lined avenues. In fact, four of its sites are listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. It’s great just to simply walk around. One of these sites is the impressive Notre Dame Cathedral, a masterpiece of gothic art, remained standing as the rest of Reims was flattened by bombing in the First World War. It’s worth a visit.
For our first night we stayed at Domaine des Grattieres (Route de Bouvancourt, F-51220 Hermoville), a B&B 10km out of Reims for our first night. It was a stylishly renovated barn on top of a hill that over looked fields of perfectly trimmed vines and the town of Hermonville. It was extremely peaceful and the owners were very welcoming. At €70 per night per room, which included a fantastic breakfast, it is definitely to be recommended.
We spent some time exploring the region, taking the champagne route down to the pretty town of Epernay, through colourful villages, past field upon field of perfectly maintained vineyards, up hills and down into the valleys. There are over 15,000 growers of which 4,100 produce their own champagne. We occasionally stopped off to taste different Champagnes in the vicinity, and were able to see where the grapes are actually pressed, buying a few bottles along the way. Again it’s worth calling ahead to book an appointment. The producers will gladly show you around their cellars. We turned up at one and whilst we enjoyed a tasting whilst being the lady in charge explained all about the Champagne process - in French! They are so passionate and each one will go to great lengths to convince you theirs is unquestionably the best.
Epernay is home to Champagne houses including Moet et Chandon, Mercier, Perrier-Jouet and Pol Roger. Our B&B for the second night was the truly fabulous Chateau de Juvigny (Chateau de Juvigny, 51150 Juvigny), located between Epernay and Chalons en Champagne.
The chateau, built in 1702, had a moat around the outside of it and entry was via giant, wrought iron gates. On one side there is a beautiful five hectare lake and the other a vast park. It would have been easy to stay there longer, go swimming or rowing in the lake or take a walk through the park. We stayed in Celine's Room, which has a fabulous roll-top bath. It was €110 for the night.
There are many other places to explore in the region, but we ran out of time. It’s an ideal weekend away, if you’re looking for somewhere slightly different from your usual short break, that won't blow your budget.
How to get there
By car: Eurotunnel – approximately £100 per car. You can also go by ferry from Dover to Calais or fly/go by Eurostar to Paris and hire a car from there.
B&Bs range from about 70 – 150 euro per night, occasionally there is an additional charge for breakfast.
The best time to visit
The best time to go is between April and October - this is growing season. If you'd like to see grapes being harvested, then go in September.