Tag Archives: Trips away from Paris

The Champagne Region

After our Loire Valley day, we set off for a day trip to the Champagne region. I highly recommend this to anyone visiting France. It was just lovely and very informative!

There are two main cities in the Champagne region: Reims and Épernay. Most of the big champagne producers are located in those cities. However, the entire region is completely filled with small, local champagne producers as well. In fact, while the bigger champagne houses are more well-known as brands internationally, the majority of champagne in the world comes from the thousands of local producers and is produced and consumed in France. I definitely thought that the local champagne was more delicious (hands down, it was not even a close comparison to me), and it was cheaper! But more on that later.

So we have two big cities with mostly big producers who export most of their champagne, and we have about 320 little villages with thousands of small-scale vignerons (winemakers) who, combined, produce the majority of champagne. Add in the beautiful Marne river and rolling hills covered in vineyards, and you have a picture of what the Champagne region is like. We had a car, which was advantageous because it allowed us to get off the beaten path.

We started our day in Épernay, one of the two big cities I mentioned before. Our first stop was a tour at Mercier, a very famous large champagne house. It cost €11 per person for a tour with a tasting of one glass at the end of the tour, all the way up to about €19 for a tasting of three glasses. We just had one, since we didn’t want to wast too much time, money, and effort on the big producers. The tour of Mercier was like a trip to Disneyland. Mercier was famous for his promotional gimmicks, and the company still follows that philosophy. The visit started with a very well-done video and a descent down the glass elevator with scenes about the company in the walls all the way down. Then we entered the huge beautiful caves. Wear a jacket! It’s about 10°C in the caves. We got onto Disneyland-style laser guided trams and toured around the caves, learning all about the production of champagne, the history of Mercier, and the features of the caves all along the way. Champagne is aged in caves because production requires humidity, darkness, and cool temperatures, which are all present in the caves. The caves themselves are massive, spanning 18 kilometers with high ceilings and carved chalk walls. It’s very impressive. Mercier also had a gigantic wine vat on display. It was constructed by Eugène Mercier (the founder) between 1870 and 1881 and could hold the equivalent of 200,000 bottles of champagne. He put on quite a show dragging it all the way to Paris for the World’s Fair in 1900, and according to them it was the second largest attraction of the fair (behind the Eiffel Tower).

I highly recommend at least one visit to a big producer in the region so that you’ll have a good idea of how champagne is made and you’ll get to see the huge impressive cellars. We were happy with our visit to Mercier in Épernay. I’ve also heard that Moët & Chandon and De Castellane in Épernay are good, as well as Mumm, Pommery, and especially Taittinger in Reims. Once you get the big visit out of the way, the fun and adventures can begin.

After we left Mercier, we got into the car and onto the Champagne Route (Route Touristique du Champagne). There are five routes that take you through vineyards and past rivers,  incredible views, charming villages, and beautiful churches/monasteries/chateaux. What more could you ask for? Most importantly, the champagne route takes you past local champagne producers, many of whom have their houses open to the public. You just have to look for the “point d’accueil” (welcome point) signs outside of them.

We were hardly out of Épernay, in the town of Chouilly, when we stopped at Pierre Legras (28, rue de Saint Chamand, 51530 Chouilly, France). I wandered in and asked if we could have a tour, and the owner told me of course. She spoke English, and she showed us their small modern cellar (although it can hold up to 1 million bottles!) and machinery. She also told us all about their process and gave us a much more intimate tour, answering all of our questions along the way. After the tour, we went back to the office where she and her husband gave us tastings of their champagnes and time flew by while we talked for a couple of hours. It was such a nice visit! We tried a lot of incredible champagne and had such a nice afternoon visiting with them and learning all about the lifestyle of a small champagne producer. Of course, we also learned all about their champagnes. We bought about 5 bottles of champagne from them (some of the best champagne I’ve ever had and my favorite bottle was only €15,25!). I really enjoyed the visit to the small producer; it was just so much more personalized and interesting. They even invited us back the next day to see them disgorge a batch of champagne! This is one of the final steps in the process of making champagne. It occurs after they’ve gotten all the sediment (lees = dead yeast) into the neck, and there is a lot of pressure in the bottle. They immerse the neck in a bath of -20°C liquid to freeze the sediment. They remove the cap and, because of the pressure in the bottle, the frozen part with the sediment in it pops out. Then they add the desired dose of sugar and cork it. We really wanted to come and see it, but we were too worn out to drive all the way back again the next day.

If you have the chance, I strongly recommend a visit to Pierre Legras. They were so knowledgeable and hospitable, and their champagnes were excellent.

I had a couple of other small producers on the list for us to see, namely Thierry Rodez in Ambonnay, Tornay and Beaufort in Bouzy. Another thing that sounded great (but didn’t work for the cold rainy weather) is Domi Moreau’s vineyard tours on bicycle (or minibus, for the wimps out there). However, we were at Pierre Legras for such a long time that the business day was over by the end! Oops! It was worth it though, to spend the afternoon with such a nice couple drinking their great champagnes. The rest of the stuff I’ll do another time, since I’ll definitely be back.

After we left Pierre Legras, we drove along the Champagne Route to Reims, the other big city in Champagne. It was a very cool town, with a healthy mix of old and new. The cathedral was beautiful, and although it was closed when we were there, you can take an audio-guided tour that is supposed to be great. My roommate thinks that the Reims cathedral is better than Notre-Dame de Paris. I disagree, since its pristine condition is mostly due to the fact that it’s been heavily restored after being damaged in the Hundred Years’ War and again after WWI. But the cathedral is very beautiful and historically important (in spite of the heavy restorations, it’s still a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

We had dinner in Reims and then headed home, on what turned out to be a much longer drive than any of us expected. Some roads were closed and then we got lost, and it took 4 hours to get back. But that didn’t ruin what a great day we had in Champagne region. I’d love to come back for an entire weekend when the weather is good. A picnic on the river, bicycle ride through the vineyards, and lots of visits to discover new small champagne producers in this beautiful setting sounds very romantic.

Loire Valley: Le château de Cheverny

We packed the Loire Valley into a one day trip, so after we saw the château at Blois we drove straight to the château at Cheverny. I think we all would have liked to spend more time in the Loire Valley, but France is so full of things to see and do that we had to rush through some parts. I’m sure I’ll come back here soon to see some other châteaux, do some outdoors activities, and drink wine.

The château de Cheverny is very elegant. It was very modern by comparison to the one at Blois since the original fortress from 1500 was rebuilt in 1624-1640, and not much remains from the 1500 structure. The grounds are impressive, with  vast lawns and gorgeous gardens. It’s all very stately. You can tour the grounds in electric cars and boats.  The château has been owned by the same family for more than 6 centuries (with a couple of temporary interruptions). The interesting thing about this château is that Marquis de Vibraye and his family still live in it! The public rooms are open everyday for visitors to tour, but there are private parts of the château (in the right wing) where the family still lives. Can you imagine?

The château itself is decorated beautifully. To me, the tour of the inside was

The Library

much more aesthetically pleasing than the one at Blois. It was decorated like a really lovely old home, with antique furnishings, decoration, and colors everywhere. There was a weapons room and even a bedroom covered in tapestries for the king with the bed Henri IV slept in when he visited. They even had pictures of the Marquis and his family. It felt much more like an extravagant home than the

The King's Bedchamber

colder and sparser château at Blois. The château even inspired Hergé, the author of the famous and beloved Tintin (a Franco-Belgian comic), to create Marlingspike Hall, the fictional castle in his comics. He based the castle on Cheverny.

 

The Grand Salon

The Arms Room

The Family Dining Room

Louis XVI Dressing Table

The Bridal Chamber, with the 1994 wedding dress of the Marquise de Vibraye

The Nursery, with the first rocking horses from the time of Napoleon III

The Dining Room

After we toured the house, we walked around the gardens for a while. They have fountains and an orangery, and we spotted some horses. As we were walking, we saw the Marquis drive up in a Prius! He was greeted by some people in a golf cart nearby who took the car for him. How exciting! A minor celebrity sighting (albeit at his house).

After we walked around the gardens for a while, we went over to see the hounds. They have a kennel of around a hundred dogs who are taken hunting twice a week. You can even see them feed the dogs everyday at 5pm. It was quite a scene! There were dogs everywhere and tons and tons of meat and kibble set out for them, with fountains for drinking. It was a unique sight.

This was a wonderful visit. The château at Blois was more important historically and it was older (architecture and history buffs will probably like it more), but to me this château was more enjoyable to visit just because of its sheer elegance and beauty. On a nice day, I’m sure walking the grounds is lovely.

The Main Staircase

Loire Valley: Château Royal de Blois

Ahhhh vacation. Even if you live in a place as magical as Paris, day-to-day life tends to take over and distract you and stress you out. Thank goodness for vacations when you can relax, unwind, and refocus.

We get a lot of school vacations here in France. We have 2 weeks off for Christmas break in December, then a week off in February for winter break, then 2 weeks off in April for spring break. Not bad! For spring break the maestro and my parents came to France, and we all headed out of Paris almost immediately. We had a car, which was excellent, and we set out on our first excursion to the Loire Valley and the city of Blois. I’ll write another post soon about driving around France. It was lovely, with breathtaking views of the countryside dotted with tiny villages everywhere. But I’m getting off-topic. Today I want to write about Blois. The Loire Valley is full of châteaux that wealthy people built to show off their money and power (they’re a dime-a-dozen down there!) and to be near the king. It’s also known for its wine, orchards, and historic towns.

We drove to the very old and cute city of Blois last week, and the first thing we noticed were the old timbered buildings lining the tiny streets. It was Monday, so everything was closed, and the weather was somewhat miserable. It was cold and very windy all day. Originally, the plan was to rent bikes and ride them down the Loire river, stopping at the cute towns and châteaux all along the way. Once we got there and realized how cold and windy it was, though, the thought of being on a bicycle was horrible. So we went straight to the château. If you make it down to the Loire Valley sometime when the weather is good, I highly recommend the bike trails. They seemed amazing. There are also hot air balloons, horseback riding, kayaking, and canoeing. Too bad we didn’t get to try any of these (next time…). If anyone has done any of those things, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

This was the first Loire Valley château we had ever seen, and it was impressive! It was built between the XIII and XVII centuries, and it features architectural elements from 4 different periods: gothic, flamboyant, renaissance, and classicism. Unlike other châteaux in the Loire, Blois was a royal château since several kings and queens lived here, and it was the seat of royal power during the Renaissance. Many important people lived in and visited it, including Joan of Arc when she came to the château in 1429 to be blessed before going to Orléans to drive out the English. There was even an assassination ordered by the king in the château.

Wandering through the rooms was great. It’s been nicely restored and there are historical objects all around the château.

One of the most impressive rooms is the Hall of the Estates General, which was built before 1220 as a hall of justice for the counts of Blois, and it still has its original layout. It is enormous, and even more impressive because it was used by Henri III for meetings of the Estates General in 1576 and 1588 (Remember the Estates General from the history of the French Revolution? It’s when representatives from the three estates–noblesse, clergy, third estate–all came together and met with the king.).

The view of the Loire from the side outlook is incredible, and apparently there is a sound and light show at night (but we didn’t stay for that).

Blois also has a Magic Museum that does magic shows during the day, and I read that it was fantastic, but it was sold out by the time we got there. I’ll just have to come back another time when the weather is good.

This was a great first château to visit in the Loire.

Geneva!

Last weekend, I made my first excursion out of Paris. I have several friends who are in Geneva doing some human rights work, and I wanted to go visit them. I took the train down to Geneva (about 3 hours if you don’t have any transfers), and it was a gorgeous ride. I had never really seen the French countryside before. It was the very end of October when I left, and the trees were all shades of red, yellow, and orange. There were rolling hills with green grass and lots of animals grazing. There were lakes and farm houses and pastures with horses. It was beautiful. I did not get nearly as much work done on the train as I planned.

Geneva itself is very beautiful and pristine and not my favorite city in the world. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. In fact, there is a beautiful lake with mountains, lots of good shopping, and enough chocolate and cheese to keep a person fat and happy for a lifetime. It would probably be a great place to live and raise a family. But, to me, it’s not very exciting. There’s not a whole lot to do, a lot of places close early, it’s a lot like being in the suburbs, really. And it’s expensive. I needed to use the internet, so I went to Starbucks, and I paid over 8 Swiss Francs for a medium-sized hot chocolate. That’s like $9. For Starbucks hot chocolate. I just tell myself that I was paying for the internet, not the drink. It makes me feel better.

On a positive note, it was fabulous to see my friends. We had a wonderful time catching up. I ate 3 dinners during my stay in Geneva, and 2 of them were fondue. That was excellent. We went to the Café du Soleil for fondue one night, and Auberge de Savièse another night. Both were good. Some other friends went to a Thai restaurant that allegedly was so good they cried tears of joy at the end of the meal. I’ll try to get the name and update the post. It was not cheap, but apparently the price was worth it.

One afternoon my friend and I went to CERN (where they have the huge particle accelerator). We tried to book ourselves on a tour, but they were booking

CERN Visitor's Center

a month in advance for individual tours and two months in advance for group tours! If you want to go to CERN, I highly recommend booking online way in advance so that you can get a tour. It’s free. We just went to the visitor’s center, which was not all that exciting. (Disclaimer: I am a law student, I’m not all that sciencey. I think science is very interesting, and I love learning about it, but the last time I studied any science was around 2003.) They showed a cool video about the big bang and the types of particles they’ve discovered (but it’s all in French!). They have a lot of interactive displays (in French and English), but it’s really just one

Inside the Visitor's Center

room. I wanted to learn more about the history of it and the work that they do, but there wasn’t much available. I know, this is not a museum, it is a scientific center, so they don’t even really need to have a visitor’s center. Still, I was slightly disappointed by the visitor’s center. The building that houses it is cool, though. I think a tour would have made this visit a lot more interesting. If anyone has been on a tour of CERN, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about it!

Powers of Ten

Numbers in French: I made a fascinating discovery while in Geneva. Background: in French, you have to do some math when you are saying numbers. 17-19 are “ten-seven, ten-eight, and ten-nine.” Also, the numbers stop at 60. Anything after that, and you have to do math. So seventy is sixty-ten (soixante-dix), seventy-five is sixty-fifteen (soixante-quinze), eighty is four twenties (quatre-vingts), and ninety is four twenties and ten (quatre-vingt-dix). Here is a good article with all the French numbers. This system is terrible for understanding dates if you’re foreign, especially when professors quickly spit dates out at you in class, and it takes a lot of getting used to. For example, 1999 is mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (one thousand nine hundred four twenties-ten-nine). And here in Paris they speak very quickly. I have gotten okay at it, but still I have to concentrate very hard on the dates. Discovery in Geneva: I bought something, and it was 13.90. In French, that’s treize quatre-vingt-dix. The woman rang me up and said treize nonante. Nonante?! Huh?! Is that quatre-vingt-dix? I asked her. Yes, in Geneva we use nonante. That’s ninety. Not four-twenties-ten. Ninety. Brilliant! I love Switzerland! Such efficient people! But that’s not all. She went on to tell me that they also use septante (seventy, instead of sixty-ten) and huitante (eighty), although in Geneva they don’t use huitante, they still use quatre-vingt. In Belgium it’s the same. But in other parts of Switzerland they use huitante. Dialects in Switzerland are different, and some areas use octante or even otante for eighty.  But many places use it, and it’s much easier to learn!

So they have septante, huitante (or quatre-vingts, octante, otante, depending on where you are), and nonante for seventy, eighty, and ninety. Amazing!

In Other News: One of my secret ambitions is to be a novelist. To do that, I think one of the requirements is to actually write a novel if I ever want to have a shot. So, this month I am participating in NaNoWriMo, a month-long novel writing extravaganza! To win, you have to write 50,000 words in one month. I just started the novel on Tuesday, along with hundreds of thousands of others participating around the world. I’m very excited about it! I’ll keep you posted on my progress this month on the sidebar of the blog. Wish me luck! If you want to participate, it’s not too late!

New words: tomber malade (to get sick/”fall sick”), le métier (job, profession, trade, or craft), quiconque (whoever/anyone who), facultatif (optional), mettre en cause (blame/accuse/suspect), puisque (since), franchement (frankly), le moule (mold, as in the kind you use to make something), ménager (to handle something carefully), immeuble (building)