Champagne: That Chateau Life
We headed out of Luxembourg City Friday afternoon and drove 2 hours to the southwest into Champagne, which is about 60 miles from Paris. We started our weekend by staying in a 17th century chateau, complete with a fully functional moat, landscaped gardens, an orangerie and a very angry swan (more on that later). We chose Chateau D'Etoges for our first night because of its proximity to two of the most important towns in Champagne: Hautvilliers, the tiny hilltop town where Dom Perignon revolutionized champagne, and Epernay, the center of Champagne where all of the major players bottle and age the bubbly.
The drive was an utter delight. We stopped several times to take photos and pet horses. We arrived to Chateau d'Etoges a few hours before sunset and enjoyed exploring the grounds. The Chateau itself has 3 floors, with the library, breakfast room, salon, office and entertaining rooms on the first floor, and a grand staircase leading to the second two levels. Our room was on the third floor overlooking the gardens and moat. It featured 25 foot ceilings, period furniture and creaky original wood floors. To access our room, we entered a long private corridor with windows looking out over the treelined entryway, and further in the distance, the rolling hills of champagne vineyards. After dropping our bags in the room, we circled around the side of the chateau, down toward the entry to the moat to take a small paddle boat around the property. Almost instantly, a giant angry squawking swan emerged, flapping its wings and launching itself out of the water. Within seconds, it came face to face with Dave for the ultimate swan-man showdown. Dave's lightning-quick reflexes won the day, as he nimbly evaded the deranged beast. We spent the rest of the daylight hours exploring the gardens, wooded paths, ponds and climbing trees around the property. We finished the evening watching "Koh Lanta," a French version of "Survivor" to improve our French language skills while munching on groceries we picked up in town.
We woke up early Saturday morning and descended the grand staircase to breakfast. As is becoming customary on our weekend trips, we were the only ones around for a luxurious breakfast in an ornate chateau dining room. We enjoyed champagne (Erin) and fresh apple juice from the chateau's apple trees (Dave), along with fresh brioche, fruit, tea, eggs and a selection of French cheeses to the tune of 17th century classical music. We couldn't wait to get outside for another walk along the property to enjoy the morning sun. From there, we quickly ducked into the chateau spa for a quick sauna, steam and hot tub before heading out for our champagne-focused day.
We started by driving up a winding one and a half lane road through grape vines to Hautvillers. The main site in Hautvillers is the Abbey, where the monk Dom Perignon lived and helped develop champagne. He didn't invent champagne (as grape growing and sparkling wine in this region date back to Roman times), but he did create the method of blending varietals of grapes grown only in the Champagne region to make Champagne what it is today. Officially, only wines produced in this region can be called "champagne" and the hills around Hautvillers make some of the best soil in the region, so both independent champagne houses and established players like Moet, Cliquot and Dom Perignon own property in town. We started at a family-run champagne house, where the wife of the owner served us three glasses each: a vintage (made from only one year's harvest), a cuvée (top range blend) and a blanc de blanc (made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes). We both enjoyed the vintage and purchased a bottle to take home. From there, we walked around town to take in the views of the valley and river below. We checked out Dom Perignon's tomb at the Abbey and nerded out about his role in the development of champagne. The grounds were closed for a wedding, but we scaled the stone wall to sneak a peek at the abbey gardens.
We headed 20 minutes down to the valley floor to Épernay, which is the central hub of champagne bottling, aging and cellars in Champagne. Hundreds of kilometers of chalk caves containing hundreds of millions of dollars in champagne wind underneath the city. Épernay is home to the first champagne house in history, Moet and Chandon, which was founded in 1743. The Moet family made champagne what it is today by courting members of the French royal family so that champagne would be associated with luxury and wealth. We enjoyed seeing firsthand how champagne is produced from harvest to sale (the process takes 3 years minimum and is regulated by the French government). We wandered the caves beneath the town and enjoyed a few glasses of Moet and Dom Perignon in the cellars located on Champagne Avenue before exploring Épernay.
Although our heads were a bit dizzy, we had one more stop in mind, so we pressed on and drove thirty minutes further north to Verzy, which has a famous forest of misshapen, spindly trees, and, as it happens, an advanced-level ropes course. The combination of day-drinking and being strung up 100 feet off the ground wasn't ideal, but we couldn't pass up what looked like a fun challenge. The owner of the course showed us how to clip in our carabeeners and zip line pulley that hung from our harnesses. He then pointed us in the direction of the course and permitted us to tackle the aerial adventure on our own. We climbed rickety rope ladders to the treetops and balanced across wire tightropes, climbed cargo nets and even zip-lined across a valley with no supervision, which was super fun but a little sketchy, especially after all of the champagne. We enjoyed the first leg so much we decided to press on to the advanced level, which turned out to be very challenging. The course was designed to almost entice people to fall and to trust that they clipped into the harness correctly. It required us to walk across logs that moved like see-saws, unstable foot holds (like stepping on a playground swing), jump from moving, wobbly platforms and swing across ropes, all from the treetops. Erin was swearing up a storm but her fear of not making it and having to be rescued was greater than her fear of falling, so we made it through the course after a couple hours of serious exertion.
From there, we drove through tiny towns lined with churches, boulangeries and champage houses toward Troyes, which is the southern border of Champane and sits along the Seine River. We picked Troyes because the town center is filled with picturesque timbered houses and commercial buildings dating back from the 1500s. The houses reminded us of what Stratford upon Avon must have looked like back in Shakespeare's day. We were both exhausted from the champagne and exertion of the ropes course, but we headed out to dinner to a small restaurant our hotel proprietor recommended. The restaurant was a wine shop in the front, so you picked out a bottle in the shop and brought it to the back, where you enjoyed wine and small plates of farm-to-table French cuisine. At one point, Dave looked across at Erin with crossed eyes. Since Dave doesn't know how to cross his eyes, Erin looked back quizzically and asked Dave what was up. He responded "Did my eyes just cross? I think I'm so tired they just started moving inward." That was the sign that it was time to go, so we headed back and passed out cold for 9 hours.
We woke up Sunday morning to, once again, a decadent and lovely breakfast all to ourselves. The chef made us fruit salad, homemade pancakes, croissants and baguettes, more local apple juice and tea. With our tea, she brought out what looked like cereal bowls, causing a little confusion on our part. Dave suggested that maybe we drink tea out of the bowls, but Erin shot that down as it seemed odd to drink tea out of a bowl. We asked for teacups and it turned out Dave was right. Apparently, the French drink their tea out of big bowls with no handles. Either that or the chef was messing with us. We spent the morning walking off the heavy breakfast and exploring the churches, narrow cobblestone streets and 500 year old architecture in town. At one point, we made it to a small square that included a 1920's carousel. Dave was apparently still in ropes course mode and started climbing it, only to be chewed out by the French proprietor, who literally chased us out of the square. So, on day 1 Dave fought a swan and on Day 3 he fought a carny - some guys can't handle Champagne.
From Troyes, we headed out of Champagne into the neighboring region of Lorraine, to the city of Nancy. The weather was perfect, 60s and sunny, so we enjoyed walking around the town square called Place Stanislas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All around the gilded square and in the surrounding parks, people were outside at cafes, shopping in the markets, and enjoying the weather. We enjoyed people-watching in the sunshine and checking out the sights around town.
For lunch, we headed to Brasserie Excelsior, a famous restaurant with its original interior from the Belle Epoque - one of Erin's favorite historical eras. We shared regional specialties of French onion soup, quiche Lorraine and local oysters while we observed the French brunch scene.
From there, we drove an hour back home to Luxembourg. Next up, we are fully embracing spring and heading to see the tulips in Holland.
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