The route south of Reims to the historic city of Dijon is a three or four hour drive. We were in no particular hurry and decided a detour to Epernay along a 70km Route de Champagne would be a rewarding side trip. Amidst the rolling hills, sleepy villages and grand château of the Montagne de Reims, wine-making traditions have barely changed in over 100 years. You can almost feel the pace of life slow down as you travel through the vineyards and wheat fields that happily co-exist across the region.
The route offers sweeping panoramas over the lush landscapes of central Champagne, and passes through one picturesque village after another. Villages like Dizy and Bouzy have highly appropriate names. Every village is host to numerous champagne houses, some large some small, and opportunities for sampling wines from small producers are plentiful. There are more sobering sights in this region however, and a visit to a First World War cemetery near Courmas was an emotional experience.
In the Spring of 1918, Germany launched a massive offensive on the Western Front. After years of stalemate, and with huge social and economic problems at home, it was a desperate attempt to end the war victorious. Germany had an extra 500,000 troops from the Eastern Front following the Bolshevik Revolution, and were desperate to win before the United States was able to fully join the war. In the first five hours of the attack the Germans fired over a million artillery shells at the British 5th Army on the Somme.
As British armies retreated under the weight of the attack, three other German offensives were launched to divert reinforcements coming to their aid. One of those attacks was in the Champagne region close to Reims, which was defended by French troops and six depleted British Divisions, exhausted from earlier battles and sent here to rest. They soon found themselves at the centre of a German assault that quickly reached the River Marne and threatened Paris.
The French and British suffered 137,000 casualties, with similar numbers of German casualties. The men who are buried in the Courmas cemetery came from a variety of different areas of Britain, including regiments from Yorkshire, Lancashire, Dorset, Durham, Argyll, and even Gordon Highlanders. They died in July 1918, less than four months before the end of the war. It seems such a senseless waste now, but without their determined resistance there was a real chance the German attack would have been successful.
Overlooked by vineyards, and amongst quiet woodlands and farmland, the cemetery is a peaceful place. We spent a while looking at the graves, many are unidentified, and reading the visitor register. Afterwards, and with a little less joie de vivre, we set off on the Montagne de Reims Champagne Route towards Verzenay, where a windmill owned by the Mumm champagne house and a weird lighthouse sit on neighbouring hilltops. In Verzy we found a small restaurant serving local specialities for lunch.
We passed through more villages as we closed in on Epernay. The remarkable thing is that the vines are planted right up to the village limits, and even in between houses in the villages. They seem crammed in higgledy-piggledy, using every scrap of land that is designated as champagne terroir. These are working villages, in summer they’re sleepy with only the occasional sighting of workers in the fields, and the strangely shaped ‘straddle tractors’ that work the vineyards
On empty roads in the summer, it’s hard to imagine that you’re at the centre of a multi-billion euro business. In September, though these villages burst into life as the harvest gets underway. Thousands of seasonal workers arrive to take advantage of the limited timeframe for picking the grapes. Eventually we reached the outskirts of Epernay where we picked up the route south to Troyes and on to Dijon, home of mustard and seat of the Dukes of Burgundy.