Charles de Gaulle is perhaps the most iconic French statesman of the modern era, his shadow is cast across the most significant events of 20th century French and European history. The leader of the Free French Forces during World War Two, his exhortation to the French nation, broadcast on the BBC during his exile in London after the fall of France in 1940, set the tone for the struggle against the Nazi occupation: “Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished, and it will not be extinguished.”
His career, both as a military officer and as a politician, is the stuff of legend. It made a small detour to Colombey-les-deux-Églises, the village where he lived in the final years of his life, and where he is buried, a must. This peaceful little spot is conveniently at the start of the Cote des Bar Wine Route, an area of champagne producing vineyards just to the south of Troyes. I would follow the sleepy route through lovely countryside and picturesque villages to Vézelay, a dramatic medieval village on a hilltop; but first I’d pay my respects to the General.
I found the church and cemetery where de Gaulle is buried, it’s filled with tributes to him from all over France. Surprisingly, I was the only person visiting the cemetery, but I figured that most people must be at the de Gaulle memorial just outside of the village, home to an enormous cross on top of a hill. I didn’t have time to visit the exhibition, but I did want to see the memorial. This, a rather embarrassed woman told me, would cost €13.50. She didn’t seem surprised when I decided not to visit. It was a shame, but I had a long drive through champagne country ahead.
Easier said than done. The tourist office in Colombey-les-deux-Églises didn’t have any information, or a map, leaving me with only some sketchy information and a small scale map that I found online. I headed towards the tiny village of Rizaucourt-Buchey, which seemed to be one end of the Côte des Bar champagne route. Here, I hoped to unearth the grape-related road signs I’d seen on other champagne routes to guide me south-west towards Les Riceys, the other end of the route.
Under vast skies between these two attractive villages, I came across beautiful rolling countryside filled with vineyards, wheat fields and picturesque villages. This area definitely plays second fiddle to more famous champagne regions further north, but one article I read claimed this was emerging as one of the ‘hottest’ champagne regions in the country. I must have been ahead of the trend curve because I hardly saw another human being for large parts of the journey.
The obvious thing about this region, is that the vineyards are much more dispersed than the densely planted areas around Reims and Épernay. The steep chalky ridges dotted with bright green vines are still there, but there are more patches of woodland and immense, sweeping fields of wheat and sunflowers. In some areas I drove for several kilometres without seeing a single grape. It was harvest time for wheat and many kilometres were spent stuck behind massive tractors on narrow lanes.
Time, it seems, is irrelevant in this region. It is, however, a region with a long memory. The Côte des Bar has an understandable chip on its shoulder thanks to an early 20th century dispute with the more prestigious champagne regions to the north. Despite the northern producers buying champagne grapes from here to add to their own wines, in 1908 they lobbied for its exclusion from the official champagne region. In the most French response possible, the Côte des Bar growers rioted.
The region was eventually allowed to be categorised as a “second champagne zone” in 1911. Justice was only served in 1927 when it officially became a champagne region on a par with the other regions. That’s politics champagne style. I spent the best part of the day meandering around the region, and was glad I’d made the effort. It’s absolutely beautiful.