The Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune

The Cote de Beaune, the southern extension of the Route des Grand Crus that runs from Dijon to legendary villages Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, is a majestic sweep of Burgundy’s glorious countryside. It contains some of the finest and most valuable vineyards anywhere on earth. Not for the first time on our trip, villages we passed through – Pommard, Meursault, St. Aubin – seemed incongruously small given their global reputation.

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

If Greek God Bacchus (properly known as Dionysus) was to take a holiday in France, I suspect he’d choose the Cote de Beaune. We drove down through Pommard, a picture perfect Burgundian village with a lovely chateau that produces some of the region’s finest wines. We visited Orches, a small village set on a limestone escarpment with tremendous views, before passing Château de La Rochepot on our way to the village of Chassagne-Montrachet.

We arrived at the Domaine Bader-Mimeur, a family run estate who have owned vines in Chassagne-Montrachet for 300 years, and produce about 30,000 bottles a year. We were shown around the cellars by the family’s son-in-law and learned the history of the estate. Emerging from the cellars we went for a tasting along with an Austrian couple who were on a cycling holiday. The chardonnay was so delicious it’s hard to describe. The rich pinot noir reds were equally fabulous. It felt a little like being a child in a candy store.

Our tasting over, an hilarious exchange ensued between our friendly host and the two Austrian cyclists. Our host, fully aware that there was little chance of a sale, started: “Would you like to buy any wines?” “We’d like to, but we don’t have space on our bikes.” “You have a car in the village though?” “Yes, we can come back in the morning.” “Why not buy it now and I’ll keep it safe for you?” Embarrassed silence. We loaded up with a half dozen bottles of buttery chardonnay and headed to Puligny-Montrachet.

The tiny, affluent, village of Puligny-Montrachet must be one of the most picturesque in this whole region. Stone-built houses surrounded by a sea of vines. We arrived late in the afternoon and were worried everything would be closed. Luckily, many of the wine producers were reopening after a mid-afternoon rest. We walked around the village and found a cellar that looked ideal for yet another tasting – is it possible to have too many?

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

By chance we’d stumbled upon a small producer who made only organic wines and who nurtured her vines personally. She talked of the land and grapes as if they were family members. In a small cellar we tasted half a dozen wines and were given a blow-by-blow account of how each one was produced, which parcel of land the grapes came from, and the growing conditions of the year of production. 2017 has been a very difficult year, apparently. It was fascinating.

Looking at the map, I asked how one parcel of land could be so different to the land next to it. She told us a extraordinary story. Land is intensely scrutinised here, and with good reason. The difference in value between a parcel of Grand Cru land and that of a lesser piece of land is millions of euros. An expert wine taster came to the village and was tasting a Puligny-Montrachet. To the surprise of everyone he announced that the wine he was drinking was, in fact, from neighbouring Meursault.

Orches, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Orches, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Orches, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Orches, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

This sort of thing can start fights in this part of the world. The boundary between the two areas was a single track road. The vines on the Puligny-Montrachet side had grown their roots into the terroir of Meursault on the other side. I’m not sure how you find a solution to this peculiar situation. Even more importantly though, somewhere on this planet, there’s a person who can tell that the roots of some vines have transgressed into another wine area just by tasting a glass of wine.

Suitably impressed, we loaded up the car with another dozen bottles of deliciousness and set off towards Meursault. Perhaps we could spot the difference from above ground? We could not.

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy

Dijon may be the sumptuous former capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, but tiny Beaune can lay claim to being the region’s wine capital. This is one of the best places in France to taste wine – and that’s saying something. Famed for the Les Trois Glorieuses, or the three glorious days, Beaune has hosted the most celebrated wine auction in the world since 1859. Every November, wine is sold to raise money for the Hospices de Beaune, a charitable hospital founded in 1443 as a home for poor invalids.

The wine sold at auction comes from the Hospices’ own vineyards, which are scattered around the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, an area that is home to some of the most prestigious vines in the world. The majority of the wine sold is classified as Grand Cru and Premier Cru, not for nothing does the auction raises sums of €7 – 8 million every year. The money supports charitable causes and the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, as the Hospices are also known.

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Today, the Hôtel-Dieu is a museum and the second most important attraction in town, wine being top of the list. It was founded by Nicolas Rolin, last Chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, a few years after the end of the Hundred Years’ War. The decades of war had left many of Burgundy’s inhabitants in a desperate state. Famine and malnutrition were common, as were injuries from combat. The hospice was opened in response. It’s the ‘must see’ thing in Beaune, unfortunately we didn’t get to see it.

We arrived in Beaune hungry after a morning of village-hopping and wine tasting in the Cote de Nuits. Not trusting any restaurants to be open after 2pm (this is France after all), we prioritised lunch over sightseeing. Finding a table proved to be a challenge, and it quickly became clear that there was something happening in Beaune. France was having a holiday weekend, and it seemed like most of the population of the country had descended on this small town.

We found a tiny bar in an ancient building and had an aperitif of cremant de bourgogne, the local fizz, and a snack while we weighed up our options. The jolly owner gave us some top tips and we eventually found somewhere to eat. The day was hot and walking the glorious ancient streets of Beaune was hard work after lunch. Dutifully, we headed to the Hôtel-Dieu only to discover a long queue of people running down the side of the building.

Deciding against an hour queuing in full sun, we wandered around the narrow streets of Beaune’s historic town centre instead. It’s a beautiful place, one that would make a great base for exploring the region, and away from the main streets it’s very peaceful. Through a warren of small alleyways, we found ourselves in the courtyard of the Hôtel des Ducs, the medieval residence of the Dukes of Burgundy. Now a wine museum, it has some enormous wine presses in one of the buildings.

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

On the other side of the Hôtel des Ducs is the Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame, a 12th century church that sits on a lovely small square. The old town of Beaune is very compact and almost circular in shape. It’s ideal for walking, and as we meandered we came across remnants of the city’s medieval walls. Sadly, we didn’t have much time in Beaune, and soon we were heading to our final destination, two of the world’s most famous wine villages: Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.

The names of these tiny villages reverberate around the world, for here are to be found the finest chardonnay grapes known to humanity …

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

The Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits

Burgundy is world famous for the quality of both its red and white wine, and the names of its wine producing villages are renowned across the globe. The official, and well signposted, Route des Grand Crus runs on minor roads south of Dijon passing through one of the most prestigious areas of vineyards anywhere on earth. It takes in charming stone-built villages with steepled churches, and truly gorgeous landscapes dotted with magnificent chateau. It really has to be seen to be believed.

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Marsannay la Cote, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Marsannay la Cote, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

There are plenty of opportunities to break the journey and to sample wines from the many small producers based in picturesque villages. We were on our way to the small historic town of Beaune and first passed through the northern part of the Route des Grand Crus, the Cote de Nuits. The remarkable thing about this region is how compact it is; vineyards cling to a narrow strip of limestone hills, the rows of vines tightly packed between villages only a kilometre or two apart.

It’s hard to square the region’s enormous reputation with its physical size. The two most important grape varieties in Burgundy are pinot noir and chardonnay, and most of the winegrowers have plots of ten hectares or less, from which they produce small quantities of high quality wine that commands a global audience. Amidst such beautiful surroundings, it’s easy to get carried away in the whole experience. We decided a walk around the village of Vougeot and a wine tasting would bring us down to earth.

The first thing you learn in a Burgundy winery is that some bottles are more affordable than others. A good bottle from a village can be as little as €10, a decent premiere cru can cost €40 or €50. When you reach the grand cru category the sky is literally the limit. It’s not easy to decide which wine to taste or buy, but for €30 our wine tasting allowed us to taste several, including premiere and grand crus. We left happy and, not coincidentally, with a case of something delicious.

We headed further south towards Nuits-St-Georges. With a population of over 5,000 people, Nuits-St-Georges is a metropolis compared to most of the villages in this region, it’s also a name that resonates around the world as the epicentre of some of the finest pinot noir wines known to humanity. It’s not difficult to find bottles that cost €1000 or more from this most famous wine village. As a precaution, we didn’t stop here for long.

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Château du Clos de Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Burgundy, France

Château du Clos de Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Leaving the temptations of Nuits-St-Georges behind, we drove on narrow roads empty of traffic through more picturesque villages. From the road we spotted the tiled roof of Château de Corton André and decided to investigate. Situated on a small hill in the grand cru village of Aloxe-Corton, the château is something of a landmark in the area. Yet more wine tasting was on offer, but by now we were getting hungry and decided to head the last few kilometres to the unofficial capital of the Côte d’Or, Beaune.

Château de Corton André, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Château de Corton André, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Marsannay la Cote, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Marsannay la Cote, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Château de Corton André, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Château de Corton André, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Aloxe-Corton, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Aloxe-Corton, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Dijon, home of the Dukes of Burgundy

Dijon may be famous for its mustard, and it may sit at the heart of one of the most prestigious wine growing regions anywhere in the world, but this glorious medieval city still feels like one of France’s most underrated cities. Even on a holiday weekend, when half of France seemed to be on the move, and almost everywhere we visited was packed with tourists, Dijon remained calm and peaceful. That’s all the more surprising because it has an incredible history, ancient buildings, great food and world-beating wines.

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Over a thousand years ago, Dijon became the capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, and for 500 years it flourished. The Burgundian Dukes were some of the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe. By the 15th century they owned vast tracts of France, much of Belgium, and most of the Netherlands, and rivalled the French Kings of the House of Valois for power. So much so, that they allied themselves with England against the French monarchy during the Hundred Years War.

Fluctuations in fortunes over the centuries did not prevent Dijon becoming fabulously wealthy under the patronage of the Dukes of Burgundy. It became a centre of learning and high art, and the city’s architecture reflected the preeminent position of its rulers. Even after the Dukedom was annexed by the King of France, Louis XI, it retained its importance. Spared the worst ravages of both World Wars, it has remained a treasure trove of history from the medieval to the modern day.

The town’s showstopper is the Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, which sits on the half moon shaped Place de la Libération. The former Ducal Palace is now a museum and home to the Musée des Beaux Arts, as well as the less glamorous Tourist Office. Parts of the museum were still closed due to extensive restoration, but the Salles des Gardes, where the magnificent tombs of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless can be found, was open.

The tombs tell you all you need to know about the power and wealth of Burgundy’s Dukes. Decorated with sculptures by Flemish masters and painted in gold leaf, the marble tombs have dozens of alabaster mourners carved into their sides and are topped by lions. These are tombs intended to make a statement, that even in death the glory of the Dukes of Burgundy was undimmed. This was just a taster of what the museum has to offer, and it’s a shame that parts of it weren’t open.

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Shadows, Dijon, France

Shadows, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Place de la Libération, Dijon, France

Place de la Libération, Dijon, France

We left the palace and walked into the truly splendid Place de la Libération where, on a hot day, small children played in the fountains and adults filled the surrounding cafes and restaurants. In the warren of nearby streets we found a shady restaurant for a long lunch, washed down with an excellent bottle of a local chardonnay. Afterwards we strolled through the sleepy streets, past historic buildings, imposing churches, little squares and picturesque gardens. It’s a stylish place.

At night the streets of Burgundy’s capital were calm and evocative of a different time in history. As we walked through the cobbled lanes, the ghosts of Burgundy’s medieval past seemed to echo around the historic buildings. We sat outside a cafe and sampled another glass of delicious Burgundian wine in the warm summer evening. In the morning we were heading south through the Côte de Nuits, where our wine had begun its short journey to our glasses. We couldn’t wait.

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Cutting the mustard in historic Dijon

Dijon, capital of France’s Côte-d’Or region, has an extraordinary history stretching back to before the Roman’s ruled Gaul. Yet it’s probably better known to the world as the epicentre of all things mustard. ‘Dijon’ is almost synonymous with ‘French’ when it comes to mustard and, of all the many brands of Dijon mustard, Maille is probably the most famous. The Maille ’boutique’ in the centre of Dijon has hundreds of different types of mustard, oil and vinegar. You can try them all.

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

L'Ours Blanc, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

L’Ours Blanc, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

The curious thing about the Maille boutique is that the normal yellow mustard that you can buy everywhere, is about four times more expensive than the same thing in … well everywhere. We sampled a few of their more exotic items – hazelnut, black chanterelle mushrooms and white wine mustard anyone? – and then walked up the road to another shop, where the largest jar of mustard I’ve ever owned was purchased for about a third of the price.

If that was disappointing, Dijon wasn’t. We’d arrived at night and were too tired to go out exploring. The next day dawned bright and clear as we set off in search of pain au chocolate and coffee. Dijon looked very inviting in the morning sunshine. It’s a city with a wealth of history, filled with architectural glories and pleasant public spaces. In the tranquil Jardin Darcy, we found an incongruous yet familiar looking polar bear. At least a statue of one.

The bear is L’Ours Blanc, a replica of an exquisite sculpture by François Pompon. A native of Burgundy and Dijon resident, Pompon studied fine art here before becoming a student of Rodin’s in Paris. The last time we’d seen this particular polar bear was in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It’s an imposing sculpture that put a spring in our step as we entered the Place Darcy and walked underneath Porte Guillaume, a mini Arc de Triomphe, into Dijon’s historic heart.

After a breakfast in the shadow of timber-framed buildings in the Place Francois Rude, we set off to explore the town proper. First stop was the beautiful 13th century Notre-Dame de Dijon, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that sits at the heart of Dijon’s old town. The cathedral’s crowning glory is its unusual western facade, which is home to fifty-one gargoyles. Legend has it that a money lender was killed on his wedding day by a falling gargoyle, a gargoyle of a money lender. Spooky!

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

The interior is home to one of France’s oldest statues of a Virgin, the 11th century Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir. She’s credited with saving the city from a siege by the Swiss in 1513 and, more ‘miraculously’, in 1944, as the Allies advanced across France, the Bishop publicly prayed for her to deliver the city from destruction. The next day the German forces retreated, meaning the Allies had no reason to attack. In reality, German forces were too weak to defend Dijon, and the withdrawal was tactical.

The superstition doesn’t end there. On Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street), is a well worn carving of a bird, thought to be an owl. It’s claimed that good things will happen to those who rub it with their left hand and make a wish. The owl has become the symbol of Dijon, but this didn’t stop some idiot from smashing it with a hammer in 2001. Today, it’s under 24 hour video surveillance and is firmly on the town’s La Chouette tourist trail, marked with brass plaques of an owl.

We walked around Dijon’s medieval streets, occasionally  following the owl trail, and unearthing some of its history. Many of the oldest buildings have lovely tiled roofs in green, gold and brown. We found our way to the glass and metal market designed by Gustave Eiffel, which was filled with market stalls selling a variety of local produce. It was tempting to buy a lot of food, but a long lunch in one of the many restaurants surrounding the market was too appealing.

Porte Guillaume, Dijon, France

Porte Guillaume, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Place Francois Rude, Dijon, France

Place Francois Rude, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Exploring the Montagne de Reims Champagne Route

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.

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

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.

Verzenay, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Verzenay, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Verzenay, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Verzenay, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Bouzy, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Bouzy, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Chateau, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Chateau, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

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.

Verzenay, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Verzenay, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Gueux, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Gueux, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Gueux, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Gueux, Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Montagne de Reims Champagne Route, Champagne, France

Notre-Dame de Reims, where French Kings were crowned

There is one moment, in the long history of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, that stands above the many momentous events witnessed by this ancient building. It was here in 1429, in the presence of Joan of Arc, that Charles VII was crowned King of France. It was a highly symbolic moment, coming only a short time after the raising of the English siege of Orleans. Charles would go on to defeat the English and his rule became one of the most important in French history.

Son et lumière, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Son et lumière, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Son et lumière, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Son et lumière, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Son et lumière, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Son et lumière, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Nearly a thousand years earlier, the tradition of crowning French Kings in Reims was begun by Clovis I, King of the Franks, who was Baptised in Reims on Christmas Day 498 AD. This is often considered to be the day France was born. Between Clovis’ coronation and the overthrow of Napoleon III in 1870, thirty-three French monarchs were crowned in Reims. This royal history has had a profound impact on the city, and the grandeur of Notre-Dame de Reims reflects its importance.

Our first introduction to Notre-Dame de Reims – one of the finest cathedrals in France, possibly Europe – was seeing it illuminated at night as we drove around trying to find where we were staying. We arrived around 10pm after a long journey, and headed to the square outside the cathedral for food and a glass of champagne. As we reached the square the nightly son et lumière show, projected onto the cathedral facade, started.

The projections were accompanied by music to narrate the history of the construction of the cathedral. It was pretty fantastic. It was also a reminder that facades of medieval European cathedrals were often painted bright colours. Even if they were a fraction as colourful as the son et lumière, they must have made a big impression on people. Add to this the glorious stained glass windows, and medieval cathedrals were “carnivals of colour and light”.

We visited Reims at the weekend and I was expecting there to be hoards of tourists and day-trippers from Paris, but the town was remarkably non-touristy. Even inside the cathedral the crowds were light, and it was possible to fully enjoy the glories of the immense rose windows in peaceful surroundings. The rose windows are the most spectacular, but the other stained glass windows that illuminate the interior are equally as fabulous.

Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Rose window, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Rose window, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Severe damage during the First World War means most of the windows are modern replacements, as is much of the masonry on the exterior. The cathedral received around three hundred direct hits from German artillery during the war, and in 1919 when reconstruction began the cathedral was virtually destroyed. Restoration has continued, more-or-less, to the present day, and scaffolding was on the exterior of the building when we visited.

Next door to the cathedral is the equally magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palais du Tau. Formerly the home of the Bishops of Reims, this is also where French monarchs stayed and later celebrated during a coronation. The Great Hall, where the royal banquet was held, is decorated with 15th-century tapestries telling the story of King Clovis. The detail of the tapestries is exquisite.

The Palace of Tau dates from as early as the 5th century, but has gone through multiple incarnations and expansions. The current building dates from 1690. It was rebuilt in 1210 after a fire and, of course, it didn’t escape the ravages of the First World War. Rebuilding after the war took until 1972 to complete. It would be fair to say it has seen some history, good and bad.

Now a museum, it’s home to many ecclesiastical treasures, including golden loaves of bread and a talisman that belonged to Charlemange, and is alleged to contain splinters of the cross Jesus was crucified on. The talisman was buried with Charlemange at Aix-la-Chapelle, in 814 AD, and then removed from his tomb 200 years later. The Empress “not tonight” Josephine wore it at her coronation alongside Napoleon in 1804. It might just be me, but that seems a little gruesome.

Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Tapestries, Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Tapestries, Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Tapestries, Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Tapestries, Palace of Tau, Cathedral de Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Going underground, the champagne cellars of Reims

“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” – Madame Clicquot

The 1811 comet, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The 1811 comet, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

No visit to Reims would be complete without descending into the subterranean world of the city’s champagne cellars. The headquarters of some of the world’s most famous champagne brands are scattered around the city, most are a walk or taxi journey from the centre. Reims doesn’t have the grandeur of Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne, lined with magnificent champagne houses, but a tour of the Reims’ champagne cellars is easy to arrange and even easier to enjoy.

We visited one of world’s best known champagne producers, with a history to match its famous yellow labels: Veuve Clicquot. The story of Veuve Clicquot is the story of a visionary businesswoman and champagne innovator, Madame Clicquot, La Grande Dame de la Champagne. We opted for the “Footsteps of Madame Clicquot” cellar tour (a pricey €50), which gave an insight into the life of the woman behind the empire, and ended with a tasting that included a glass of La Grand Dame champagne.

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères celars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères celars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Born in 1777 into an aristocratic family, at the young age of 27 Madame Clicquot took control of the company in 1805 following the death of her husband. This itself was pioneering, women just didn’t run companies in the early 19th century. She was known to be uncompromising about the quality of her champagne and prepared to take risks to sell it all over the world – the very first shipment of Veuve Clicquot went to Venice.

Veuve Clicquot has a long tradition of exporting champagne, and 80 percent of today’s production is drunk outside France. Madame Clicquot was a pioneer in this respect, establishing the brand with the royal courts of Europe, including the Imperial Russian court in 1814. This was during the Napoleonic Wars, when France was at war with Russia, and she deliberately broke a trade blockade between the two countries to ship 10,550 bottles to the enemy. Not very patriotic, but very lucrative.

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The year 1811 is famous in Veuve Clicquot history: this was the year of the Cuvée de la Comète. After a string of bad growing years, the 1811 grape harvest was exceptional. This was attributed to the fact that the Flaugergues Comet was visible throughout the growing season. For many, the comet presaged the end of the world, but for many wine producers it transformed their fortunes. Comet vintages had great value, and it was this wine that Madame Clicquot sent to Russia. These days, a comet symbol can be found on all their labels.

We arrived at the visitor centre without a reservation, but got onto the next tour. As we descended into the vast network of tunnels that honeycomb subterranean Reims, the temperature dropped and our eyes slowly adjusted to the dimly lit cellars. The millions of bottles of  champagne in these cellars, worth billions of euros, are the main attraction, but walking these tunnels is to walk through history. They’ve been here since the Romans mined them for chalk in 1AD.

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

The Crayères cellars, Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Once underground, our guide took us on an hour-long tour through the cellars and narrated the life of Madame Clicquot. Amongst her many achievements, in 1810 she invented the first vintage champagne, a tradition that continues to this day. In 1818, she created a new way of making rosé champagne. Responding to early consumer concerns about authenticity, she invented the iconic yellow label that distinguish Veuve Clicquot from its competitors.

Perhaps her most significant contribution to the art of champagne production came in 1816, when she invented the riddling table. This simple but effective way of separating and expelling the yeast and other solids in a champagne bottle ensures a crystal-clear wine. The process has been mechanised today, but is essentially the same one Madame Clicquot invented.

Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Veuve Clicquot, Reims, France

Passing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot that had been retrieved from the bottom of the Baltic Sea two hundred years after the ship carrying it sank, we emerged back into the sunlight and warmth. We took a seat in the garden and finally got to taste La Grand Dame, a vintage created to mark the 200th anniversary of the company … there are worse ways to spend a morning in Reims.

Reims, hidden history and joie de vivre

Reims is a surprising place. Famed for its links with the French monarchy, it’s crowned by an architectural gem, the truly magnificent Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims. It’s home to some of the world’s most famous champagne houses and, almost beyond cliche, people are to be found sipping glasses of the fizzy stuff at all times of day and night. Thanks to a turbulent history, the town is also a remarkable hodgepodge of architectural styles that makes it unique.

Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, France

Walk the streets and you’ll pass medieval-looking timber framed buildings next door to 1920s art deco houses, and a myriad of architectural styles in between. At the start of the First World War in 1914, Reims was overrun by German armies. The German’s were forced to retreat from the city but set up camp on the surrounding heights, from where their artillery proceeded to flatten Reims over the next four years.

The city that re-emerged over the next two decades had wide avenues and pleasant public spaces. Desperate to rebuild the city, the authorities encouraged people to build in whatever style they liked. Fabulous Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings rose from the rubble and now make the town a hotspot for architecture enthusiasts. There are a remarkable number of these buildings, including gems like the Halles du Boulingrin, the indoor market, and several nearby bars and restaurants with exquisite Art Deco interiors.

Unfortunately, Reims had the misfortune to be situated in a strategically important place (and not just because it’s at the heart of some of Champagne’s finest vineyards). The city was damaged again during World War Two, although not so seriously as in the earlier war. This devastating history bequeathed Reims its patchwork of architectural styles unlike anywhere I’ve visited. The city may have lost some of its history thanks to the bombs, but it more than compensates in other ways.

This includes the little known (to me at least) role Reims played to bring an end to the Second World War. It was here at 2.41am on May 7, 1945, that Nazi Germany officially surrendered to the Allies. This extraordinary event took place in a fairly anonymous and nondescript school near the railway tracks a short distance from Reims central train station. General Eisenhower moved his Supreme Headquarters here in February 1945 and commanded the Allied advance on the Western Front from this building.

The “little red schoolhouse” where Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht, General Alfred Jodl, signed the unconditional surrender that brought an end to the war in Europe, is today the Musée de la Reddition. It tells the story of the surrender – largely through the use of mannequins. The introductory film was informative, but the real highlight is in the room where the surrender was signed. Here, the original tables and chairs are surrounded by walls covered in maps of the theatre of operations.

Stalin was deeply unimpressed that the surrender was in Western Europe and didn’t officially recognise the Reims surrender. He insisted that a second ceremony was held in recently captured Berlin on the night of May 8th. Photos of the Nazi surrender in the virtually destroyed German capital are some of the most famous images from the war, and Reims’ role in bringing hostilities to an end have largely been overshadowed.

Halles du Boulingrin, Reims, France

Halles du Boulingrin, Reims, France

Reims, France

Reims, France

Champagne house, Reims, France

Champagne house, Reims, France

Reims, France

Reims, France

Reims, France

Reims, France

Reims, France

Reims, France

Reims, France

Reims, France

We spent a couple of days in Reims, sampling the relaxed lifestyle, sipping champagne and eating excellent food at outstanding bistros and restaurants. It’s a compact city that is easy to get around on foot. Other than the cathedral and champagne houses, the Musée de Beaux Arts is worth a visit, even when half of it is closed, as it was when we visited. The real pleasure of Reims though, is to wander the streets and hunt out the architectural legacy of its violent history.

A journey through Serbia’s flatlands

I was keen to see something of rural Serbia, where the pace of life drops to a dawdle and the modern world seems to be only slowly making its presence felt. In retrospect, I might have chosen a more stimulating region to explore, because the journey to the small town of Bač and the Monastery of Bodani was through a landscape of relentless, flat agricultural land stretching as far as the eye can see.

To make matters worse, the weather had decided to take a turn for the worse. Dark, threatening clouds turned to rain almost as soon as I set out on the road. The journey passed through small villages and towns on roads that were often arrow straight and empty of traffic. I saw very few people, and I was beginning to think these place were deserted. Then, as I drove through one of these small communities, lots of old ladies in traditional dress were coming out of church.

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

It was hardly a riot of activity, but it proved there was some life here after all. For the next few kilometres I passed numerous old ladies in traditional dress on bicycles. On a Sunday in rural Serbia, the government might want to consider putting up road signs near churches warning drivers of the hazards created by church-going old ladies. It’s not that they are dangerous, just that they cycle slowly and erratically on their way home while wearing their Sunday finery.

Eventually I arrived in Bač, one of the oldest settlements in this region that is today home to a few thousand people. It’s a sleepy place that hides a fascinating history. The main attraction of which is the semi-ruined Bač Fortress on the edge of town. Dating from the 9th century, what survives today was largely built between 1338 and 1686. The fortress has witnessed countless wars and occupations that have swept across this region over the last thousand years.

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

Bač Fortress, Serbia

I was lucky enough to arrive at the fortress just as the rain stopped and the sun came out. Strangely, as I arrived, a large party of school children from Novi Sad was just leaving in a bus. I still have no idea what they were doing there on a Sunday afternoon and, after hardly seeing a living soul on my journey to Bač, it was a bit surreal. Once they’d departed, I had the entire site to myself. It was all very peaceful until a snake slithered across my path. Time to move on.

Bač is home to a Franciscan monastery which was originally founded in 1169 by the Knights Templar. Sadly it was closed for restoration works and, as I wondered what to do next, it started raining again. I jumped back in the car and headed towards the Orthodox Monastery of Bodani. It was only a short drive and my guidebook made it sound interesting. Outside the monastery was a car park with 30 parking spaces, all empty. It seemed that I’d also have this site to myself.

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

The Monastery of Bodani, Serbia

I did spot a monk walking into a building, but other than that I was all alone in the monastery and its grounds. There was no information, so I just wandered around, took a few photos and then returned to the car. The monastery dates from the 15th century, but wars and occupations saw it destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times. The current building is 18th century, as are the lovely frescoes inside. It was very peaceful, but I couldn’t help thinking my guidebook had overstated its interest.

Since I’d bothered to make the journey to a place that probably doesn’t see too many tourists, I looked in the guidebook to see if there was anything else in the area that I should visit. There wasn’t. On empty roads, I set off on my return journey through Serbia’s flatlands back to Novi Sad.

En route to Bač, Serbia

En route to Bač, Serbia

En route to Bač, Serbia

En route to Bač, Serbia

Village en route to Bač, Serbia

Village en route to Bač, Serbia

Village en route to Bač, Serbia

Village en route to Bač, Serbia

The village of Bač, Serbia

The village of Bač, Serbia