More to Champagne region in France than a glass of bubbles

From museums and historic buildings to grape-picking, the famous la Champagne that lies east of the Paris region has something for everyone

21 February 2021
Palais du Tau is also crammed with history as it used to be the palace of the Bishops of Reims, where monarchs slept the night before their coronations, and feasted in the banqueting hall afterwards
By Samantha David

The words ‘le champagne’ conjure up romance, fun, glamour and celebration; a delicious treat. Change it to ‘la Champagne’ and we’re talking about the whole region which has a wealth of non-wine delights to explore.

Every champagne maker offers tours of their estates, vineyards and cellars; there are tastings galore and plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs.

Champagne Ruinart cellar in Reims
The extensive Champagne Ruinart cellar in Reims

Essentially, and very briefly, champagne is fermented twice, once in the tank and a second time in the bottle.

If this method is used outside the Champagne region, it has to be referred to as the ‘traditional method’. Cava, Franciacorta and Crémant are made this way. It is also possible to do the second fermentation in the tank before bottling (aka the tank method), and this is how Prosecco is made.

Tasting champagne has to be one of the nicest ways to spend a weekend, but if they are not open there are plenty of other attractions.

A really personalised way to explore the area is with a ‘greeter’; a local offering a free tour for up to six people, around the area. They are not professional guides, they are just sociable people who like showing visitors around.

The tourist office has a list of them at  so you can choose the area to explore, the theme, and even the language.

Because you book via the tourist office, you can be sure the person you are meeting has been officially approved.

The history of Reims is closely tied to royalty

The history of Reims is closely tied to royalty because since the 11th century, French Kings were traditionally crowned in the massive, Gothic NotreDame cathedral, built between 1211 and 1345.

Inside and out, the cathedral has more than 2,300 statues. It has been a Unesco Heritage Site since 1991.

Pay careful attention to the spectacular stained glass windows, some of which date back to the 13th century, and one of which was designed by Marc Chagall.

Also do not miss the giant clock. In the warmer months there is a free light show when it gets dark. The exterior of the cathedral is as dramatic and photogenic as the interior, and can be thoroughly appreciated from the café on the other side of the plaza.

Next door, the Palais du Tau is also crammed with history as it used to be the palace of the Bishops of Reims, where monarchs slept the night before their coronations, and feasted in the banqueting hall afterwards.

Outside, not far away is a statue of Joan of Arc, who persuaded Charles VII of France to be crowned in Reims.

Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc

Still in history mode, but slightly more up to date is the fascinating Musée de la Reddition [Surrender] which deals with the end of the Second World War.

General Eisenhower’s headquarters were in Reims, and it was here that he accepted the formal surrender of the Nazi forces in 1945.

The news was announced the next day, on May 8, and the building, including the room where the documents were signed, has been preserved and turned into a museum.

You can get a real sense of the atmosphere in Europe at the end of the Second World War.

While you’re in the 20th century, it would be a shame to miss the Musée Automobile, which contains around 200 vehicles, the earliest dating from 1908. But what makes the museum really stand out is the sister association PAAARC (Parking Associatif Automobiles Anciennes Remorques et Caravanes), a not-for-profit club for people who love restoring old cars.

Anyone can join and get a parking for their old car, caravan or trailer, either just to store it or to maintain/ restore it, and members hold a rally each year. It is a home from home for grease-monkeys and petrolheads with a taste for vintage.

If the heart of Reims is still royal, then Epernay is truly the heart of the world’s champagne production. Nearly 60% of jobs here are connected to champagne production and a large proportion of the rest are in tourism.

With a population of 25,000, the city receives upwards of half-a-million visitors per year. The Hotel de Ville, built in 1858, used to belong to Mr Auban-Moët, but now houses the town council.

The beautiful park surrounding it is open to the public, as are some of the rooms.

Plush, stylish, wealthy, the city is entirely surrounded by vineyards

Wander up the ‘Avenue de Champagne’ admiring the 19th-century buildings, and you will recognise the big names – Moët et Chandon, Mercier, De Castellane, and so on.

Beneath the buildings are more than 100kms of galleries carved out of the chalk rock, in which millions of bottles of champagne are maturing.

It would be a crime not to taste at least a few. The Tourist Office can help you choose and book.

If you really want to get hands-on, in the autumn they can also book you a place as a vendangeur d’un jour (grape-picker for the day), during which you will meet a wine-maker, see the vineyards, pick grapes, get a tour of the cellars and an explanation of how champagne is made, and taste the bubbly stuff itself.

Before you set off in quest of the perfect bubble, however, you might want to cruise round the Musée du vin de Champagne et d’Archéologie Régionale and brush up on some history.

The museum is housed in the mid 19th-century Château Perrier, which was requisitioned by the British army in 1940 and subsequently by the Germans until 1945 when it was taken over by the US army.

The mansion was eventually sold to the city and turned into a museum.

Another interesting museum on the same street (we are still on the Avenue de Champagne) is the Château de Condé with its fabulous 18th century interiors with trompe l’oeil painted walls and ceiling, along with luxurious period furniture and art.

'You can see the bedroom where Cardinal Richelieu stayed, and polish up your French history while admiring the decor'

Further south is the unmissable Troyes (pronounced like the number three, trois), with its extensive medieval centre, and the famous Ruelle des Chats, which is so narrow in places that it is hard to walk side-by-side.

Constructed after a massive fire in 1524, at a time when houses were taxed on the area of the ground floor, the buildings overhang the alley making it possible for cats to jump from one side of the street to the other.

The attraction is not commercial, there are very few shops or cafés; the attraction is that of a time machine.

It does not take much imagination to travel back to life in the 16th century. Extraordinarily enough, in the 1960s there were plans to demolish the street, which were only abandoned when André Malraux intervened.

The rest of the centre is just as impressive with its multicoloured half-timbered houses, and stretch of tree-lined canal. Look out for the seated sculpture of a woman in an outsized hat – she is called Lili and is reputed to love being included in selfies.

‘Lili’ in Troyes
‘Lili’ in Troyes

If that does not appeal, just keep looking because there are multiple quirky art installations, sculptures and statues scattered around the streets.

It is worth visiting the impressive Gothic cathedral Saint-Pierre et SaintPaul in which the Treaty of Troyes was signed in 1420, securing the French succession. Joan of Arc, in contravention of that treaty escorted Charles VII to Mass in the cathedral, on route to his coronation in Reims in 1429.

A guided tour around the Synagogue Rachi is a chance to find out about one of France’s most famous writers.

Rachi was a medieval rabbi who wrote extensive commentaries on the Talmud, explaining the concepts so that ordinary people could understand them better.

Born in 1040 in Troyes, he was buried there in 1105, and the spot is marked by a large black and white spherical sculpture outside the Théâtre de Champagne, on the Boulevard Gambetta.

Do not miss MOPO (Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière) which is an unusual museum tracing the history of tools and apprenticeship.

Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière
Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière

It gives great insight into how craftspeople have worked through the ages, and it is strangely fascinating to note that many hand-tools have not actually changed that much over the ages.

There is a collection of more than 12,000 tools displayed in 65 showcases, and a free-access library of antique and contemporary reference books.

The point is not just to look at a bunch of old tools, by the way. It is to imagine the people who spent their working lives using these tools, and consider what they created with them in order to raise awareness of the value of knowledge, expertise and skills.

The Apothicairerie de l’Hôtel Dieu le Comte is one of the oldest pharmacies in France and looks like a set from a Harry Potter film.

It is only one room, but the €3 entrance fee also gets you into the nearby Cité du Vitrail (museum of stained glass) and it is also worth it to read the truly bizarre recipe for curing sciatica (mint and marjoram, apparently) and the labels on all the jars and phials.

In contrast, 45 minutes away by car is the prize-winning adventure park Nigloland. With 40 rides ranging from the fun to the terrifying, there is something for everyone, plus a range of cafés, snack bars and restaurants on site. There is also a pirate-themed hotel, which is bound to appeal to kids.

Finally, if it is open, do not miss Du Côté des Renoir, in Essoyes, about 45 minutes southeast.

The artist lived there for 30 years, so you can trace his life story in the cultural centre, wander round his house and the studio in the garden, and even visit the grave where he is buried with his family.

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