For an introduction to the world of Champagne, follow the signpost-heavy wine roads “Montagne de Reims” (a 45-mile swath curving from Reims to Épernay) and “Vallée de la Marne” (a 56-mile itinerary beginning and ending in Épernay). Winegrowers displaying the Route Touristique du Champagne “Accueil” sign offer cellar tours and tastings. Make the pilgrimage to engaging Hautvillers, where the 17th-century cellar master Dom Pérignon invented the process for making Champagne in a Benedictine abbey. A half-day or more should also be devoted to Épernay, with its Avenue de Champagne lined with mansions owned by some of the most illustrious Champagne houses.
Across the street from Domaine Les Crayères, the Elizabethan neo-gothic-style Domaine Pommery (5 Place du Général Gouraud), built in the 19th century, offers tours of its sprawling network of cellars, some of which date to Roman times. Its impressive caves host rotating exhibitions of contemporary art.
Many of the most famous Champagne houses are open to visitors. However, tours generally require advance reservations, so plan in advance. Ruinart (4 Rue des Crayères, Reims) is the oldest Champagne house, having been founded in 1729. The hospitality here is flawless, and the visit itself, of the house, Ruinart’s art collection, chalk quarries and cellars, is fascinating.
Tours of Taittinger (9 Rue Saint-Nicaise, Reims), a house renowned for producing some of the finest Blanc de Blanc Champagnes, include visits of the Gallo-Roman cellars dug into chalk beds 60 feet underground.
J. de Telmont (1 Avenue de Champagne, Damery) has been owned by the same family for four generations and is one of the most hospitable of all the Champagne cellars. If you come in September during the vendage, you are allowed to walk out into their vineyards for a firsthand look at the harvesting.
A Magnificent Boat Tour
The magnificent Belmond Pivoine, a 128-foot barge with four impressively light and spacious cabins, a lounge, a dining room, a deck terrace and a heated outdoor plunge pool, plies the waters of the Marne river and the Canal Lateral à la Marne.
The barge runs from La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre to Châlons-en-Champagne and is available by private charter only. For those interested in booking individual cabins, opt for the Belmond Hirondelle, which runs from Châlons-en-Champagne to Épernay.
World War II Museum
In addition to seeing Reims’ famed gothic cathedral, I recommend a visit to the moving Musée de la Reddition (12 Rue Franklin Roosevelt). Housed in a former technical school, you can see the very room where the Germans surrendered to the Allies, formally ending World War II. The furnishings are all original to that historic day, as are the maps on the walls showing troop positions.
Travel Through Time in Troyes
Troyes, the historic capital of the Champagne region, is one of the most captivating small cities in France. Walking past the half-timbered houses along Rue Champeaux or Rue Linard Gonthier is a form of time travel back to the mid-16th century.
The city can also boast fine gothic churches and remarkable museums, including the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, which encompasses a rich collection that includes paintings by Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau.
Perhaps my favorite place to visit in Troyes, however, is the covered market. Open daily, it is a great place to shop for a picnic or edible souvenirs such as jam, mustard, herbs and spices, as well as Champagne made in the surrounding Aube region.