It was our last full day in the Champagne region, so we thought it would be nice to follow one of the many champagne tourist routes that we’ve spotted around the place. So we decided to take a circuit to the west of Épernay along the Vallé de Marne. We started following the Marne River along its southern bank.
Once again, the slopes were blanketed with vines and punctuated with tiny little villages, each with their own champagne makers and cellars. This area too, especially to the northwest, is rife with Romanesque churches, in various states of repair. At Œuilly (don’t ask us how to pronounce that!) we stopped at St Memmie’s Church and found that here the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has commemorated the deaths of five British airmen, all in their 20s, who presumably were in the same plane, shot down nearby on 4 May 1944.
Most of these churches are high up the slopes, so visiting them grants you marvellous views of the valley below. From there you can see how closely the towns are set, many just 1 or 2 km apart, but each with their own church, vintners, town halls etc.
Our next stop was Dormans, which was an important site during both Battles of the Marne (at each ends of WWI). We stopped for lunch. Of course, being Monday, most restaurants were closed! But we managed to find a very nice little concern, La Table Sourdet, that offered a special Monday deal of a three-course meal for only €15. It was too tempting even though we weren’t that hungry! So we had a lovely pâté, another chicken and mash, and crème caramel and cheeses. Phew!
At this point we then crossed the Marne and headed back east along the northern bank of the river. At Châtillon-sur-Marne we found another Romanesque church, but this one was in very bad repair. Several sections of the roof were covered with corrugated iron, some windows were broken and one of the arches inside had been propped up with a solid structure of wooden beams and bricks. And yet, it looked like it was still in use by the locals.
And around the corner, at the very top of the hill, is an absolutely enormous (9 metres high!) statue of Pope Urban II (1040-1099), the second French pope, who was born in the town. It’s so big and imposing that you can see the statue from many places down on the valley floor. And from its vantage point at the peak, we were rewarded with an amazing 180º view of the area - quite stunning, especially as the clouds parted and the valley below was showered with sunshine.
From here we headed into the southern parts of the Montagne de Reims. At Hautvillers we stopped at the Abbey of St Peter, where Dom Pérignon served as cellarer from 1668 until he died in 1715, and where he is buried. The famous monk was, of course, primarily responsible for improving the methods of champagne making, including reducing the likelihood of bottles exploding, encouraging the use of pinot noir grapes and championing pressing grapes instead of treading on them. Statues and images of him can be seen all over the region.
Opposite the abbey, Jane spotted the cellar door of J. M. Gobillard et Fils, where she could taste a few of their fine drops, and came away with a demi of their rosé champagne. Cellar doors here, like in the US, are strictly limited to tasting and buying, so it is not quite as much fun as in Australia where we can enjoy the wines with good food. And of course, while Gobillard is well known in Europe, they don’t export to Oz, so we’re limited to trying it out while we’re here.
For our last night in Épernay we had a light meal in our apartment, which was more than enough after our substantial lunch in Dormans!