I lay in wait for the alarm to go off. It is set for 5am and I know that if we do not get up straight away and get ourselves down to Tuileries, we will miss our tour to Champagne Ardennes. I am not much of a morning person but usually, when I have to get up, I get up. Just don’t talk to me. However, I am travelling with a person who is even less of a morning person than me, so it will be interesting to see how we go.
Matt got home from his night out around 3am, so with only two hours sleep, he struggles to get ready for our much anticipated tour of the Champagne region, north-west of Paris. We manage better than I thought we would, and with a minimum of fuss we seem to be on track to leave the hotel on time.
We walk out of the Hotel Cabourg into the pre-dawn. Dark, cool, misty, hushed. This has to be the best time of the day, if only I saw it more often. The half-light envelopes us as we walk up to Place de Clichy Metro station. Paris is quiet and sleepy, but here and there we can see that she too is peering out with a half-open eyelid, stretching slightly and anticipating the day that awaits her. A garbage truck suddenly intrudes on the peacefulness of this very early morning. As we near the Place we see a few shop owners hosing down their footpaths. Smells of bread baking come from somewhere. Watching Paris awaken this morning will be a memory I will cherish.
We catch the Metro to Champs Elysees station where we have to change lines to get to Tuileries. We are thankful that we had planned this part of our trip well yesterday as it can be complicated trying to change lines. In the dim light, we can see a small, straggly group people gathering at the tour office. We can relax now, we are here with good time to spare. Matt and I are both good at prioritising so we go in search of coffee. One café is just opening. We are drawn like moths to a flame to smells of coffee and croissants. Others also make a bee line and the poor owner is nearly knocked down as he opens his doors wide for the sudden influx of half-asleep tourists eager to get a morning fix. Matt and I order the BEST croissants in all of France that morning. Hot, fresh and oh so buttery. This café is a gold mine. He can charge anything he wants for his coffee and croissants because he has a desperate, captive clientele guaranteed every morning. He is the only café open for miles around.
Many tour buses are filling up and driving off to visit many parts of France that is within a day’s drive of Paris. Our tour leaves at 7am with only six other passengers apart from us. As we drive through the streets of a sleepy Saturday morning it is obvious that there is a heavy fog. We can feel the high humidity, but the tour guide says the fog shows promise of a glorious sunny day – such a relief after the heavy rain and coolness of yesterday.
We drive along the motorway in a north-easterly direction toward Reims, capital of the Champagne Ardennes region in the Marne department. Daylight has arrived but the heavy fog prevents us from seeing too much, and at times I wonder how the drivers can see on the motorway. Guess they are used to it. After a couple of hours we stop at a roadside service station for a comfort stop and a drink. Matt and I have an orange juice. He is starting to look awake now. Back on the bus and we keep going until we see the sign to turn off to Epernay – the major champagne producing town in the area.
As we are now off the motorway and on country roads, we are able to enjoy the view from the bus window. The fog is clearing rapidly and a watery sunshine is reflecting off wet trees, making them sparkle like Christmas trees. As we drive through the Marne River valley we pass through village after village with streets so narrow that our bus cannot pass if another car is coming towards it. I notice the drivers use common sense and good manners to negotiate who will go first. There seems to be no argy bargy about it at all. But, oh, the villages - it takes my breath away to see these little villages with solid stone houses built right up to the roadway, each with window boxes tumbling out bright coloured geraniums, with little backyards growing veges, little gardens full of flowering roses of every colour. Oh, so beautiful. Every village is different, yet each a postcard perfect scene. The sun is out now, smiling warmly down on this vista before me. Bright blue sky, the green of the acres and acres of vineyards. Big smiling sunflowers growing wild along the roadside. This will be one of the best memories of my trip. I can feel a big warm feeling in my chest. To see these little villages, so quiet yet busy, quaint and unchanged, prosperous little villages that supply grapes to the big champagne makers, is having a very profound effect on me.
Our first stop is at the Moët and Chandon cellars in Epernay. We park our bus and walk through the pretty back streets. Before us we see the massive edifice and very fitting monument to the world’s most popular champagne. I can add champagne, particularly Moët and Chandon, to my growing list of what I love about Paris.
We are taken on a guided tour of the building, which until recently was the home to the Moët family. We hear how the Dom Perignon champagne (which I didn’t know was part of the Moët and Chandon stable) was firstly made by monks. Monsieur Chandon joined forces with the Moëts a couple of hundred years ago to work together on making this wonderful drop. We discover that the correct pronunciation of Moët is not Moeee as most Australians call it, but Mo-ett – with the emphasis on the ett. So, it is called – phonetically – Mo-ett ay Chondon.
We descend into the 28 kilometres of cellars which run underneath the whole town of Epernay. Each champagne house has it’s own labyrinth of cellars and they sometimes abutt one another, but never join, as there is fierce competition between each of the houses. The nearest rival to Moët and Chandon is Veuve Cliquot. Other than that, we are told, Moët and Chandon leave all others in this area far behind in quality and popularity. Our tour guide, a terribly English young man whom I am sure is Eton educated, is great – very knowledgeable and interesting. They sell 30 million bottles of the stuff a year. After an hour or so in the 11 degree cellars, we ascend to the tasting room where we are all given a glass of Moët and Chandon. mmmmm
Tasting room at Moet et Chandon cellars
We walk back out into the glorious warm sunshine, through the flowers and gardens of the local Town Hall, and back into the bus. The bus takes us through breathtaking scenery of vineyards and villages. Grape vines, bright green against the deep blue sky to our right and left. I just can’t believe that this gets better with every mile. Just as I think to myself that I have died and gone to heaven, our guide points out to us a hill rising like a pimple from the flat verdant vineyards. On top of the hill I can see a church spire and a few low buildings. That, says our guide, is Mutigny, and we are going there for lunch. I can’t take my eyes off this dot in the distance, a village on top of the montagne. Our bus turns left off the main road and along a narrow, one-lane bitumen road towards the hill, flanked on either side by very healthy looking grape vines. Then a short, steep, windy climb up a little cobbled lane and all of a sudden we arrive in the town square. We are told that Mutigny is a Commune with a population of about 200 which I find surprising as it is a tiny village.
A happy, friendly lady rushes out of the hall and greets us – she speaks no English – and tells us that she will be cooking our lunch but she is not yet ready and asks us to go for a walk first. One cannot imagine how lovely it is, walking up a dirt track through the vineyards, colourful roses blooming everywhere. We are told they grow roses at the end of each vine as they attract the same bugs that annoy the grapes. Such is the sensitivity of these farmers that they use this natural method of pest control rather than chemical pesticides. Big yellow sunflowers smile at us and nod their heads in the gentle breeze.
It is quite warm walking up the hill but we are rewarded with a 360 degree view of total splendour from the top, looking down on the town of Epernay in the distance, but really all we can see for miles and miles are vineyards, the occasional little farm house here and there. My camera (and Matt’s) are working overtime. Not a sound to be heard except our footsteps crunching on the gravel track and the odd bird calling out its greeting. No cars. Just total peacefulness. Our small group lingers for a long while, not talking, just immersing ourselves in this spectacular view.
Eventually we reluctantly walk back towards the town hall, deviating to go down yet another lane where we stumble upon the most beautiful little church I’ve ever seen. This is the spire I could see from the main road as we drove in earlier. I ask the guide about it’s age. It is 15th or 16th Century and I notice the bricks are starting to crumble giving them round edges. The spire is made of slate, and the church is perched right on the edge of the hill with the most wonderful vista surrounding it.
We drag ourselves away. There is a little war memorial by the track with fresh flowers propped against it. Today, 25th Aôut (or August), is the anniversary of the liberation of France in 1944. Today, all over France, there will be ceremonies to give thanks for the liberation that came with the assistance of the Allies. This little war memorial is in memory to ‘les enfants de Mutigny’ and, with sadness, we notice there are about seven or eight names on it. From such a small village, a high price indeed. I look at the fresh flowers – perhaps some heart broken aging mother walked down this lane this morning to place them at the memorial. Perhaps some girlfriend or wife, whose lover never came home.
Matt and I are the last to walk back up the track for lunch. But wait! The lady of the house rushes out again in her colourful apron and says she wants to give us an aperitif – wine tasting of the local brew made from local Mutigny grapes. She has even put on some lovely smoked salmon snacks to have with our wine. We are all hungry and so the snacks and wines are welcome, as is the obvious pleasure the lady is receiving by having this small group visit her town. She has a beautiful smile from ear to ear as she nods to us. ‘Merci, merci beaucoup madame’ we say as we smile back.
Eventually we are ushered into the lunch room and there before us is a wonderful buffet of food that would feed a crowd. We are told it is all local produce and each dish is representative of the local dishes of this region. Matt and I are thrilled and cannot believe that this lady has prepared such a feast. The whole group is impressed that this is provided for us. Fresh local ham, roast beef, home smoked salmon (the whole fish), many cheeses, salads, about four terrines, something that I am sure is tongue in a kind of lentil thing (Matt and I both try it but…well…it is tender and tasty but I’m not into that kinda thing), fruits, grapes of course, vegetable dishes. It is all laid out so beautifully. They have red wine laid on in a little wooden keg, coffee, a lovely dessert of trifle, and of course, le pain. Yes – le pain – no meal is complete in France without bread. We find it amazing how much bread they eat and it is baked several times a day to ensure it is hot and fresh. Long French rolls of course. They give you a HUGE basket of it with every meal. You see people riding their bicycles with French loaves sticking out of their baskets.
Anyway, back to Mutigny. A wonderful, genuinely French meal in a setting that is just amazing. Although the lady who cooked does not speak English, she knows how grateful we are and we all sign her guest book. Her face lights up with our genuine compliments – tres bon, merci beaucoup. We all know we have experienced a very special treat by coming here. Our little group is made up of two New Yorkers (ladies), two Brazilians (men), Matt and I and another Aussie couple (would you believe from New Farm, Brisbane?). We all agree it was heaven on earth and I think I want to go live in Mutigny, if they’ll have me.
So, back in the bus, back into Epernay and to the Castillon champagne cellars where we do another underground tour of the cellars and another tasting. Matt and I think they should do this one before the Moët and Chandon cellars, as it just pales in comparison. However, it is a very informative tour and we get to see the big stainless steel vats and all the machinery they use to make their champagne. Only the Champagne region of France is allowed to call their sparkling wine champagne. Everywhere else must not use that term. I wonder if these vintners here in this beautiful regional area are aware of how popular their wine is all around the world, and how sipping ‘champers’ is synonymous with a celebration.
We travel back home along the motorway and arrive in Paris at about 8.30pm. Matt and I go in search of a nice restaurant for dinner and afterwards take the Metro up to Pigalle (the red light district) to see the iconic windmill of the Moulin Rouge all lit up.
We take lots of photos, surprised by the very large crowd of tourists who are all doing the same thing, some sitting atop the shoulders of others to get a better shot. The famous red windmill and flashing neon signs are so much nicer at night and I remember my first afternoon in Paris when I stumbled upon it in daylight and thought it looked rather drab.
Matt and I then stroll the four or five blocks back to our hotel in Place de Clichy. We are tired, Matt especially, but we both agree we have had a day we will never forget. We both loved it so much, especially the visit to Mutigny.
Our hotel, the Cabourg, is in simply the BEST location in Paris. Place de Clichy is vibrant, alive, a real hub with a five or six or seven ways junction and the obligatory statue in the centre. It hums with cafes, restaurants, clubs, and shops. It is alive and colourful and noisy and is within walking distance (yes, really) of the Champs Elysees, L’Opera, Madeleine, Pigalle district, Montmatre and Sacre Coeur. We are a mere five minute walk to our Metro station and there is a supermarket about three minutes away across the beautiful Boulevard des Batignolles. We enjoy walking through Place de Clichy at this time of night and look forward to collapsing into a solid sleep. What a great day we have had. Au revoir for now.