France
Grand-Est

Here you’ll find travel reports about Grand-Est. Discover travel destinations in France of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.

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  • Day1015

    Mutigny

    April 7 in France ⋅ ☁️ 11 °C

    We're perched on the end spot at Mutigny's quiet, free aire, overlooking rolling vinyards webbed with a network of pale paths worn into the chalky soil. At 240m, Mutigny is the highest wine village in the champagne region and commands impressive, far reaching views of the surrounding countryside. It only has 200 residents, but it provides a 7 place motorhome park for people like us!

    We hadn't planned on visiting, indeed, we didn't know of the existence of this place until we read the placemat advertisement for Le Sentier du Vigneron vineyard tours and tastings, when eating lunch at Le Bistrot in Mareiul-sur-Ay. We'd visited the Lanson and Möet & Chandon champagne houses and really fancied exploring the vinyards themselves and sampling some bubbly produced by the smaller houses. We looked at the options on the webpage and found the start of the trail was just 3.5km away. The discovery of the free aire in the village decided it and we requested a tour via their webpage.

    At 2pm we met Emmanuelle at the Marie (Mayor's office) that doubled as a base of operation for the tour company. Apart from the church, it was the only public building in the village, which had no shops. She greeted us nervously (we later found out we were her first booking of the season) and the three of us ambled up towards the vinyard tracks. Emmanuelle focussed the tour round a series of public information boards, explaining and elaborating on the information they imparted. We covered the soil, different grape varieties, grafting, pruning, pests, cultivation and commercial concerns among other topics. Will made the observation that in other wine growing regions, the growers produce their own wine, whereas in champagne there are a myriad of smallscale growers, who sell their grapes to cooperatives and producers. It was good to be out amongst the vines and the hillside was peaceful, save for the squadrons of quads and scramblers that raced past us at points, their engines growling and their wheels kicking up dust!

    After a few kilometres it was back to base for tastings! As a treat for Vicky's upcoming birthday we'd indulged and chosen the 'Trilogy' tour, with 3 (very generous) glasses of champagne. Booklets provided us with a handy description of the 20 or so bottles they had in stock and we focussed on exploring the different grape varieties, choosing one made from 100% Pinot Meunier grapes, another from with a high proportion of Pinot Noir (Will's with no added sugar), then Vicky ended with a 100% Chardonay Blanc de Blanc and Will with an Egrot 2009 vintage with 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonay and no added sugar. This ended up being his favourite. We got a bottle of this and a few bottles of the fruity Didier Ducos Absolu Meuneir that Vicky really liked. There wasn't any pressure to buy and at €20 a head we thought the tour and tastings were good value.

    We stottered back to the van with wide grins on our faces. It had been really interesting being able to sample the different types side by side and talk with Emmanuelle. It was good to see many of the producers mentioning their move away from weedkillers and pesticides towards mechanical cultivation and confused fertilisation to do the same job.
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  • Day1189

    Richardménil, Autumn 2019

    September 28 in France ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    It's been just five and a half months since we first found this woodland aire at Richardménil. We liked it so much we stayed 3 nights back in April. We'd not planned to revisit, but it happened to be on our route and have the facilities we needed, as well as free electricity! We recognised the familiar approach as soon as we entered the village and were able to claim the end bay we like best, when the only other motorhomer departed a few hours after our arrival. It's a popular spot so we weren't alone for long, with several German registered vans soon joining us.

    Will sat mindfully and fished on the bank of the small river nearby. The wood opposite him had just been coming into leaf in the Spring and was now taking on its varied Autumn colours.

    Vicky took advantage of the electric hook up, chopping ginger root, cinamon bark, star anise, peppercorns and cardamon in the electric blender we bought back in the UK. Her favourite morning cuppa of loose chai is very difficult to get hold of when travelling. Its often easier and always cheaper to make it from the base ingredients. The blender hasn't quite worked out as planned; although small it requires a higher ampage than either our portable power pack or our inverter can give, so is only useable when we are attached to the mains.

    Richardménil was so relaxing we decided to stay a second day. In the morning Vicky walked along the canal then up to the boulangerie to buy croissants for a long Sunday breakfast. Will enjoyed the sunshine on the canalside while Vicky caught up on housework and managed to make some vegan mayonnaise in the processor. Before leaving on Monday we climbed the hill to town. Vicky's doctor was only able to provide her with enough sertraline to last a couple of months so we were keen to see whether we could obtain more whilst on the road. To our great relief the pharmacy was able to sell her a further 28 days of medication when she showed them that her UK doctor had prescribed it! Success!

    After a visit to the Carrefour we took the gravel path back towards the aire. It lead between mature trees, some of which had signs tacked to them warning of 'chenilles urticantes'. Remembering the numerous nests of Processional Pine Caterpillars in Italy, Spain and even southern France, we first looked up to the branches and leaves. We were standing within a foot of a tree doing this when we realised there were hundreds of Processional Oak Caterpillars on their thick silken web clinging to the trunk at eye level. We got quite a shock! Looking closely we saw with relief that they were only the exuviae (skins) of these dangerous little minibeasts, which had already pupated and emerged as adults. Internet research back in the van informed us that these moths will have used their 4 days of life to lay eggs high up in the leaf canopy. Extreme caution was still necessary to avoid contact with the long hairs remaining on and around the exuvia, which can deliver a powerful sting, irritating skin, eyes and throats (if inhaled). As hazardous as these creatures are, we found ourselves examining the dozens of nests wrapped around trunks with fascination. Every Oak was affected, with some webbing covering almost the entire circumference and stretching up several metres.
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  • Day1006

    Revin, the River Meuse

    March 29 in France ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    The sun is shining and we are sitting on our own little patch of riverside grass, right outside the van. Vicky rests in the camp chair while Will perches on the bank, catching little fish, whose shiny silver scales glint in the bright light.

    With Martha's new rear tyres, we drove 20km north from Charleville-Mézières to the 16 place aire here in Revin. The landscape was typically Ardennaise; plenty of rolling forest hills to please the eye. Our aire sits between the River Meuse and Revin's commercial area, which hosts an Intermarché supermarket and Bazar Land among other outlets. The town's historic core is just a short walk away, over the other side of the water, the backs of its old terraced stone houses and stepped gardens provide an interesting view. Some remind us of the Lake District, one was built back in 1622 and retains its stone facade, but many have been extended and rendered with smooth creams and yellows, creating a real mix. Behind the homes rises a ridge covered in bare winter trees and above it we watch the colourful crescent shaped sails supporting paragliders as they play in the breeze.

    Still a little worried about the broken cable near the rear wheel, Vicky spent time researching the internet and mentioned it to her Dad, who thought it might be the brake pad sensor. Handily, he was visiting his local garage that afternoon and showed photos of the problem to the mechanic. They were able to confirm this theory and that it was nothing to worry about. We can have the brake pads replaced as normal, which will solve the problem. Phew!

    On Saturday morning we visited the town centre to post a card. The touchscreen stamp machine had an English language option, and weighed our card, printing out the appropriately priced international stamp (€2.60), for us to stick on and post in the long distance mail box. Revin is a little rough around the edges, some of the younger residents are pretty loud, (rap music from a birthday party blasts out as I write and the Gilet Jeunes protest made a clatter), but real efforts have been made to make vanners feel welcome. Planners have found a scenic spot with no through traffic and planters with wooden trellises partially obscure the grafittid concrete wall behind us. You can use a credit card to buy tokens at the service machine for fresh water and the there is a couple of washing machines and dryer not 100m from us, not to mention the nearby shops and eateries.

    Sunday started as another glorious blue sky day. Vicky fetched boulanger's croissants for breakfast and picked out a Tarte au Sucre for a mid afternoon treat. This large cake is a speciality of the region and is sometimes called an Ardennaise Tart. It is a soft, bread-like consistency made with sugar, butter and a heap more sugar! Very sweet and tasty but perhaps not the best thing for the waistline...

    Will fished and Vicky did a marathon wash at the nearby machines, hanging a load of clothes, our floor mats and sleeping bags, out to dry in our 9m x 4m 'garden'. We weren't the only ones enjoying the sun; our solar panel has been amazing in this weather! Whereas before we would be limited to staying 2 nights if we didn't have electric hookup, the panel has charged our phones and power packs and replenished our leisure batteries to around 13.5V each day, so they don't drop below 12.3V (about 75%) at night. It gives us so much more freedom to choose when we move on and means we don't need to find places with mains electric. With the control box, wires and panel itself, it was an expensive investment (over £500), but it will save us money we would otherwise have spent on hookup, extend the useful life of our batteries and perhaps even save money on fuel if we choose to stay put rather than moving on so frequently. Aside from the financial considerations, we are so happy to have bought and finally fitted it for the lifestyle options it affords us.
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  • Day1012

    Mareuil-sur-Ay

    April 4 in France ⋅ ⛅ 10 °C

    The aire at Mareuil-sur-Ay sits amongst three rows of tall, bare trees, overlooking a canalside marina with an interesting array of leisure and house boats, little and large. The branches, trunks and much of the time clouds, shade our solar panel, so it isn't as effective as it would be if it were in full sun, but it still replenishes our leisure batteries each day. The aire has bins and toilet emptying facilities, but the fresh water and electricity are turned off.

    It was just a short drive through vine clad countryside from Épernay, but well worth it because it's waterside position means Will can spend his time fishing, so he won't get bored. Like the champagne capital, the village of Mareuil is home to a good number of champagne houses and you don't have to go far to see the chalk hills upon which the grapes are grown. There isn't much here in the way of shops; a small Casino supermarket, a boulangerie and a bar called Le Bistrot. A number of people visit the canalside to walk their dogs (which Vicky enjoys) and a local takes an evening stroll to call his 18 year old cat Mateau, in for its tea. He friendly (the owner, not the cat) and exchanges a few words with us or gives us a wave as he passes.

    Despite the days becoming warmer, it's not unusual for us to be showered with hailstones and on our first night here there was a frost. We woke near sunrise to see it sparkling on blades of grass and a mist whisping off the still water. Vicky went for a walk as it lifted, crossing over the canal at a nearby bridge and taking a path along the wooded strip of land that stretches between it and the winding River Marne, after which the town is named. There were some beautiful sights; a swan appearing and disappearing between the misty patches of golden light and shadows, cormorants flying overhead, pale yellow cowslips rising above the green carpet of grass with lilac and white primula creating pockets of colour on the banks.

    Because the aire is free, we chose to give some money back to the town by eating lunch at Le Bistrot, a traditional French bar with mosaic tiled floor, wooden tables, chairs and a red leather bench seat running the length of the wall, backed by large clear windows, giving it a light and airy feel. Glass 'buckets' from two champagne houses displayed bottles on the windowsill and the servers poured red wine from a wooden barrel set up on a table. Being a Friday, it was already busy when we arrived shortly after midday and heads turned towards us with interest as we entered. We were eventually seated at the last available table and chose our mains from the 4 options chalked up on the wall. Vicky asked for the house salad with gizards (only without the gizards) while Will went for the house tartare. Raw beef isn't a big thing in the UK but it was the favourite dish by a mile here and our good humoured server cracked up when they saw Will smiling at the polar opposites we'd ordered.

    The food was good quality and very filling, especially considering that mains, desert and a beer came to under €30 for us both. The server had a bit of banter with us and shared the fact that the people in the corner were pondering over Vicky's dreadlocks, so we had a bit of banter with them too (well, as much as we could with our limited French). There was a really good, light hearted atmosphere in the bar, that we felt privileged to be part of. The sun was shining when we emerged and so we got the canoe down and spent a happy couple of hours paddling up and down the canal, reaching Ay, the next village along. It felt great to be out on the water again.

    On Saturday morning Will walked to the boulangerie and picked up a baguette and some berry tarts. We made a couple of sandwiches and packed them in the tandem panier, having used MapsMe to find a picnic area 11kms along the canal in a little village called Condé-sur-Marne. The cycle track was great quality and Will has been maintaining the bike, so it travelled well over the flat surface. It was a pleasure to cycle along the towpath, past tall trees strung with mistletoe balls and spot Oxslips, Cowslips and delicate purple Cuckooflowers along the verge. The trip was 16 miles in total, so after a cuppa, Vicky curled up to write the blog while Will returned to his nearby fishing spot to make the most of the fresh air and daylight. Mareuil-sur-Ay was a great place to stay; relaxed, friendly and with good access to leisure activities.
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  • Day1026

    A day in Strasbourg

    April 18 in France ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    Between our campsite in Kehl, Germany and Strasbourg city centre, France, there is an excellent network of cycle paths so we decided to cover the 7km distance on the tandem. The clear skies and warm weather forecast for Easter had arrived and we looked forward to a day exploring. It wasn't long before we reached a park running along both sides of the River Rhine. The Garden of the Two Banks is linked by a striking white suspension pedestrian and bike bridge (The Bridge of the Two Banks). On the German bank it is known as Der Garten der Zwei Ufer and Jardin des Deux Rives on the French bank.

    With Vicky using the Maps.Me app and Will steering, we followed a series of dedicated bike lanes, sometimes running between two tram routes, to arrive at Strasbourg's magnificent red sandstone, Notre Dame Cathedral. Sitting on the sunny side of the square, we relaxed and spent time taking in the many details of the towering gothic architecture; the stained glass, the statues of knights and the decorative stone openwork on the windows and spires that added a delicacy to the structure.

    Despite the fact that it was easter, there was a relaxed atmosphere in the city. Sure, we saw a few large tourist groups, but there were never so many people as to stiffle. A queue began to form to view the astronomical clock but the rest of the cathedral, including the tower, was closed so we wheeled the tandem around the square, admiring prodigious half timbered buildings, their steep rooves dotted with dormer windows.

    Moving on to La Place Gutenberg we found a fast food stall selling sustenance from a wide range of nations; sauerkraut, sausages, churros, donuts, frites... The high spirited server conversed in what we took to be a mix of French and German, although looking back we may well have been hearing the local Alsation language. Will used an adaptive 'Freutch' to order and five minutes later we were sitting at a long table with red gingham plastic cloth, tucking into our veggie pizza and Tarte Flambée; a speciality of the region. The square also held an easter stall, selling crafted eggs, bunnies, chicks and storks. We've noticed a number of these large birds since arriving in Alsace. Seen as a symbol of fertility and said to bring good luck, they are an important element of Alsatian culture and featured in many of the souvenirs on offer around the city. Another thing that stood out was the number of small tablecloths for sale. Shops were making the most of the reputation of locally produced Beauvillé linen, something we were happy about because it meant there were a range of tea towels available, one of which we chose to represent France in our collection.

    Moving on, we admired the easter displays. The ones above shop windows were particularly impressive. Soon we arrived at the cobbled lanes of La Petite France, an incredibly beautiful quarter of Strasbourg, steeped in history and populated by quaint half timbered, waterside houses from the 16th and 17th centuries. The area is centered on three short sections of canalised river. They lay adjacent to one another and their flow drove water mills that were the main source of power for the flour industry that thrived here alonside tanners and fishers. We hopped back and forth accross sweet stone bridges spanning the canals, then used the comparatively long, covered bridge, Barage Vauban, to cross the River Ill a short way downstream. Inside, the light coloured stone, dark wood and way the light fell, gave the effect of waking through a small church nave, with space off to either side separated into rectangular rooms. These could easily have been used to house retail outlets such as on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, but we liked that most had been left empty, with some used to store large stone statues. We liked it even more that the bridge allowed access to its rooftop walkway, from where you could peer over the sedum moss for great views of fairytale Petite France.

    Cycling along a leafy riverside track, it wasn't long before we arrived at the final place Vicky had highlighted on the map; the Grande Mosquée de Strasbourg, France's largest. After 20 years of political negotiations, the place of worship was completed in 2012 with a distinctive flower petal design. To many it represents a new age of religious tolerance. This was supported to some extent by a large poster on the outskirts of Petite France proclaiming Strasbourg's rejection of intolerance, encouraging people to coexist. We are both atheists, but find it interesting to explore different ways of thinking. We will often admire the architecture on a cathedral and thought it important to see the Grande Mosquée too. We liked its design, but were struck by how small it seemed and the noticeable absence of a minaret. Birmingham Central Mosque, that we are used to passing when back in the West Midlands, can accommodate more than ten times the number of worshippers.

    After cycling back over the Bridge of Two Banks, we were glad to sit and rest. We both really enjoyed our visit to Strasbourg, a beautiful city that seems to have found a good balance, providing well for locals and tourists without destroying its central character. We'll remember it fondly.
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  • Day1004

    Charleville-Mézières (3rd time)

    March 27 in France ⋅ ⛅ 10 °C

    We are at Charleville-Mézières, in the Champagne Ardenne region, for the third time of this tour, having previously visited in July '16 and November '17. It was one of the first official aires we ever stayed, when in our old van, we took a week to visit the dealer in Germany where we bought our current motorhome, Martha. The aire itself requires vans to park side on to each other on a slope and its old service machine is out of order, meaning there is no fresh water. Perhaps it is our historic connection that keeps drawing us back, but we really love the place. It is situated on a large river island in a horseshoe meander of the Meuse. Overlooking a marina, we are in an area of the town dedicated to leisure, with a rowing club, indoor swimming pool, walks, cycle tracks and of course the obligatory petanque pitches nearby. A short walk over the powder green pedestrian bridge transports you into sandstone streets and the hustle and bustle of town, in whose heart you'll find the beautiful, cobbled Place Ducale. Classy cafés, bars and restaurants spill tables and chairs out from underneath the stately porticos into the open air and at this time of year a lively buzz emanates from whichever corner the sun is shining on. A fairground carousel adds a touch of magic to the scene.

    When leaving our previous stopover at Boussois, Vicky spotted a bulge in Martha's left rear tyre as well as a broken cable hanging down. Whilst we had the front tyres replaced in Norway back in 2017, the rear ones are the originals, meaning they are 4 years old and have travelled over 53,000 miles. Will searched online and found a tyre specialist (point S), just a few kilometres from our intended aire and added it as a waypoimt to our journey. Arriving at 1:30pm we waited half an hour for them to open. They checked the specs and although they didn't have anything suitable in stock, they could order new tyres and fit them in two day's time for €213 all inclusive. This suited us well and we agreed to return then. Although we don't understand all of what is being said in French and are only able to express ourselves in very basic terms, we really appreciate having taken the time to learn enough of the language to get by in situations such as these, without requiring the person we're conversing with to go out of their way and speak our language (although many choose to practice their English with us!)

    We snapped up the last space at Charleville-Mézières and Will fished in the marina while Vicky sat outside and got to work with a needle and thread, repairing tears in our insulating windscreen mat. As the sun began to get low in the sky, we wandered into town and picked up some fruit at our favourite grocers. We remembered buying freshly made pasta on a previous visit, but perhaps the little store had shut down, as we didn't manage to find it. Never mind, Will cooked up veggie spag bol with some dried pasta we had in the cupboard and we'd enjoyed soaking in the jovial, early evening atmosphere.

    The following day's weather was good for outdoor activities; the sky wasn't clear but enough sun came through to warm the air. Vicky set out on foot for an early morning explore of the steep, wooded hill behind the aire, dropping down and crossing the familiar road bridge, whose stand out feature is the national flags flying at an angle over the water. Looping back, she walked the length of the small, mid-river island, upon which the pedestrian bridge touches down. There was a multitude of Spring flowers spreading their petals, from clusters of primulas in white and lilac to a spread of white woodland flowers with glossy, deep green leaves that covered the ground.

    By looking on Trip Advisor, we discovered Charleville-Mézières was the start of the 85km Trans Ardennes cycle route, leading north along the winding course of the River Meuse, to Givet, near the Belgian border. It had been ages since we'd taken the tandem out together and this sounded like just the sort of route we'd enjoy (it was flat)! Maps.Me showed that the town of Nouzonville was just 9km downriver and had a few bars, a boulangerie and a waterside picnic area; perfect!

    Closed roads made it a little difficult to start with, but we were able to cycle the perimeter of our island and cross over at the south end, to where the Trans-Ardennes track began. It was a great route that took us away from roads and wound between tree clad hillsides, past fields and little plots of land that looked as if they were used as summer getaways. We even passed a mansion with a small herd of deer!

    Leaving the bike at the outskirts of Nouzonville, it didn't take us long to get our bearings. The place was a bit run down but the four florists on the high street seemed to be doing well! We'd spotted 'Bar Sulky' on Maps.Me and had been won over by the name but on closer inspection, it turned out to be a horse racing bar that didn't look very inviting, so we went to the popular boulangerie who did a lunch deal. From a range of savoury pastries, paninis and baguette sandwiches, Vicky had a cheese flan (the only veggie option) and Will a ham baguette, accompanied by a rasberry tart, custard slice and orange juice. We took them back to the out of town picnic area and ate overlooking the water. The flan was disgusting, but everthing else was scrumptious! All in all, we cycled about 20km and would definitely recommend the route to anybody in the area. It was well maintained and a great way to see the Ardennaise scenery without having to climb any hills!

    On Friday we drove the short distance to point S and were pleased when they remembered us. Martha couldn't fit inside their garage but they pulled their van alongside her in the car park and within 30 minutes of arriving, she had a new pair of good quality mud and snow tyres! We asked the mechanic about the broken cable and caught the word 'brake' in his reply. The ABS perhaps? Although the dashboard warning light hadn't come on... He said it would need to be changed, but that it didn't matter, so we left with just the new tyres to ponder what to do next...
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  • Day1024

    Reipertswiller, Alsace

    April 16 in France ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    No, we haven't crossed over into Germany, although you could be forgiven for thinking so, from the village's Germanic sounding name, Reipertswiller and the change in house styles and decoration. No, but we have entered the Alsace Region whose ownership has been contested by Germany and France up until 1945, when it became and stayed part of France. It even has its own language, Alsatian, which is taught in schools, although French is still the official language.

    After 3 days at Richardménil, we covered 130km, heading East towards Strasbourg. Setting out, the roads were straight and wide, allowing us to make good progress, but as we drew closer to our destination, they became increasingly narrow and winding, climbing around horseshoe bends into beautiful Beech forests; a feast for the eyes and the soul! At some point we entered Parc naturel régional des Vosges du Nord where Reipertswiller is located in the wooded foothills of the low Vosges mountain range.

    One of the reasons we chose to visit Alsace at this point is that easter celebrations seem far more pronounced here than in any other French region, perhaps due to its mixed cultural history. Entering the village, we were greeted with gaily painted, 2D wooden eggs in planters either side of the road. We've been used to beige and cream coloured houses in the northern areas, but many here are brightly rendered in yellows, blues, greens and pinks. Wooden balconies and rustic timber cladding are another standout feature we haven't seen so much of in other French regions. A significant number of gardens proudly display tasteful easter decorations, including small trees adorned with painted eggs hung from ribbons. It's beginning to feel a lot like easter!

    Parking Martha in the gravel aire between a couple of single storey municipal buildings, we had a spot of lunch and after a rest, set out on a walk. There were many routes signed, but we chose one that lead through the forest, climbing and circling the rounded Buxenberg summit. The overcast sky rained intermittently but the air was still and warm enough, so we were happy. The scent of wood smoke carried faintly in the breeze and we passed many dwellings with neat stacks of logs, no doubt from one of several sawmills at work nearby. With leaves only just beginning to show on the trees, daylight still reached the forest floor which hosted a variety of wildflowers, perhaps the most subtle of which was Wood Sorrel, its delicate petals starting off pale, veined pink, then blooming into a bolder white. Towards the end of our walk we turned a corner and came accross a carpet of these flowers, of the like we've never seen before. There must have been thousands of them, but because they aren't as striking as bluebells, for example, it would have been easy to walk by this amazing floral display without even noticing it. Returning to the van, the steady beat of raindrops on the roof gradually grew and we counted ourselves lucky to have gone out and explored when we did!

    Unfortunately there were no rubbish bins and the mains water was turned off. A notice asked vanners to telephone if they wanted to fill up for €5. We were low on water but this seemed a bit of a hassle, so we programmed a place with facilities into the sat nav and moved on eastwards.
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  • Day1009

    Reims & Lanson Champagne House

    April 1 in France ⋅ ☀️ 20 °C

    The free aire at Reims isn't as tranquil as our previous stopovers, with a constant daytime drone of vehicles on the nearby dual carriageway, which drops to intermittent at night. However, it does give great access to the city centre, with the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral just 1.3km away.

    After a supermarket shop, filling and emptying the van, getting diesel and a drive of 120km, including lunch at motorway services with a huge wild boar statue (see photo), we arrived at Reims. Will had entered a fuel station that sold LPG so we topped up on that before wending our way through city centre streets to find the aire. It is situated behind a utilitarian looking building (apparently a 'digital cultural centre' whatever one of those is), but unusually for France, there was a barrier blocking our entrance with a number to call. Luckily the CamperContact and Park4Night apps had warned us about this, so we were prepared and Will (who has been practicing on the DuoLingo app) made his first phonecall in French, entering the numbers into the keypad as they were read out. We were in! Down a small service road, under a sweep of Weeping Willows, we found 7 side-on-side bays with a low wall dividing them from the small arboretum behind.

    It had turned into a warm day (22°C) and after a short rest, Will headed into the city to explore, leaving Vicky to yet more resting. Frequent trams and buses seem to provide a good transport network and keep cars from clogging up the centre. The jewel in Reims' crown is undeniably its gargantuan Gothic cathedral. With the sunshine and blue skies it looked even more impressive, covered with an unfathomable number of stone carvings, depicting gargoyles, royal and religious effigies, punctuated by intricately presented stained glass, with two large rose windows drawing the eye.

    The following day, Will showed Vicky a few places he had scouted out for lunch and we chose a hotel bar on a corner just 500m from the cathedral. It was called Le Bon Moine (The Good Monk) and displayed a menu that included veggie cous cous - Vicky's first vegetarian sit down meal in France that wasn't a salad - yey! As you often see in this country, the menu was focused; offering cous cous and a range of burger based meals. The chef concentrated on doing a few dishes well and our food was very tasty as a result. Will chose the lamb cous cous which was the same as Vicky's, but with a huge hunk of meat falling off the bone. There was so much, that he couldn't fit in dessert, but Vicky had delicious tart tatin topped with a scoop creamy vanilla ice cream.

    Reims, together with Epernay, a town south of here, are the two centres of Champagne production. We thought it only polite to wash our food down with a glass each. As we did so, we perused the paper maps used as placemats (a nice idea!). Our eyes were drawn to the Champagne bottle icons scattered around the streets, each depicting a Champagne House. Will began to get excited when he saw the Lanson House. His favourite bubbly is produced just 500m from where we'd left Martha Motorhome! A quick check of their website and we found they did cellar tours! With Vicky's birthday approaching, we made the decision to treat ourselves. The aire limited us to a 48 hour stay, so we applied online for a tour that afternoon and heard back shortly via email that there was an English one beginning at 2:30pm - just 50 minute's time. We confirmed and hot footed it over town, arriving with 10 minutes to spare.

    The place was like a posh hotel; wrought iron gates, painted black with the golden Lanson script announcing in no uncertain terms the pedigree of the establishment! Entering a high ceilinged white marble hallway, we checked in at the dark wood welcome desk. After payment, we were invited to rest on the rich green Chesterfield suite in the reception area, the centrepiece of which was the end of a mammoth wooden barrel.

    Our guide took us and another 3 couples (2 American and one Finnish) to start the tour. After a little history we were shown a map of the company's vinyards, their quality (premier cru, grand cru, cru) and talked about the different types of grapes; chardonay, pinot noir, pinot meunier. The latter two are both black grapes, which is where the 'Lanson Black Label' name was born. These are juiced at stations close to the point of harvest, before being transported to this Champagne House.

    Next we went to see Clos Lanson; this 1 hectare, on-site vinyard is planted with chardonay grapes and produces only 8000 bottles a year, approximately one per vine. Back inside, we viewed the fermenting vats and barrels before descending to the cellars, which are kept at a constant 11°C. A special non-UV light emitted an orange glow and dark grey penicillin hung in whisps from the arched tunnel walls.

    The tour ended in a comfortable bar, where we were served a flute of Lanson Black Label Brut and left to digest our experience. Others had paid for further glasses of Rosé and Vintage but we'd already had some with lunch, so were happy to trundle our way back to Martha Motorhome.

    Before leaving the following morning, we trekked accross the centre of town to the Halles du Boulingrin; Reims' art deco market hall. Even at 10am the shops and cafés were only just coming to life, smells of lunch being prepared wafted through the air, while floors were mopped and terrace tables arranged. We understood from our guide book that the food market was open on Wednesdays, but all we found was a fish stall and one selling vegetables in the entrance. The rest of the space was cordoned off. Peaking past the sellers, then walking round the outside of the aerodrome sized building, we saw it was lit by high, arched windows with orange /yellow glass. The colour of the panes made them look as if they had a serious problem with nicotine stains. All in all the hall was a disappointment, but we enjoyed stretching our legs and taking in the sights, smells and sounds of early morning Reims, which overall was a great city to visit.
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  • Day1011

    Épernay, inc Möet & Chandon Champagne

    April 3 in France ⋅ ⛅ 9 °C

    We are parked off Rue Dom Pérignon. Sound familiar? It is a brand of vintage champagne produced by Möet & Chandon, whose house, at just over 1km away on Rue de Champagne, we are due to visit this morning! With these street names, we could be nowhere else in the world but Épernay, a town surrounded by vinyards and widely reputed to be the centre of Champagne production. There is even a free aire here; we really do enjoy motorhome travel in France!

    The 30km drive from Reims didn't take long. Until this point we hadn't seen many vinyards, but after climbing up wooded hillsides we crested the ridge and the south facing, champagne making slopes were revealed, their linear vine trellises appearing almost like contours on a map. The plants themselves are only knarled woody sticks this time of year, but we saw a group of people tending to some, pruning and training them along the wires. Small champagne houses began to appear at the roadside, advertising tastings as one might advertise a farm shop in the UK.

    Once in Épernay, a deviation led us around the houses, but we eventually reached the aire; a wide stretch of tarmac between a quiet road and a petanque pitch, with room for around 7 vans. To the front sits a strip of grass where people exercise their dogs, backed by beige houses and a fitness centre. To the rear stands a grand looking, dark grey stone church.

    After a spot of lunch and a hailstorm, Will bravely set off to explore while Vicky settled in to some video editing. The sun shone intermittently and the solar panel gave off enough power to plug in the laptop! Vicky's computer is picky about input voltages and we've previously needed to have the engine running or be hooked up to mains for it to charge, so she was stoked at being able to use the new panel!

    We'd planned ahead for Thursday morning, booking a tour of the Möet & Chandon champagne house, the largest in the world, at 10:30am. In contrast to Tuesday's tour of the Lanson house, we had time to look forward to this, so it was with great excitement that we made our way in. Épernay is a smaller town than Reims and far more devoted to everything gold and bubbly! It was quite a thrill to pass by richly painted wooden doors set in sandstone walls and read the small plaques announcing which champagne house lay behind them. Plenty of bars advertised tastings of the revered drink and shops sold paraphernalia such as special swords with which to cut the bottle necks.

    Nearing Avenue de Champagne, a huge balloon came into view, with the street and town name printed on it; just another way in which Épernay celebrates its raison d'être. The Möet & Chandon Maison, like Lanson, sat behind black painted iron railings with its name displayed in gold lettering. It was larger than Lanson and the first obvious place to go upon entering was towards the sparkling lights of the gift shop. From here we were directed to an airy reception area with pale marble floors and columns, richly decorated with a tasteful gold theme and a huge vase of fresh flowers on an antique table.

    Our guide, Benoit began by telling us a history of the house and showing us a dvd of the champagne making process, before taking us down to the cellars. The tour wasn't as comprehensive as that of Lanson (it didn't include a vinyard or fermenting vats) but Benoit was passionate, funny and very knowledgeable, which made a huge amount of difference. He had a style of delivery which made you feel as if the tour wasn't an 'off the shelf' rerun of every tour that had gone before and gave the impression that he attached great importance to passing on what he knew.

    He talked of the hundred or more crus (villages that grow grapes) and when Will asked, he knew that the yeast used for secondary fermentation was one selected from the skin of the grape many years ago and which was now cultivated in their laboratories. Möet & Chandon's cellars are hewn out of chalk and stretch 28 kilometres; part of a network of cellars that exist underneath Épernay, totalling 110km and containing 200 million bottles! Owing to these subterranean stores, Avenue de Champagne is thought of as the most expensive street in the world.

    Still underground, we were led to a smart and modern, mirrored bunker, with hidden strip lighting, a small bar with resplendent golden backdrop and an arrangement of large hanging lighbulbs displaying glowing golden filaments. We had chosen the 'Impérial tour' and a sommelier talked us through the Möet Impérial and Möet Rosé Impérial that we'd be tasting as well as the 2012 vintage bottles that remained sealed on the bar for those who chose to splash a bit more cash! Finally, feeling tipsy and very happy, we were taken to the gift shop (no doubt a ploy that has earned the house more than a few sales).

    Wandering back towards Martha, the weather had turned overcast and lent a chill to the air. Most shops were shut for lunch, but we did a bit of window shopping and picked up a couple of made-to-order baguettes, a custard slice and raisen pastry from a stall outside a café and ate them on benches in a little square by the town hall, just happy to be there!
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  • Day1027

    Grand Canal d'Alsace, nr Friesenheim

    April 19 in France ⋅ ☀️ 20 °C

    Our brief foray into Germany has come to an end and we are back in France on the bank of the wide Rhine Canal Grand Canal d'Alsace (from our research it seems to be where the Rhine and the Alsace canals overlap). Will has found us a dead end dirt track to park on, so we are away from the road. It isn't an official aire but a dozen or so other vans have also decided it is a good spot and we line the broad grassy levee.

    We set off from our stellplatz this morning, stopping for diesel and LPG while still in Germany. It was a popular refuelling station and we had to wait 10 minutes while French motorists filled and payed, taking advantage of the cheaper tarrifs accross the border. Next stop was a supermarket and getrankehaus, but here our plans went awry... Good Friday meant these places were closed, so no crates of tasty alcohol free beer for us!
    We checked at the nearby motorhome shop with stellplatz that we'd programmed in but this was also closed, oh well, fair enough. We drove on, crossed the border on a bridge over the Rhine and settled ourselves in to the sunny spot with our dozen or so new neighbours.

    It was perfect Good Friday weather, warm and sunny with the gentlest of breezes blowing fluffy white willow seed through the air. We wound our awning out to keep the van cool and Vicky sat in her camp chair. There was a little, low level industrial noise in the background and the occasional sound of a passing car, but more prominent was the birdsong from a strip of woodland, including an intermittent cuckoo. She listened to this and the quiet conversations of neighbours as she watched the huge, low barges slide by.

    Will took his rods and sat a short distance away, succumbing after an hour or two to the lure of the clear, blue-green water. His first swim of 2019 was short but invigorating and refreshing. Let's hope there'll be many more as spring gives way to summer and water temperatures warm.
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Grand-Est, ACAL, Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, Alsazia-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorena

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