Things to Do in Champagne
One of France’s greatest Gothic masterpieces, the Reims Cathedral dates to the 13th century and is hallowed as the coronation site of many French kings. The UNESCO-listed landmark—recognizable for its twin bell towers and rose stained-glass window—was shelled during World War I but has since been restored to its former glory.
The Moët & Chandon Champagne brand was once a favorite of King Louis XV and is still toast-worthy today, with some 30 million bottles produced annually. Visit the brand’s headquarters in Epernay, France, to tour the vast Moët & Chandon Champagne cellars (Les Caves Moët & Chandon), learn how Champagne is made, and taste a selection of Moët & Chandon products.
One of the few Reims Champagne houses to have retained its independence, Taittinger is a popular stop for bubbly enthusiasts. With origins dating to 1734, the family-run winery stores and ages its Champagnes in chaulk vaults that date back to Roman times.
Just north of popular Épernay, Hautvillers at first may seem like just another village in the countryside. But for true fans of Champagne, it has become a pilgrim's destination. That's because it is the birthplace of Champagne! The town's Saint-Pierre Abbey is where Dom Pérignon first made the bubbly elixir, and today he is buried in the abbey, now owned by Moët & Chandon.
But there's more to Hautvillers than simply this historical fact. A stroll through the streets reveals the whimsical iron signs that grace every public or commercial building and what lies within. And there are wine tastings at Au 36, charming dining options and lots of activities nearby. Hautvillers' motto is “Entre Vignes et Forêts,” meaning between the vineyards and the forest–the perfect place to discover the magic of this verdant region.
Founded in 1858 by Alexandre Louis Pommery and Narcisse Greno, Pommery Champagne (Domaine Pommery) was at one time better known for its wool trading than for its bubbly. Today, however, this massive house is one of the Champagne region’s largest producers of the popular celebratory beverage and a destination for travelers seeking to sample sparkling glasses in the same setting where it’s produced.
Visitors can tour the network of chalk pits that sits beneath the city of Reims, where more than 20 million bottles of champagne are stored in a natural temperature-controlled environment. Guided tours include a trip around the grounds, a visit to the cellars and a detailed explanation of how this favorite beverage is produced, bottled and distributed.
Founded in 1827, G. H. Mumm & Cie—one of the world’s largest and most-esteemed champagne houses—is a popular destination for oenophiles who are looking to sample and discover more about France’s world-class bubbly. Taste the winery’s famed Cordon Rouge Champagne and tour its underground caves as you learn the history of the House of Mumm.
Set along the Marne river amid the vine-clad hills of the Champagne region, the historic town of Epernay is proud of its title as the Champagne Capital of France. Home to many of the region’s most prestigious champagne houses, Epernay is a must for wine lovers looking to sample France’s finest.
A landmark in the middle of the undulating Champagne region and surrounded by endless vines rather than sea, the Verzenay Lighthouse was the brainchild of Joseph Goulet, a Champagne producer who wanted to publicize his brand. Constructed in 1909, the lighthouse stands high on Mt Rizon and originally had a restaurant and nightclub at its base.
Thanks to its proximity to the Front Line, the lighthouse was used as an observation tower during World War I and afterwards it fell into disrepair. The residents of the Grand Cru village of Verzenay bought back the building in 1987 and over the next decade slowly restored it; the entertaining and informative multimedia Musée de la Vigne (Vine Museum) opened there in 1999, detailing the annual cycle of Champagne production with interactive displays, touch screens and movies. It was not until 10 years later that the spiral staircase inside the lighthouse was rebuilt and today visitors can once more climb 82 ft (25 m) to the top for views across the world-famous vineyards of Champagne; after the 102-step climb the tasting bar is a welcome sight, featuring ever-changing guest Champagnes. A stop-off to the Verzenay Lighthouse can be combined with renowned Champagne houses such as Moët et Chandon and Taittinger as well as visiting Reims and Epernay along the Route de Champagne.
Champagne Mercier ranks as one of the region's most popular Champagne houses, and the family brand has been producing quality bubbly since 1858. The historic cellars in Epernay opened their doors in 1869 and tours now offer visitors the chance to not only sample the legendary champagne but to learn about the years of tradition and innovation that have shaped the champagne making process.
Descending via a panoramic lift and stepping on board a mini train, visitors explore the labyrinth of 47 tunnels that house the champagne cellars, an impressive 18-kilometers of chalk caves burrowing 30-meters beneath the ground and embellished with artwork by sculptor Gustave Navlet. Additional highlights of a visit include viewing the Mercier Cask, the world's largest wine cask, and of course, visiting the tasting room, where guests can sample various champagne blends and vintages, available to purchase at the on-site shop.
The Tau Palace (Palais du Tau) owes its decidedly un-French name to its floor plan, which resembles the letter "T." The site's original structure was a sixth-century Roman villa, which later became a Carolingian palace. Its current moniker stuck after 1131, though that building gave way to Gothic design early in the 16th century and then its current Baroque incarnation in 1671.
Prior to their coronations at Nortre Dame of Reims, the kings of France would stay at the palace. Following ceremonies, they would return for a celebration, the most recent of which took place in 1825.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the Palace of Tau became home to the Musée de l'Œuvre, a collection of statues, tapestries and reliquaries from Reims' cathedral. The palace is both a national monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site, declared in 1991. Museum tours display the royal apartments as well as certain antiquities from the cathedral treasury.
More Things to Do in Champagne
With its combination of timber-fronted buildings, cobbled lanes, and Gothic churches, a stroll around Troyes transports you back to medieval France. Hidden away in the south of the Champagne region, the atmospheric Old Town is known for its art galleries, striking architecture, and traditional artisan workshops.
With a history dating back to 1140, Sens Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Etienne de Sens) is one of the oldest Gothic buildings in France and was once one of the most important in the country—Louis IX married here in 1234. Its elaborately decorated facade and exquisite stained-glass windows make it the undisputed star attraction of Sens.
The picturesque Abbey of Saint-Remi (Abbaye Saint-Rémi)—also known as the Saint-Remi Basilica (Basilique Saint-Rémi)—was founded in the sixth century and offers travelers a classic taste of French religious architecture. Two towering stone spires bookend a regal entryway marked by a round stained glass window dating back hundreds of years. Travelers will find a collection of 16th century tapestries depicting the life of Saint Remi in this spiritual oasis that offers a relaxing escape from the chaos of the city.
Visitors love the quiet, spacious interior and agree that Abbey of Saint-Remi (Abbaye Saint-Rémi) never seems to get crowded. Travelers can explore the stark halls and impressive altars while they learn about the abbey’s destruction during World War I, as well as restoration efforts to return the structure to its original Roman Gothic splendor.
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