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How I managed to avoid champagne in Champagne

The Champagne vineyards at sunset

What if the greatest journey in the world was all about the detours? In France, you sometimes have to shelve your plans while you sample the delights of the unexpected. A romantic weekend with plenty of bubbles: living the dream. We said to ourselves: “There’s no shortage of winemakers! Keep driving, and the first one will be just around the corner”. In the end we turned off too soon.

Thursday

On the agenda for Day 1: pick up a few things from the Halles de Boulingrin indoor market, the Art Deco icon and beating heart of Reims. Then it’s off to Hautvilliers for a romantic picnic among the vines, and a tour of the wine cellars of his highness Dom Pérignon. Ah! It says the traditional Boulingrin market is open three times a week: Wednesday (7am til 1pm), Friday (7am til 1pm and 4pm til 8pm), and Saturday (6am til 2pm). Right-oh then... We’ll do that tomorrow. So what’ll we do today? The cathedral and then the Modern Art Museum? It’s starting to rain anyway and a bit of culture will do us good.

Friday

Dom Pérignon, here we are! A tour of the abbey and its vineyards, a glimpse into the secrets of its production, and a tasting of some vintage crus... My mouth is already watering when the GPS says that we’ve arrived in Villers-Semeuse. But we were going to Hautvilliers! I’m hungry. I want champagne. We’re lost. Wait, what’s that?! A food truck! Let’s stop here. Philippe, the chef behind the Bout d’Arden Washo, welcomes us with a menu that immediately puts the smile back on my face. Every speciality dish has an unusual name. At random, I go for the “cacasse à cul nu (bare-arsed cacasse)”, which is THE Ardennes speciality. Good choice! While we’re chatting, we find out that there are some very serious associations, despite all appearances. There’s even one for bacon salad! Their festival is the first weekend in May in Charleville-Mézières. See you there?

Saturday

Our third day and still not a bubble in sight. Today there’ll be no distractions: we’re going to Hautvilliers! Over breakfast at the hotel, we got chatting with another couple. They are going paddleboarding on Lake Der-Chantecoq, then spending the rest of the day catching some rays on the beach. “Hold on. There’s a beach in Champagne?”. Good job I brought my swimsuit! Back at the hotel that evening, I turn down an invitation to go for a drink at the Perching Bar, a champagne bar suspended 6m above Brise Charette forest. It’s only 15 minutes from Reims, but the paddleboard wore me out. Straight to bed!

Sunday

Our last day. We’ve booked a stroll around town with a greeter*, and Brigitte is waiting for us in front of the cathedral. She shows us Reims as she lives it. Fascinated by history and architecture, she was never short of a story and took us places you’ll never see in a guidebook. Before we parted ways, she took us to Biston, a cake and chocolate maker, for one last treat. “I won’t take you for a champagne tasting. I don’t think that’s why you booked me”. We didn’t dare admit that actually... yes.

So there you have it. The weekend is over and our lips haven’t touched a single flute of champagne. It’s almost embarrassing! I did eat a chocolate liqueur filled with Marc de Champagne though. That counts, right?

*A local who gives tourists a free tour of the city in their eyes, as they love it and live it every day, through their favourite places.

Getting to Champagne-Ardenne