Champagne-Ardenne

The Abbey of Dom Perignon

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If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of Épernay, let alone the small village of Hautvillers. But surely you know Champagne, even if you’ve never actually tasted the bubbly gold. Yes, Reims may be the heart of Champgane, but Épernay is the soul. This town of just over 23,000 inhabitants is the home to the glamorous Moët & Chandon, among other producers. And while Épernay is the main attraction, the surrounding hillsides offer uncompromising picturesque row after row of bright green vineyards. Like the Champagne it produces, these hills are also home to a lore befitting the regality of the bubbles they produce. One such place sits atop the Cote de Hautvillers, the restored Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Hautvillers. It was in this Benedictine Abbey that a monk by the name of Dom Perignon is said to have invented Champagne in 1670. Yes, Dom Perignon was a real person of the mid-17th century, a pious monk who is credited with stumbling upon the two-step fermentation method for making sparkling wine while being the cellar master here at Hautvillers. Today, the brand Dom Perignon is owned by Moët & Chandon, who purchased the fabled and once ruined Abbaye de Hautvillers in 2009 and painstakingly restored it over the next three years as a monument to their adopted origin story. The Abbey itself dates to the 7th Century, but the church by which the heroic Dom is buried was built in 1698. The church itself is simple, but the history and folklore that surrounds it is a must-see for any Champagne-lover.

Getting Cheesy in Langres

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If there’s one thing France is known for other than wine, it is cheese. Near the town of Langres on the plateau of the same name hails a stinky but milder cheese that looks like a fluffy roll. This cow’s milk cheese has specific requirements to be considered Langres cheese, mostly revolving around the type of breed used and at least six months of grazing. As is sometimes seen in wine growing regions, this cheese features an indentation on top, called a fontaine, in which to pour and enjoy with your local Champagne. I’ve never thought to pour wine or Champagne directly over cheese to soak through but it’s just another French specialty to try. The AOC is relatively young, being accredited in 1991 and production is fairly limited at about 450 tons each year by three producers. Nevertheless, this cheese is at its best between May and August, just in time to provide a Tour de France sampling.

The King’s Gothic Cathedral

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There are Gothic Cathedrals and then there are Gothic Cathedrals. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is one of the latter – a spectacular specimen made for kings in the city now at the heart of a region now associated with luxury living. Reims became an important Christian site after Clovis, ruler of the Franks, was baptized here in 496, giving his endorsement to the non-pagan religion. Following his conversion, king after king came here to be crowned and consecrated. An original cathedral burned in 1210, but local resolve began the re-building the following year. Work continued for several centuries, but later architects retained the stylistic motifs that originated in 1211. As such, the Reims Cathedral is unique for it brings together evolutionary elements from across Europe and unifying them within the existing design. Of note are the statues that grace the Cathedral’s façade. Converse to the unifying theme of the broader architecture, the statues are an exhibit in variation that mark diversity of styles – here two main schools were exemplified: a return to medieval tradition and a Graeco-Roman influence. The Gallery of Kings is a centralized monument with Clovis at the helm that represents the latter while the famed smiling Angel of Reims is a purely medieval icon that became popular and exported throughout the medieval Christian world, from Spain to Germany. From nuanced details to the grandeur of the nave, Reims Cathedral is a classic, like a vintage Dom Perignon, to be popped and enjoyed as a celebration of life.

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Remembering Petit Breton

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The early days of the Tour de France are legendary and so are its champions. I can’t even imagine what it was like for these men. With the Tour making its inaugural run in 1903, Lucien Georges Mazan was the first to win the race in consecutive years, 1907 and 1908. He was also one of three Tour winners to die in efforts associated with World War I. It is not his groundbreaking career, however, that draws us to Troyes, but his radiant life. Lucien Georges Mazan was born in the Loire town of Plessé before moving to Brittany where he spent two years living with his Aunt before immigrating to Buenos Aires two years later. It was in Argentina that Lucien became enthralled with cycling. But in order to enter races without tipping his hand to a disapproving father, Lucien registered under the name “Breton.” Before long, Breton was Argentina’s track champion and his path was set. Following his heart, Breton moved to Paris in 1902 in order to train for the expanding track and road circuit. To differentiate himself, Breton soon becomes “Petit-Breton” although the public grabs hold of his South American roots and calls him “the Argentine.” After making a name for himself after two Tour victories and winning the first Milan-San Remo, Petit-Breton diversifies and tries to start selling the same Peugeot bikes that delivered him to the top of the podium while also racing select events. Successive failures and injuries cause Lucien to quit in 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, Petit-Breton joined the 20th Train (or logistical) Squadron. It was near Troyes that on December 20, 1917 that Petit-Breton was involved in an accident shuttling military vehicles between the front and headquarters. Petit-Breton was only 35 years old and one of the great champions of his sport.

Maisons à Colombages

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Troyes is one of those surreal kind of medieval cities. The old town, in fact, features five Gothic Cathedrals in only a 1 square kilometer area. The cathedrals are complimented by a beautifully rustic and charming display of half-timber houses, which gives us an opportunity to explore this historically prevalent but currently rare style. Known as maisons à colombages in French, these types of structures were first erected in the late 15th century although those in Troyes date to the 16th century, the result of a massive fire in 1524 that destroyed much of the city. The city was located along a prosperous trade route and so gained much wealth. Ultimately, a half-timbered house is simply a building with a strong wood timber frame filled with plaster or masonry cavities. The essence, though, is that the timber framing is visible on the exterior. In later years, this timber frame would be covered by some other material and/or style cladding to diminish the rustic feel that is now called “charming.” The word “half-timbered” refers to the half of a log that could be used per post. Hence, this was a half-log piece of wood, or timber. In France, half-timber houses are prominent where wood was in abundance, namely eastern France but also portions of Normandy and Brittany. Troyes, along with Strasbourg, happens to be one of the pre-eminent examples in France.

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