As a fan of fizz, if there was ever a place in need of a stop-off on a road trip, it’s the capital of champagne, Epernay. It also happened to be almost halfway between London and our destination in the French Alps. And so it was decided (without any hesitation on my behalf) an overnight stay in Epernay it was to be.
It was not the first time we visited Epernay. Over six years ago, we hit the region to source some champagne for our wedding reception. The second time, we were heading to the French Alps by car for our eldest daughter’s first Christmas. And now, shortly after our youngest enjoyed her first Christmas, we found ourselves back in Epernay as a family of four.
It’s not exactly the place you’d think of visiting with children (and after our night tending to a coughing, crying seven-month-old child, our accommodation may think the same) but as a brief stop-off it did the trick.
My husband booked an impressive apartment attached to ‘de Venoge’ champagne house. It stands on the most prestigious street in Epernay, the Avenue de Champagne (the husband did well, didn’t he?). The street houses some of the best-known champagne houses from Mercier to Perrier Jouet and Moet and Chandon.
Our accommodation was the newly opened ‘les Suites de 33’ which has just four guest rooms. Each one has a small kitchenette, lounge, main bedroom and bathroom. There was plenty of room for the four of us although the travel cot they provided could have done with an extra mattress as I don’t think it aided Cheeky’s unsettled night’s sleep.
Across the cobbled courtyard (where we could park our car) was the champagne bar where we had breakfast the next morning and where, upon arrival, we enjoyed a welcome glass of its bubbly. After a four-hour drive from London, it was more than welcome. I picked the Extra Brut option, a drier champagne which has less sugar. I actually preferred it compared to the Brut which my husband had. We bought a bottle to enjoy that evening. Mrs T gulped down an orangina.
Each champagne manufacturer on the Avenue de Champagne has its own large, majestic building, reflecting the wealth of its product derived from a complex process. Unfortunately, as we were visiting out of season, we didn’t get to do a champagne tour which the houses run as they were limited.
One of the few houses open and running tours (although they were fully booked) was the Moet and Chandon building. Its Premier Cru is named after the monk Dom Perignon. Lovers of champagne are indebted to this man who discovered the special technique of making champagne in the 17th century.
The complex process involves two fermentation steps using the grapes cultivated from the small region which is allowed to call itself ‘champagne’. There is a reason why champagne is so pricey!
We had a look inside the Moet building and found plenty of glitzy festive displays. There was a sparkling silver Christmas tree and a large golden star which my daughter insisted on having a photo with.
Inside the luxurious shop were bottles of champagne, young and vintage, and a display with the different champagne sizes. You would certainly need a lot of people to open the biggest, a Nebuchadnezzar. I like champagne but not THAT much. And you’d need a big fridge to keep that bad boy chilled!
On our way out, we looked up and saw the chandelier was made up from champagne glasses. Well, what else?
But it’s down below, underground, where the magic happens. 200 million bottles lie in cellars under the streets of Epernay. The champagne tours take you into the cellars and explain more about how champagne is made.
One of my favourite tipples is Perrier Jouet. Unfortunately it was shut but a photo was definitely in order.
After wandering the length of the Avenue, we headed into the heart of the town. Epernay is a pretty place with a seasonal ice rink, plenty of shops and a carousel which I was persuaded to go on by my daughter.
The town is a good starting point to explore the champagne region although if you’re not big on champagne there’s not a lot of point visiting.
With night drawing in came the need for food. The problem with France and other parts of Europe (Spain and Italy, I’m looking at you), is the lack of restaurants open all day. It’s very hard to find anywhere that serves food when children need it. With bellies rumbling and temperatures plummeting to near freezing, we had to settle on the first place we found which was open and serving food, Le Progres brasserie.
It wasn’t the best. The coup de champagne was great (as you’d expect) but the food very average: an oily omelette, chewy steak and sad-looking salmon tagliatelle which sounded far better on paper. The service from one female waitress was terse with the simplest of requests (like asking for a knife and fork) met with a scowl.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other good restaurants in Epernay. We have eaten very well at the Michelin starred Les Berceaux restaurant on one of our previous visits.
Walking back to our accommodation on the Avenue de Champagne, the name of each champagne house was proudly projected onto the pavement in green and orange hues. Perrier Jouet had gone one step further with a dazzling light display inside the gates of its building. It so impressed Mrs T, she declared it a “disco”.
Returning to our comfortable apartment, we polished off the bottle of champagne not knowing a restless night awaited us. In what was Cheeky’s worst night she has ever had, it ended with my husband driving her around the streets of Epernay to get to sleep (it worked). No doubt we will visit Epernay again though, ensuring we book a champagne tour this time so we can learn first-hand about the work which goes into making the bubbles (and get to sample more of the wares). At one hour long for the Moet tour, I think it would be just about possible with our two children. I would definitely go back to Les Suites de 33 too (if they’ll have us)!
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