I really enjoy unplanned trips every now and then. My friend, who’s a teacher, asked me if I fancied going on a short road trip during her summer holidays. Who am I to say no to that? Other friends visited the Champagne region recently, and mostly due to their positive accounts we decided to pack ourselves into my car to drive 400 km to Reims.
I hope my post will come in handy if you’re planning a weekend trip to the region. If you’re not planning one, it’s time you start asking yourself why not!
How to get there & where to base yourself
You have plenty of options when it comes to lodging in the Champagne region. We based ourselves near Reims in Bezannes. There are many reasons for this choice. One, we didn’t want to stay in a city, because we would be driving around most of the days. Two, we wanted to be close enough to a city so that we could explore different restaurants if we wanted to.
Three, Reims is closest to the Netherlands. Four, it’s cheaper to stay in the outskirts of a city. We stayed in B&B Hotel Reims Bezannes, which isn’t special but perfect for a few nights’ sleep.
Another option is to set up camp in one of the many campsites of the area, which is not really my thing. Or you could stay a bit more locally in privately owned bed & breakfasts. Ideally ones that also have their own champagne cellar. This option was too expensive for us, so we opted for the cheaper hotel outside Reims.
You can reach the region by train from Paris, or by car.
Day 1: Exploring Reims
On our day of arrival, we decided to explore Reims. Reims became a major city during the period of the Roman Empire. It’s also the traditional site of the crowning of the kings of France.
Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims
After we parked the car, I raced immediately to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims. This is a UNESCO heritage site and you know how fond I am of those.
This is the cathedral where the French kings were crowned.
The first thing I noticed were the sculptures on the outside of the cathedral. I don’t know what story they tell, but I do know that I find some of them quite gruesome and striking. A lot of work has gone into these statues.
My friend noticed the angel with the smile, which is actually a famous statue. It’s known as the Smile of Reims. The Angel statue was beheaded following a fire caused by a German shell on the cathedral of Reims, during World War I, and the head broke into several pieces after falling from a height of four meters.
The head was collected by the abbot Thinot the day after the fire. It became an icon for the French wartime propaganda as a symbol of “French culture destroyed by German barbarity”. After the war the famous sculpture was restored and put back in place.
The inside of the curch is impressive as the sunlight will be greeting you through the many stained glass windows.
If you’d like to visit the full UNESCO site, you should also check out the Palace of Tau, which served as the residence of the kings of France on the occasion of their coronations. I didn’t visit that one, but I did visit the third part of the UNESCO site:
Saint Remi Basilica
This is probably the scariest church I have visited in a long time. It was completely deserted, and the weirdest eerie music was playing from seemingly nowhere.
Also, the hallways were quite dark.
I liked this church better than aforementioned cathedral. It feels much less touristy, and it has the same from the outside without the tourists.
These two sights will actually tire you out more than enough for a day. It’s quite a walk from the cathedral to the basilica, especially if you make pitstops at cafes to enjoy a cold glass of champagne.
If you haven’t had enough, you could also visit the museum next to Saint-Remi.
Day 2: Toasting Champagne
The reason for our trip to the Champagne region, was actually our itinerary for day 2. The main thing to take into account when driving through the Parc naturel régional de la Montagne de Reims – which is where most of the champagne cellars are – is to visit at least to one well-known brand and one smaller brand. Other than that, there a few towns which are worth a visit.
Épernay – Moet & Chandon Cellar
Épernay is one of those towns. It’s known as the principal “entrepôt” for champagne wines, which are bottled and kept in large cellars built into the chalk rock on which the town is built.
We had a very specific reason for visiting this town. That’s why we pre-booked the visit to the cellars of Moet & Chandon, because we knew that we wanted to visit the most famous champagne brand for sure.
It didn’t disappoint. The tour was really informative, which makes sense because they do these tours day-in-day out. The cellars are absolutely huge and it’s interesting to find out the process for making champagne.
At the end, they even throw in a tasting. Actually, most houses will offer tastings at the end of the tour because they would like you to buy their champagne.
I didn’t buy any of the super expensive Moet & Chandon champagnes, because you can buy these all over the world.
Instead we hopped to the tourist office to find out which route we would take today.
We found out that a local champagne cellar had an open door day on the day of our visit, so we decided to go there in the afternoon.
First we visited Hautvillers. This town used to be the home of Dom Perignon. You can visit the church in which he is buried.
Hautvillers is a great town for having (champagne)lunch, but it’s also small enough to enjoy a walk through the tiny cobblestone streets.
If that isn’t enough it also provides a great viewpoint over the vineyards.
Mareuil-sur-Ay – Guy Chabaut
Our final stop of the day was a visit to the champagne cellar of Guy Chabaut. A cellar like this really puts the cellars of Moet & Chandon in perspective.
It’s great to go to a local cellar, because the process is so much more personal and manual.
This is obviously where I bought my bottles of champagne to take home with me.
Day 3: Hiking Faux de Verzy
The last day we had a very simple plan. Most places (including champagne cellars) are closed on Sunday in France, so we decided to head into nature. The best place to do that in the Champagne region is in Faux de Verzy.
Faux de Verzy is home to dwarf beeches. Actually, with more than 1000 of these trees, the National Forest of Verzy is the world’s principal reserve of dwarf beeches.
There’s is an easy path winding through the forest.
It’s easy to see the umbrella shaped dwarf beeches from this path. We hiked here for a few hours, and then we got back into the car to drive home.
In three days, my friend and I barely scratched the surface of the Champagne region. However, I feel that our itinerary did provide us with a chance to see different parts of the region. Old towns, champagne cellars, and cute little beech trees; what more could you want out of only three days?
I will certainly return to this area, if only to try and buy more champagne from the cellars!