Culture and discoveries
Epernay, Rheims, Hautvillers, Oger, The Palais du Tau, the Foujita Chapel, the Summer Musical Evenings, the Saint-Rémi museum are all idyllic spots that reverberate in the heart of this beautiful region, waiting to be discovered all year round.
EPERNAY and the Champagne region
Located 6 km from the Royal Champagne, Epernay has the largest number of champagne cellars in the entire region. And it is precisely this concentration of world-renowned champagne firms that gives Epernay its leading position in terms of earnings in all of France. The wealth of this region is also reflected in the elegant Renaissance homes that can be admired along the Avenue de Champagne, even though the main attraction is obviously the champagne cellars. Visits to cellars are an excellent opportunity to learn how champagne is produced and preserved. These visits include comments on local history, at the same level as those given in museums, and conclude with champagne tasting sessions. Epernay is on the wine route, known as Route Vallée de Marne, leading to Hautvillers, Ay, Dizy, Cumières and Chatillon. All along the Route Côte des Blancs, starting from Epernay towards the south to Vertus and Villenauxe le Grand, you can visit the vineyards that grow the white Chardonnay grape.
WHAT TO SEE?
- Epernay: Municipal Museum of Wine and Champagne (the museum of the “champenoise” tradition). Two centuries of tradition, research and regional history brought back to life by mannequins.
- Hautvillers: Tourist Office: Les Amis d’Hautvillers (City Hall of Hautvillers)
- The town of Hautvillers, north of Epernay, is home to the medieval abbey of Dom Pérignon, which bears the name of the monk who, according to legend, invented Champagne. Dom Pérignon spent forty-seven years looking after the famous cellar of this 7th century abbey, built around the relics of Saint Helen, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine.
- Oger: The Museum of Traditions, Love and Champagne – This Museum illustrates the history of marriage, from the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, with all the curiosities linked to the sites and the clothes of the period. It is situated south of Epernay.
- The City Hall, former residence of Monsieur Auban Moët, built in 1858 by the Buhler brothers, then handed over to the town in 1919, stands in the middle of a splendid park.
- Moët & Chandon, which was founded in 1743, offers one of the most interesting visits of Champagne. It produces one of the best champagnes in the region, Dom Pérignon. The visit takes place in a labyrinth of cellars dug out of chalk, several levels below the Route d’Epernay, and it ends with a tasting session. The one-hour visits are conducted by a guide, with commentaries, usually in French or in English. The visits are also available in other languages, but on reservation only.
- Mercier. This very popular visit lasts 45 minutes. It starts with a short film, and then a glass lift takes visitors down to the cellars. A small train guided by electric laser tours the cellars and passes by one of the biggest barrels in the world, with a capacity exceeding 215,000 bottles of champagne.
- Champagne Leclerc Briant. This is another famous Champagne firm of Epernay. Guided visits are in French and in English, but are also available in other languages on request. You can also visit the Wine Museum, which was opened in 1992 on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the foundation of the Champagne Leclerc Briant firm. The Managing Director of the company, Pascal Leclerc Briant has devoted all his spare time during the last twenty-five years to collecting tools used for producing wine and objects that deserve to be remembered. Among his favourites are a boiler to sterilise casks, old tools to work the earth, and a few extremely rare objects, such as a small wooden box to mix the vintage, and a machine used to block the cork of a champagne bottle with a string (before the invention of the small wire hood). Over 400 models of corks and bottles are displayed in this museum.
The first day spent in Rheims should be devoted to visiting the most attractive sites of the town, that is to say, the four monuments included on the UNESCO World Heritage list: the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Palais du Tau, the Basilica of Saint Rémi and the Saint Rémi Museum. You can then discover the production secrets of the king of wines, and also taste it at one of the numerous Champagne firms in Rheims.
WHAT TO DO?
- The Cathedral of Notre Dame. A masterpiece of Gothic art, started in 1211. It was the cathedral where the Kings of France were crowned, in memory of the baptism of Clovis by Saint Rémi, probably on Christmas Day of 498. The northern side portal on the façade is decorated with the famous statue of the “Smiling Angel”.
- The Palais du Tau. The former Palace of the Archbishops was constructed in 1690 by Mansart and Robert de Cotte. It houses the cathedral museum, containing tapestries, sculptures and objects going back to the coronation era of the kings. Not to be missed: the “Salle du Tau”, where the banquets celebrating coronations used to be held.
- The Basilica of Saint Rémi. This is the biggest Romanesque church and place of pilgrimage in the north of France. It was erected to hold the tomb of Saint Rémi. The nave was consecrated in 1049 and the apse, built at the end of the 12th century, is an example of early Gothic architecture.
- The Saint Rémi Museum. The famous Benedictine abbey of Saint Rémi, the reliquary of the Holy Vial used for the coronation of the kings, is a magnificent building in the classical style. At present, it houses the Museum of the History and Archaeology of the City, containing rich collections ranging from Prehistory to the Renaissance, as well as a large section devoted to military history. It also contains a chapter house dating back to the 12th-13th centuries.
- Concerts. Every summer the “Flâneries Musicales d’Eté” presents 100 concerts, most of them free, held in the outskirts, cafés, parks and public gardens, or in prestigious places such as the Basilica of Saint Rémi and its cloisters. The repertory ranges from classical music to jazz, with 2 concerts a day. Thanks to famous artists like Mstislav Rostropovich, Montserrat Caballé, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wilhelmenia Fernandez, the Ysaÿe Quartet, Henri Dutilleux, Michel Portal and Marielle Nordmann, these summer concerts are events that should not be missed.
- On your return from the historic centre, you can relax for a while in one of the numerous cafés or sample the local gastronomy. Mercier is a hallowed stopping point. The cellar has one of the biggest barrels for keeping champagne in France (it can contain more than 200,000 bottles). Among the cellars worth visiting are Moët et Chandon and De Castellane.