Tag Archives: champagne

Cast Iron in Chaumont

Highlights of a Tour in Champagne Country – Part 2: Surprises in Unlikely Places

On our tour of champagne country, we ventured off the beaten path in search of the arts and crafts of the region. There were disappointments and delights along the way but the delights far outweighed the few disappointments. 

In this, part two of my champagne adventures, our small breakaway party moves on to Chaumont, once the seat of the Counts of Champagne.

If you plan  your trip for 2018, you could witness a rare local pilgrimage festival that won’t happen again until 2019. (Read Part 1 here)

After the glamour of Reims and the long sleepy drive that followed, Chaumont in windy, wet February was shaping up to be a damp squib. The promising looking market, in its belle epoque cage of blue cast iron and glass, was closed;

The covered market in Chaumont. Tantalizing but shuttered. © Ferne Arfin

so also the art and history museum in the remains of the chateau, the donjon; the extensive, strategic views below the stronghold of the Counts of Champagne was obscured by wintry mist, and the new cultural centre that had drawn us here was empty, its exhibition taken down the day before we arrived.

basilica of John the Baptist in Chaumont
In better weather, and from a distance, the Basilique Saint Jean-Baptiste in Chaumont is an impressive sight. Photo by Murielle 29 ccl

On rue Saint-Jean, sheltering and shivering under the Gothic portal of the 14th century Basilique Saint Jean-Baptiste, I’m sure some of us wondered why we had come to this town, so late in the day, at this unpromising time of year. Then our guide invited us inside.

I could have sworn I heard someone say, “Well at least it will be warm in there.” 

Serendipity in the Basilica

Well, not so much. Inside it was cold and dark – so cold and so dark that clouds of our own breath obscured most of what we could see. Puddles of condensation collected in the grooves of the well worn floor. The swirling shapes of baroque angels and saints loomed out of the gloom. (Jean-Baptiste Bouchardon, a 17th and 18th century sculptor and architect, settled here and filled the basilica with his works in wood and stone.)

But the real art treasure here is the 15th century Entombment of Christ, a startling collection of life-sized, polychromed figures in the crypt. The Renaissance  figures, gathered in grief around a figure of Christ in an open coffin, are illuminated and separated from the main body of the church by an iron grill just a few feet lower than the floor of the nave.

The entombment figures are so lifelike that, if you’re not prepared, you could easily imagine you’d stumbled upon a private funeral. 

Entombment at Chaumont
The Entombment in the Basilique Saint Jean-Baptist, Chaument. Photo by Murielle 29 ccl

Elsewhere, in a side chapel, the Jesse Tree, or Rod of Jesse, is a rare bas relief dating from about 1530. Based on a prophesy in Isaiah, it traces the descent of Christ from Jesse, the father of David, through all the kings of Judah. If you look carefully, you can see the head of Goliath on the lower left, with David in a branch above it, playing his lyre. 

Visit the basilica to see its treasures between 9am and 6pm every day.

The Jesse Tree in Chaumont, © Ferne Arfin

A Rare Chance to Share the Grand Pardon

The Basilique Saint Jean-Baptist is at the center of a pilgrimage festival that has been celebrated – on a rather eccentric schedule but almost without interruption (World War II excepted) for nearly 550 years.

Back in the late 15th century, local boy made good, Jean de Montmirel, became a bishop and then confidante and aide to Pope Sixtus IV.  In gratitude for his service, the pope granted his native village of Chaumont, a special papal indulgence – or Grand Pardon.

The indulgence – a medieval papal pardon of sins – was granted to anyone who attended confession and took communion in the basilica when the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24) fell on a Sunday. That happens at intervals of 5, 6, 5 and 11 years.  The next celebration will be 24 June 2018. During the Festival of the Grand Pardon the streets are decorated with paper flowers and people pour into the town for the religious observance and a jolly good time to follow.

While we were there: I stayed at the local IBIS Styles hotel on rue Toupot de Beveaux, (Tel: +33  3 25 03 01 11). This was my first chance to sample an IBIS Styles since the French ACCOR Group launched this moderately priced, design-led brand. Thumbs up for a comfortable sleep in a well-equipped and colourful room, plus free wifi and a decent breakfast included.

Find out what other travelers think about Chaumont in Champagne, read traveler reviews and book a hotel on TripAdvisor. 

In the interests of full disclosure:  I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube  and Haute-Marne  and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.

© Ferne Arfin 2017

Hightlights of a Tour in Champagne Country – First Stop Reims

The Lady of Champagne

I’m just back from a tour of Champagne country. Together with a small group of professional travel writers, I walked the cobbles, mounted the stairs, descended into the cellars and climbed the hills of a handful of towns and villages in the multi-departmental region now known as La Champagne (to differentiate it from the drink which is le champagne).

During the course of a week in the region we wandered through several astonishingly beautiful churches and cathedrals, admired local architecture, visited vineyards and cellars, learned all about how champagne is made and what the method champenoise really means,  ate lots of regional specialities and, naturally, drank gallons of delicious bubbly.

I’m not a wine writer so I won’t foist my tasting notes on you because they would be meaningless.  And surprisingly, you don’t really visit La Champagne for le champagne anyway. You can save yourself the cost of the trip and spend the money on really expensive bottles at home instead.

But of course, there are dozens of wonderful and compelling reasons to visit this region.  Starting with today’s post  and continuing with several more, I’ll be sharing some of them – the highlights of a truly memorable trip.

In the interests of full disclosure:  I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube  and Haute-Marne  and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.

First Stop Reims

Reims Cathedral

Notre-Dame de Reims

Reims Cathedral, perched on the site where Clovis, first king of the Franks was baptized by Saint Remi, is a battle-scarred survivor. Risen, in 1211, from the ashes of an earlier church destroyed by fire, Notre-Dame de Reims has repeatedly suffered damage from wind, fire and war throughout its 806 year history.

Its towers had barely been completed when they were damaged by a roof fire. In the 18th century an angel atop the bell tower was sent flying in a tempest. And in World War I, the cathedral took 300 direct hits from German artillery. Restoration took 40 years and buckets of Rockefeller money.

Yet through it all, the cathedral’s 806-year-old  gothic bones remain virtually intact, its façade a medieval masterpiece.

Statues on Reims Cathedral ©Ferne Arfin 2017

An army of statues large and small – saints, biblical figures, angels, more than any cathedral except Chartres – parades across the east front. Look out, especially, for the smiling angel, beheaded by a shell in 1914, restored in 1926 and an icon of the city.

The Cathedral sits in the center of the city, beside the Palais du Tau, the ancient Bishop’s Palace, now a museum. Try to see it after dark when the wildly exuberant creativity of centuries of stone carvers dazzles in the spotlights like giddy champagne bubbles frozen in stone.

© Ferne Arfin 2017
Close up of Reims Cathedral, bursting with extravagant detail

Les Crayères

Beneath the city of Reims a network of Gallo Roman chalk quarries provide the perfect atmosphere for making champagne.  Thats why at least 20 major champagne houses, some of the most famous labels in the world,  are headquartered here.  Taittinger, Mumms, Pommery, Heidsieck, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot – known affectionately in the UK where it is a favorite, as the Widow – have turned Reims into the modern capital of La Champagne.

Les Crayères, as they are known, are part of a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. In their cool, dark, interconnected passages, millions of bottles of champagne quietly come of age.

We’ve been invited to tour the subterranean depths of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, 482 chambers spread out across almost 24 kilometers.

Les Crayeres
Down into les crayeres at Veuve Clicquot

Our guide in the cellars explains the méthode champenoise. The wine, made from a secret blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes, undergoes a second fermentation in the bottles. That’s what produces the bubbles.

Riddling the bottles
Guide explains riddling – an element of the methode champenoise invented by the Widow Clicquot

She’s surrounded by bottles, slotted at a fixed angle in “riddling tables” that encourage the yeast and grape sediment to move toward the neck.

Over a period of time, the bottles are gently turned – riddled – to help the process along, a method used throughout the industry but apparently invented by the Widow herself in the early 19th century. What happens next – called disgorgement – can best be described as a sort of yeasty burp. The bottles are uncapped and the pressure of the carbon dioxide they contain pushes the plug of sediment out of the bottle. These days the necks of the bottles are also chilled to -26° C keeping the plug of frozen sediment intact  as it bursts from the bottle.

Public cellar tours, bookable in advance, are available weekdays and range in price from 25€ to 150€ – information from their website.

A highlight is a view of a 170-year-old bottle, part of a cargo retrieved from a sunken vessel in the Baltic Sea in 2010 and apparently still drinkable.

Only in Champagne

Eight in the morning on the Rue Buirette. On the wide, pink and grey tesselated pavement, a stall holder unrolls his awnings, opens his cabinets and counters,  turns on strings of festive lights and sets out his wares.

Oysters and Shellfish in Reims © Ferne Arfin

In Paris, these might be magazines and newpapers, sweets and mints and cigarettes. But this is the capital of la Champagne. And though we are more than 250 miles from the sea, his offering is the natural accompaniment for le champagne, huîtres et coquillages – oysters and shellfish, of course.

Come back soon for more travels in Champagne Country – Find Part 2 Here.