A Roadside Auberge
There is a very cozy roadside auberge in Colombey-les-deux-eglises, it’s La Grange du Relais, on the A19 Route Nationale. For 21 years Martine Dambrine and her family have served the locals and especially, the people who drove out from Paris and many of the
patriotic French seniors who came to pay respects to Le General or visit La Bosserie, his ivy-colored large former home that is now a De Gaulle museum.
Dinner in the superbly cozy former stables was first rate—very creative cuisine, a generous slice of fois gras and a classy cheese tray with Fromage de Vache and Longres cheeses.
Madame Dambrine was quick to show us the newspaper clipping the day former French president Nicholas Sarcozy was in town for a De Gaulle memorial. There she is, right next to the prez!
The next morning we set off in the Champagne open-ness but not before I walked outside, early, to take in the sweeping views. It was fields and farmland as far as the eye could see. I shot some photos of a fence that trailed along the border of the Auberge’s property, birds singing sweetly and flying overhead in the gauzy, dewey morning light. France can be so beautiful very close up, at the earliest hour.
The Faux of Verzy
Langres, an ancient walled city in Champagne.We set off in the mild morning weather for a forest tour.
We had a lunch date in the forest, but first we’d be visiting a place that only has one equal. It’s the Parc Naturel Reginale de la Montagne De Reims, in Pourcy. Olaf Holm, a friendly tall German man, runs this 128,000 acre park where the main attraction is a grove of stunted, twisted beech trees called Les Faux. With lots of branches that lean over as if to offer seats to passing woodland visitors, these trees are indeed unique. I was told that they only grow here and two other places in the world, Sweden and Germany.
There were metal barriers around the trees to keep people from bothering them, but we did get a chance to mingle among them and shoot some photos. The path through the grove is an interesting, unchallenging stroll. The woods are full of deer and wild boar, and Olaf said it’s a popular hunting destination during the season. Divier Couteau still lives in Paris, but he’s opened The Perching Bar in the same forest where the Faux trees live.
Amid le Faux, stunted Beech trees in Verzy. France.We parked the car and walked past a clubhouse for a local tree-climbing club and to a series of walkways, going higher and higher into the trees.
This is how you reach the Perching Bar, where customers sit at a railing overlooking a fabulous view surrounded by large trees and sip Champagne. At night it’s quite the hot spot with movies played on a big hanging screen suspended from the trees.
Couteau, a tall young business man said he has plans to expand the restaurant up here 25 feet above the forest, and to open a hotel with eight tree houses people can rent for the night. “I built a treehouse and many forts when I was a kid,” he explained. Divier added that he’s going to build his own tree house to live in, for now he commutes on the TGV train 40 minutes to Paris.
Champagne is served in the Perching Bar, Didier Couteau, right is the boss. I was up north, north of Paris. I was in the wide open spaces of Champagne, where the cereals and rapeseed grow mile after mile, broad stripes of the brilliant yellow rapeseed, and the undulating dun colored wheat, with an occasional sparkle of sunlight.
A Coeur Du Bouchon
We were in Champagne, indeed, and as the afternoon grew into the still ambience of the five o’clock hour, we headed out of our elegant hotel, La Maison de Rhodes, to a new hotspot in Troyes. It’s Au Coeur Du Bouchon, where pure Champagne is offered in five varieties by the glass, and more than 140 labels from all 50 producers in the region.
Plenty of champagne flutes are used here and we were told about a great discovery when the place was built. No one knew there was a delightfully cool former wine cellar that had been covered up by walls hundreds of years ago. They opened it up and now it’s a perfect place for private parties…no air conditioning needed.
We sipped our bubbly as motorbikes passed by outside. In this city of 130,000, their tourism board has capitalized on French traveler’s love of their dogs. They have started a dog friendly tour of the city with a website and directions to every cafe that will put out water for your hound and let you bring the pooch into your hotel room. It’s called TouTourism. Besides catering to the dogs, Troyes has other tourism innovations…they offer a running tour of the city. You gather at the tourism office in your jogging gear and sneakers and learn the history of this ancient city as you run by the sites. Michelle and Andre Drappier generations one and two, relaxing in Urville.
One of the 50 Champagne houses that are all sold at A Coeur Du Bouchon, Champagne Drappier is still very much a family operation. We stopped by Urville and met the senior man, Andre Drappier and his son Michelle.
It’s a fully three-generational operation, they have been
Troyes is a pretty city, with many, many half-timbered buildingsmaking Champagne here since 1808. One of their newest creations is the gargantuan 40-bottle four-feet tall bottle called Melchisedech. It’s presented at big swanky events and is quite a party–in one wooden crate. They bring it with it’s own dispenser to pour out the bubbly.
I asked Michele, the son, about his father’s legacy and the continuation of the family line in the years ahead. He said he was pleased to have three children who have all become interested in the family’s bubbly business.
Charline, the oldest, studies at a business school in Paris and is poised to jump into the marketing and business side of Drappier when she finishes her studies in a few years. Son Hugo, 21, is interested in winemaking and is working as an engineer in Switzerland.
And the youngest son, Antoine, 16, has taken to raising horses, and has helped out at the vineyard with draft horses, giant Percherons used to till between the rows.
It looks good for Michele, handsome and well-dressed and clearly the right man to sell his high class Champagne to clients like Malaysia and TAM airlines, and to hundreds of importers around the world. Cooling off in the fountains of Troyes.
I asked Michele how the business was faring, and he said the brightest spots are Korea, Japan, and the US was picking up. “In France people would borrow money to buy Champagne,” he said with a smile.
His father, Andre sat with us and smiled, not venturing to speak to us in English, sipping some of his favorite beverage. He drinks Champagne every day, and at his age 87, he still comes into the office daily to check the mail and then read the newspapers.
He developed a special Champagne named after the most famous local resident, French President Charles De Gaulle, who is buried over in Colombey-des-Deux-Eglise, marked by a gigantic double cross that you can see from miles around. “The family never bought a bottle of that Champagne,” Michele explained. “They didn’t want to drink it and have the stern face of their grandfather staring out at them.”
The Drappier company is famous too for their gigantic bottles of Champagne, called Melchisedechs, which are about four feet tall and hold a whopping 40 bottles of bubbly. And it’s aged in the giant specially made bottles, not poured in from other bottles like some producers. They’re bringing some of these big babies down to the Bordeaux Wine Show later this month, along with a machine that pours the big bottles mechanically called a Vicanter.
Champagne is ancient, but as I could see, always changing and evolving with the times. It’s one place I know I can always return to, for new surprises and old familar sips.
Max Hartshorne is the editor of GONOMAD and a daily blogger. He writes Readuponit, about travel and life in South Deerfield MA.
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Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels once a month and shares his stories and enjoys publishing new writers and watching his grandchildren grow up.