Into the Champagne region

By | May 29, 2017

We leave La Ferté sous Jouarre and head through more beautiful countryside toward the small village of Gandalu where we have a look at the interior of the centuries old church and castle before making a stop for tea, cake and cider at a Bed and Breakfast which has been created in an old mill house which still has water running through a race under the building.  

Having seen all of the wheat fields we’ve passed along the way it’s not hard to imagine the big mill wheels grinding out the flour to be used to bake some of those tasty baguettes we’ve been enjoying.

The break gives us a chance to get ready for some more rolling hills as we head toward the scene of one the largest battles right at the end of World War 1 which involved a large contingent of the American army engaged with German forces at Belleau Wood.
Our first stop is at the German cemetery, where rank has no place in death.  A musketeer is buried in the same grave as an Oberleutnant, with the date of death only 3 weeks prior to the signing of the Armistice at Compiegne on 11th November, 1918.




Not far away, thousands more young lives are remembered only by their final resting place in the beautifully maintained American War Cemetery which occupies the slope rising up to the battle field areas in Belleau Wood itself where the dappled light and peacefulness belies the horror of these events almost a hundred years ago.

After our climb up into the wood it’s through more open fields and countryside before our next overnight stop in the city of Chateau Thierry. Dinner is followed by a walk up through the old town to the Chateau which sits atop an artificially created mound and is decorated on one side by a rose garden where one of the roses has been blooming since 1583.  The view out across the city os stunning as the light lengthens and fades around 10.30.  

Tomorrow we will get our first look at the vineyards which provide the grapes for champagne making.

Before we jump onto our bikes again, we have the chance to cruise for an hour or so on the Zwaantje as she passes through a lock and further up the Marne, where our passing raises some heads from the task of fishing the river on this Ascention Day holiday which provides many French people with the opportunity to plan a four day weekend.



Along the way we see a number of pretty little villages and are accompanied on the Marne by white swans which skim the water top as they swoop in to land before plunging heads and necks into the river in search of food.

It’s soon time to get back to pedal power and we disembark ready to ride into the vineyards which provide the grapes from which the Champagne is made.  Our route is along a roadway so we ensure that we keep to single file.

The valley broadens out and the vistas and colours are amazing looking down across the Marne to vineyards, barley crops and wheat fields. 





Similar views take our eye in all directions.  This is a fertile and productive region indeed and it’s interesting to muse on the generations of families which have lived and worked in these small valley villages for hundreds and hundreds of years creating cultures and traditions. 



We’re headed into Dormans where we’ll stop for coffee before finding the hustle and bustle of a large outdoor car boot sale in the grounds of the local Chateau. We take the chance to enjoy our lunch beneath the cool trees before a wander around the markets.  

On the way in, I’d spied an old guitar being sold and, after checking that it was tunable, the guitar was mine for the princely sum of four euros.  The intent was to take it to the barge and leave it onboard for the enjoyment of any other guitarists who find themselves on board in future cruises.  In the end, I cobble together a parody version of ‘Sloop John B’ as the ‘Barge Zwaantje’ and the entire group have a bit of fun singing for the captain and crew at our farewell meeting on the last night onboard.

It’s now on to a small family operated champagne house to sample the end result of all of this grape growing.  We visit the Nowack champagne house where Frederick, the 7th generation champagne maker shows us the process and equipment used before we all have the chance to try the product and order some bottles to enjoy on board later.

Michael, our group organiser from Falmouth, MA, provides a photo opportunity outside Nowacks as we get ready to push on to Epernay where we’ll spent the last two nights of our adventure. We’ve been cycling between 30-45 kilometres each day which has provided plenty of time for stops and enjoyment along the way.





The last leg of this day’s cycling takes us along a new cycleway which runs beside the river and canal, passing locks and more grand views across the fields.





This leaves us with a visually flat ride into Epernay with only a few hundred metres of on road cycling as we enter the city of Epernay and head toward the town centre to find the Zwaantje marred close to the city centre.





As we board the barge, we’re greeted by the boat’s mascot; Gaston.

Keith, our chef, has prepared another wonderful dinner and we have a chance to gather on the upper deck and enjoy the breeze which follows a very hot afternoon.  All of the weather this week has been fine and sunny with it actually getting quite hot in the high twenties during our afternoon rides. It’s good, at the end of the day to return to our cabins and shower before relaxing. The fact that we only need to unpack our gear once on the trip and that we have our own cabin with ensuite to return to each night makes this a great way to travel and experience some different environments.

Our last day of cycling begins with a short cycle back along the canal cycleway before confronting a very challenging ride up the hill through vineyards labelled for Moet and Chandon to the village of Hautevilliers where the monk Dom Perignon is buried in the local church.

The climb takes its toll on many of our riders as some of us are forced to get off and walk some of the way, while for others, the right combination of weight and electric assist sees them make the climb easily.

For miles around, we can see the vineyards which provide the grapes for the champagne.






This is another lovely little village and, after our look at Dom Perignon’s resting place, we head to a local cafe for coffee and beer, as we get ready for the roll down another hill into Ay where we will stop for lunch.

After lunch, we head back into Epernay and a quick rest stop at the Zwaantje before riding through town to a planned tour of one of the very large commercial champagne houses which have kilometres of cellars extending under the town at a depth of 30 metres or so.

We’re shown a video of the process used in making champagne in this volume and then descend into the cellars for a trip through the vast galleries of underground cellaring in a small train, before ending the tour and riding back to the barge via the Avenue which houses a whole range of famous champagne houses.  Apparent there are more kilometres of roadway in the cellars under Epernay then there are on the streets and roads on the surface. 

We have a bit of fun on our final night, with some songs and speeches and some planing for a departure from Epernay around 9am on Saturday morning.  After spending a week at fairly close quarters with the group it seems a little surreal as the morning comes and we all take our speared directions, with some heading to Reims for trains to other parts of France, Belgium or Germany which others make for Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris for flights back to the USA.  We trundle our bags a few hundred metres to the Epernay railway station to catch a train back into Gare d’este in Paris before transferring to Montparnasse and our trains south west to our next airBnB in Nantes.

It’s been a busy but very interesting week indeed.  Using electric assist bikes certainly made dealing with many hills and headwinds much easier and its certainly easy to understand why they are growing in popularity.  We make a mental note to check them out further when we arrive back in Australia.  In the meantime; goodbye champagne and hello Nantes!

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