#7 France: Food, fizz, chateaux and a certain je ne sais quoi

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

France for me has long been synonymous with Paris, perhaps my favourite capital city (outside London!). Like New York, it’s a place to wander as if through a film set, surrounded by the icons and clichés so familiar from films and books. Pavement cafes with people chatting as they blow languid curls of smoke from their Gauloises. Stylish women in red lipstick, heels and belted macs; old men in felt berets; old women with neatly-groomed tiny dogs; young hipsters in top-to-toe black; anyone and everyone carrying baguettes, crisply golden on the outside, fluffy, white and chewy on the inside.

Croissants crammed with delicious buttery layers of pastry. Parisians breakfasting on little cups of bitter espresso alongside a small nip of cognac. The imposing boulevards, squares and shopping streets of the 1st arrondissement, with its high-end designer stores; the trendy streets of the Marais, full of stylish boutiques and alluring cafes, restaurants and bars; the artistic and slightly-louche atmosphere of Montmartre. The Musee D’Orsay is one of my favourite museums and gazing at Monet’s peaceful waterlilies in The Orangerie in the Tuileries never fails to bring a smile to my face. Chic, grand, romantic – Paris, I love it.

Yet in thinking about this post, I realised I’ve also been to many other parts of France over the years. The Channel ports of Calais, Bolougne, Dieppe and St Malo. The Alpine haven of Chamonix for my first overseas school trip. Cahors, Fontainebleau, Roeun, Lourdes, Nice on various visits, from field trips to weekend breaks. And as I write, I’m just back from a week split between a hilly cyclists’ paradise Alpe D’Huez in the Rhone-Alpes region and a graceful chateau in the Champagne region near Reims. The long drive to the Alps was for the Marmotte cycling event, a gruelling 174km in length and involving a leg-punishing 5180m of climbing. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to confess I wasn’t actually on a bike myself!

While my fiancé and 7000 other lycra-clad cycling enthusiasts pushed themselves to their limits, I took to the mountains in a less taxing way, pulling on my hiking boots and taking some gentle hikes and cable-car rides. The scenery is spectacular, with the bleak snow-shrouded mountain peaks offset by the mellow green of the lower slopes, studded with lush clusters of trees and colourful meadow flowers. There’s something I find quite mesmerising about mountains. I could gaze at them for hours, watching the clouds swirl and scud across their inhospitable angles and the sun glint off the temptingly untouched snow, its scattered rays absorbed by the thirsty rock outcrops. Like the sea, there’s something quite elemental about mountains and experiencing how quickly conditions can change – a wind gusting in from nowhere, clouds sinking in to dampen visibility and press down temperatures – is a reminder of their power and our smallness in relation to the might of nature.

Leaving the Alps, we broke our journey back with a couple of nights in the Champagne-Ardennes area, staying in a dreamy chateau with a moat, feasting on rich French food and of course, drinking copious amounts of champagne! Not content just to drink it, I wanted to visit one of the champagne houses, so dragging ourselves away from the relaxed luxury of the hotel gardens and spa, we went to Taittinger. Set in the remains of the old St Nicaise Abbey, up to 20m below the city of Reims, their cellars are scraped out of chalk, which provides perfect storage conditions for the bubbly nectar and a pleasingly medieval atmosphere for visitors. Up to two million bottles are currently stored there. This sounds a lot, but it isn’t: on their other, newer site, they hold 20 million!

Champagne has been made in this region for centuries, and the wine has an equally long history on the Taittinger site. It has been made here since the 13th century, initially by Benedictine monks, who built their abbey over the third century Roman chalk mines that became their cellars, then by winemaker Jacques Fourneaux, and since 1932 by the Taittinger family, who still own and run it as a family business today. The conclusion – and a highlight! – of the informative and atmospheric tour through the deep, dimly-lit and musty-smelling cellars is a tasting back at ground-level in the modern, minimalist visitor area. We were impressed enough to buy a few bottles to bring home with us. And whether it’s Paris or another part of this very beautiful country, I hope it’s not too long before I go to France again. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping the memories alive by drinking champagne!

HIGHLIGHTS

Cultural highlights: Paris is full of them! I like the Musée D’Orsay, Rodin’s sculpture garden, the Picasso Museum, the Orangerie Museum. In Reims, all the major champagne houses run tours – a visit to their cellars, an overview of the history of champagne and how it’s made, plus of course a tasting!

Food & drink highlights: in Paris: Le Fumoir, and Chez Julien for dinner; Les Philosophes for a leisurely breakfast; La Belle Hortense for a literary glass of wine in a cosy bookshop; the bar in Hotel Costes for upmarket cocktails and a chance of celebrity sightings

Places to stay: for a decadent and relaxing treat in Champagne-Ardennes, I heartily recommend Chateau D’Etoges; in Paris, these days I tend to stay somewhere different each time I go, but I used to love the fairly basic but classically French Hotel de Nice on the Rue de Rivoli

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3 thoughts on “#7 France: Food, fizz, chateaux and a certain je ne sais quoi

  1. I loved the Picasso Museum. It was a surprise to me that ended up being one of my favorite parts of my trip to Paris. I also really enjoyed the neighborhood it’s in.

  2. Dizzy We enjoyed Chateau d’Etoges last May for a couple of nights. An excellent dinner too. Slept in what would have been the old hay lofts above the stables that is now the restaurant.

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