France is well known for its amazing chateaux and its expensive sparkling wine, and within my first week I have sampled them both.
Chateau Pierrefonds sits high above the town like a fairy tale castle. Carefully restored in 1857 by Viollet-le-Duc on orders from Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie it seems so extraordinarily perfect that it could be a film set. Indeed it has been used for exactly that purpose during the Leonardo DiCaprio film ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ and the BBC TV series ‘Merlin’, where it represented Camelot.
The extremely long Worthies room with its medieval decoration and Viollet-le-Duc’s fantastical gargoyles and statues are the highlights and a cellar full of funerary sculptures is rather spooky and disturbing (they were originally on display at Versailles). Special exhibitions give insight into the architectural restorations of Viollet-le-Duc, who also worked on the Cite of Carcassonne, as well as the world of magic lanterns, which were used to produce ghostly images in theatrical shows at the end of the 19th century.
Further south, a few kilometres outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois, I find the old castle which was badly damaged during the revolution and the first world war but is slowly being restored, or at least maintained in its current state. It has a fascinating access via a 16th century two-storey gallery, not unlike the one at Chenonceau but a lot shorter. A complimentary leaflet explains that the original castle was extended by Francois I to impress his guests. Nowadays guests stay at the neighbouring luxury hotel which overlooks the old castle moat.
I’m not that fond of champagne and my budget can’t really stretch to a bottle but, as I’m passing through the region, I decide to stop and find out more about the bubbly stuff. My introduction begins at the Epernay Tourist Office at the start of the Avenue du Champagne where top producers, such as Moet and Chandon, have their factories and offer tours which cost as much as a bottle of the end product. Luckily for me, two lesser known producers are offering free tastings in the Tourist Office, and whilst I am not enamoured with the champagne, I do learn some basic facts. 320 champagne houses are allowed to produce over 300 million bottles each year from the grapes grown in the region. Champagne is actually a mix of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, which surprised me as the latter two are both red grapes and champagne is normally very pale in colour.
The next day I visit the Cite du Champagne, a new guided tour offered by the house of Collet. Kevin, a smartly dressed young man who looks more like a visiting banker than a tour guide, takes me down into the cool cellars below the vineyards to explain the process of making champagne. It actually involves three stages, including a double fermentation and an expulsion of the yeast sediment after it has been allowed to settle in the neck of the bottle. Upstairs, a museum houses all manner of traditional equipment used for making champagne and old photographs help to explain how the methods have evolved over the years. However, the grapes are still picked by hand, though these days by Eastern European labourers.
I also learnt why the Champagne region is strictly controlled and was surprised to learn that it was historical and not economical. In 1911 the local vine growers, already suffering from the devastating phylloxera disease which destroyed many vines in the late 19th century, became unhappy with the local champagne producers who began importing grapes from other regions to make their champagne. On the 11th April up to 6,000 people marched through the streets of Epernay and Ay, torching many of the warehouses, destroying equipment and the stored bottles of champagne. The Maison Gallois (the current site of the Cite du Champagne) was razed to the ground.
In 1927 and 1936 very strict regulations were introduced to restrict the production of champagne to the local region. Luckily there are still plenty of large and small producers to keep their clients happy.