Category Archives: Film

Odysseus and George Clooney

odysseusMy path has crossed that of the mythical Odysseus several times already on this trip. The Nekromanteion in Greece is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, as is Nestor’s Palace in the Peloponnese where Telemachus sought help from the king while searching for his father Odysseus. In Sicily, the port of Aci Trezza is supposedly the site where Odysseus escaped from the cyclops Polyphemus and the picturesque islands in the harbour are said to be the rocks that the blinded cyclops threw after him.

dscf5961Now, I find myself having lunch in the Bay of Guidaloca, believed to be the place where Naisicaa found the shipwrecked Odysseus and helped him to set off on the final part of his return journey to Ithaca.

dscf5956Not far away is the Tonnara di Scopello, an old tuna fishery set in an idyllic cove, guarded by ancient watchtowers built upon rocky columns. Since it closed down in the 1980s it has become a tourist attraction and was also used for the filming of ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones.

dscf5964In Castellamare del Golfo, the largest of the local fishing ports along the coastline, I learn more about the tuna fishing industry in the Museum, which is housed in the Norman castle overlooking the harbour. I’m amazed at the size of the tuna fish shown in the black and white photos and wonder if any of the tuna are allowed to get that big these days due to overfishing.

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Hobbit Huts and Cave Houses

The Puglia region of Italy has some really amazing towns and villages. I’ve already explored the ‘White City’ of Ostuni and the circular medieval streets of Locorotondo. Now I’m in search of some more unusual dwellings in the popular tourist town of Alberobello.

dscf4026I’ve already seen plenty of trullo houses while driving through the area. They are a cylindrical structure, made from loose stones with a conical, pointed, stone roof which occasionally features magical symbols and nearly always has a symbolic pinnacle on the top. However, the town of Alberobello has three large areas consisting of about 1500 trulli and it feels like I’m entering into the world of Tolkien as I stroll around the streets and peer through the low doors.

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dscf4008Some are open to the public and look like they were furnished a century ago with dark wood cabinets and bedsteads. However, I do notice a 20th century bathroom plumbed in behind a privacy curtain. It’s possible to stay the night in a trullo house for about €100, but I’m happy to just have a stroll around the streets for a few hours.

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dscf4014dscf4029The Rione Monti zone is a lot more commercial with most of the trulli being used as shops where eager sales assistants entice you inside with offers of free biscuits and wine tasting but then persist in trying to sell you some tacky souvenir or overpriced local produce. Luckily, I find Giuseppe who runs a shop off of the main drag and seems more interested in educating me about the history of his family home and the village as well as showing me the views from his terrace. Aromatic smells waft up from somewhere below and he explains that his mother is preparing lunch.

dscf4032I leave them to their meal and climb up to the top of Rione Monti to see the trull0 church. It has the same distinctive roof as the houses but is quite large inside and very modern.

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dscf4083100kms to the south, the city of Matera was once within the Puglia region but is now part of Basilicata. I’m keen to see the sassi, cave dwellings used since the middle ages and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My first view is from the opposite side of the deep gorge where I stop in a viewpoint car park for lunch. There’s a storm going on outside so taking photos proves a challenge and I don’t stay long for fear of being blown away by the strong winds. I take shelter in a small residential car park in the modern city centre and wait until the next day when the weather promises to be better.

dscf4120The next morning, before climbing down to the sassi district, I decide to visit Casa Noha. Close to the Duomo and run by the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano), the €4 visit includes a series of videos projected onto the white walls which explain the origins of the sassi and how they became a health hazard in the early 20th century resulting in the forcible removal of the inhabitants from the squalid cave houses that they shared with their animals. They were moved to new apartment blocks on the edge of the new city or to the purpose-built village of La Martella, some 7 kms away. Although the relocation seemed like such a good idea, it sadly failed and ultimately many of the families left to live and work elsewhere.

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dscf4151The sassi were abandoned for many decades but now they are being reborn and used as luxury visitor accommodation, souvenir shops, living museums, cafes and bars. The locals and the city have also realised the commercial opportunities to be had and, where it was previously possible to visit cave churches and houses for free, it is now necessary to pay for the privilege. Since Matera has been named City of Culture for 2019 this can only get worse.

dscf4142I choose to limit my spending by visiting one cave house (€2) which uses original furniture and amusing dummies to illustrate life in the sassi before the 1950s. There is an audio recording explaining the relevance of the items and the roles of the family members and the young but knowledgeable staff provide me with additional information.

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dscf4175Rather than spend another €5 or €6 visiting the chiese rupestri (cave churches) where photos are forbidden, I decide to see the Sant Antonio monastery instead. It is a large complex of four 13th century cave churches with large cellars that were used by the monks for making and storing wine. There are still some fragments of frescos on the walls and the limping guardian who stalks me as I visit is fine with me taking snaps of them.

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dscf4183If you recognise Matera and the sassi, it may be because it has frequently been used by filmmakers, including Mel Gibson who shot scenes here for his film ‘The Passion of Christ’ in 2003.

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James Bond and the Monks of Meteora

I grew up in the 80s when Roger Moore was the popular choice to play James Bond. In the 1981 Movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’, the climax of the film featured an amazing rock climbing stunt with the monasteries of Meteora as its backdrop.

Apparently the monks were not that impressed with their domain being invaded and tried to disrupt the filming by hanging out their laundry during takes. In fact, the interior and some of the exterior scenes were shot on a set in Pinewood Studios, England.

 

dscf3123I set out to visit Meteora from the village of Kastraki where I hope to catch the 9am bus up to the highest monastery. It turns out that I’m over two weeks too late for any bus but then a miracle occurs. George pulls up in his taxi and offers to take me for only €3. He already has two Spanish girls in the back so I’m really just a bonus for him. He points out ruined monasteries as we swerve up the road and gives information about the monks and nuns who live in the monasteries which remain in use.

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We pull up at Megalou Meteorou just as two coaches are disgorging their loads, so I hang back and wait for the crowds to clear before descending and ascending the numerous steps. Megalou Meteorou is the highest and luckily the largest of the monasteries so it’s easy to avoid the other visitors. In fact, I’m surprised by how much there is to see. Various museums, a carpentry room, the smoke-blackened kitchen, a shop selling soap, honey and religious items, a creepy ossuary, as well as the main chapel, or Katholikon as it is known.

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The main theme of the 16th century frescos are the martyred saints who were killed for not renouncing their Christian beliefs. Scenes of their hanging, beheading, dismemberment and crushing with stones adorn the walls while haloed icons gaze up from their frames and incense fills the air.

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dscf3095A little further down the road is Varlaam, one of the earliest monasteries to be established in the region and with an impressive old ascent tower and modern electrical cable car which I get to see in action. Today it is only being used to transport building materials for restoration work taking place on the large exterior patio. These days visitors use the steps carved into the rock and bridges which span the chasms. However, when Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the 1950s he ascended by the ancient windlass mechanism. When he asked the abbot how often the rope was replaced, he was simply told, ‘When it breaks’!

dscf3114Very few monks now actually reside at the monasteries but there are a flourishing community of nuns living at Ayiou Stefanou and Roussanou. The steps up to the small but precipitous monastery of Roussanou are steep and the two bridges narrow and worn, but the nuns seem quite content there, producing honey and worshiping Saint Barbara, whose relics are kept in the chapel there.

 

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The Spanish girls declare that they are too tired to attempt the ascent to the last monastery on our route back to Kastraki so I climb up to Ayiou Nikolaou alone. For me, this monastery turns out to be the most authentic that I visit, with only one elderly monk in residence and a small katholikon that doesn’t actually have the gruesome scenes of martyrdom. Instead the walls are decorated with more positive scenes depicting monastic life and episodes from the Old Testament.

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As I climb up to the patio and bell tower at the very top, I can hear the monk praying in a back room somewhere, and when I see the stunning view back down the valley I can understand why all those years ago they chose the arduous task of constructing their places of worship on the top of these monolithic rocks. So they can be as close to heaven as possible.

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Romantic Road – The Fairy Tale Castles

It’s a cold, misty Monday morning when I set out to visit the almost mythical castles which lie close to the Austrian Border.

dscf1090En route, I stop briefly at the UNESCO-listed pilgrimage church of Wies, where coaches are already disgorging some of the many Asian and American tour groups which plough the Romantic Road every year. Beautiful as the church is, I have already seen many equally stunning baroque frescos and carefully carved confessionals, and the commercialism of the site makes me keen to get back on the road.

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dscf1093A few kilometres from the castles I pause at the small church of St Coloman, named for an Irish pilgrim who passed this way and is now honoured as the local patron saint of farm animals. From this spot, I can see the yellow walls of Hohenschwangau Castle in the distance but the higher Neuschwanstein Castle is still obscured by the mist. So I wait it out with a cup of coffee until the mist lifts enough for a reasonable photo. A Japanese couple spot me standing in the middle of a field and, at first, wonder what I am up to but as soon as they realise (and in true Japanese fashion) they wander out to the same place to take their own photo.

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dscf1101I’d thought that visiting in mid-October would mean fewer tourists, but I am sadly disappointed. The base of operations below the castle is chaos, with coaches manoeuvring around horse-drawn carriages and people standing in the middle of the road taking photos. Somehow I navigate my way to the car park and pay the extortionate rate of €8.50, and then I make my way back to the ticket office to discover the equally extortionate cost of visiting the castles. €12 per castle or €23 for both – not much of a cost saving! It’s all a bit too expensive for me and, as I have read that you get very little time inside the castles and interior photography is prohibited, I decide to save my money and view the castles from the outside.

dscf1097Starting with Hohenschwangau Castle, I climb some steps behind where Trixie is parked. I’m surprised to discover that I can access the courtyard and gardens where lots of people are milling around, waiting for their allotted time to enter. Hohenschwangau was built by Maximillian II in 1832 on the ruins of a 12th century fortification. It was used as a summer residence for the royal family and was where Richard Wagner first met Prince Ludwig who funded the opera house in Bayreuth to showcase Wagner’s operas.

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dscf1123It’s a much longer walk up to the castle of Neuschwanstein so I choose the easy option and take the bus up to the Marienbrucke. It’s a hair-raising ride as the driver swings the bus around the tight bends at incredible speed. Luckily he’s done it a few times before and the narrow road is operated on a one-way basis so we arrive in one piece. The next drama is standing on the narrow iron bridge, 92m above the rocky Pollat Gorge, crammed with people all wanting to get a fantastic shot of the castle.

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There’s a security guard who is presumably there to prevent unsafe overcrowding on the bridge but he seems more interested in his mobile phone than the safety of the tourists. However, the breath-taking view is worth the risk and it’s easy to see why Disney chose it as the model for his animated film Sleeping Beauty.

It also proved to be the perfect location for the castle in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, while the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, also on the Romantic Road, was also used as a location for the film.

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dscf1144Inspired by German mythology and the artistic works of his friend Wagner, Ludwig II created an impressive romantic medieval castle with a minstrel’s hall inspired by the opera Tannhauser, a bedroom themed on Tristan and Isolde and a throne room with a majestic mosaic floor containing over 2 million stones. However, his expensive projects eventually cost him his throne and possibly his life. He died in 1886 in mysterious circumstances, drowning at the edge of Lake Starnberg where he had been sent for psychiatric treatment. The authorities immediately opened Neuschwanstein Castle to the public in order to help cover the huge debts incurred by Ludwig.

dscf1139It’s a short walk downhill to the castle entrance where there are a great number of people anxiously waiting in the courtyard and one angry couple at the information desk complaining because they missed their allocated time. Luckily for them, the lady at the desk is in a good mood. Watching people being herded through the turnstiles like cattle being dipped in insecticide reminds me why I usually avoid the more popular tourist destinations. I happily leave them to it and walk back down through the forest, then extract myself from the crowds and drive the few kilometres to the town of Fussen.

dscf1165Strategically based for visiting the castles and close to the Austrian border, it is not surprising that Fussen is busy. As a base for hiking and mountaineering there are plenty of outdoor equipment shops as well as a Woolworths. Now extinct in the UK, it is rather nice to shop in one of my favourite stores and I come out with a new chopping board and a thick fleece blanket.

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Being Monday, the municipal museum, housed in the Benedictine Monastery of St Mang, is closed. Unfortunately, this means that I cannot visit the ancient monastery library or the exhibition about violin making for which the town had an international reputation in the 15th century. Luckily the church is open and I am rewarded with some more fine frescos.

 

 

 

Romantic Road – Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbuhl

rottingen-sundialsHeading further south along the Romantic Road, I make a quick stop in the small wine-making village of Rottingen but, rather unusually, it is not the wine I have stopped for. I’m searching for sundials along a 1,5 km route which winds its way through and around the village. There are 25 in total and even though I don’t manage to see them all, it is a pleasant stroll through the streets and the apple orchards which line the Tauber River.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a fairy tale village filled with gingerbread houses and surrounded by towers and the inspiration for the village in Disney’s Pinocchio. It is also a tourist trap and prices are elevated accordingly. Even the Aire on the edge of town is €10 for the night and that doesn’t include water or electricity.

dscf0795My first view of the town is the Spitalbastei, a huge 16th century bastion. A Latin inscription above the gate reads, ‘Peace to those who enter. Farewell to those that leave.’ Having been formally welcomed to the town, I walk uphill to the Plonlien (little square) and copy thousands of previous visitors, and the guide books, by photographing a typical medieval house framed between two inner towers and gateways.

dscf0802I eventually emerge into the main town square with a huge stone town hall and the gabled façade of the councillor’s drinking room which now houses the tourist office. Each hour, on the hour, two windows either side of the clock open to reveal figures who re-enact the ‘meistertrunk’. Legend says that the soldiers drank a magical brew before fighting the enemy in 1631 and saving the town.

dscf0844I want to visit the gothic Jakobs Church which holds the marvellous carved wooden Alter of the Holy Blood. However, I don’t believe that we should pay to enter a place of worship so decide to spend my euros on a visit to the Christmas Museum instead, where I learn about the history of this festive period and the evolution of Christmas decorations which were previously made from cotton wool, paper, pewter, wood, wax and tragacanth (a type of resin). The museum is within a cavernous twinkling shop filled with thousands of tree decorations and sideboard ornaments as well as Swiss cuckoo clocks which seem a bit out of place.

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wp_20161004_12_48_03_proI have a hard time finding a reasonably priced place for lunch, made even more difficult by the fact that many restaurants have decided to close after a busy bank holiday weekend. In the end, I choose a tiny pub-like place where I warm up with a hearty meal of liver dumplings, boiled potatoes and the ubiquitous sauerkraut.

 

 

 

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I compensate for my filling lunch by walking around the walls, looking for more photo opportunities. At the Burggarten (castle garden), I discover the tiny chapel of St Blasius, built in 1400 and now a dedicated war memorial. Unfortunately, what should be a marvellous view down into the Tauber Valley is blocked by thick foliage.

dscf0859On the way back to the motorhome, filled with Christmas spirit (even though it’s 82 days away), I stop at a bakery and buy a snowball. Schneeballen is a long strand of pastry dough, woven into a ball and deep fried. It is then coated in a number of ways; with chocolate, sugar or spices. I opt for a cinnamon spice snowball which goes very well with a hot vanilla latte at the end of a long day.

 

 

 

40kms south is the walled-town of Dinkelsbuhl, equally as interesting as Rothenburg but with fewer tourists and without the associated price tag.

dscf0881Dominated by the 15th century St George’s Church, the town seems too small to justify the extremely tall nave which took 51 years to complete. There are 6 side alters, one of which is dedicated to St Sebastian whose clothed skeleton is interred in a glass case underneath.

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Another hidden gem is the romantic courtyard of the Hezelhof. I discover it through an open gate which then locks behind me. Luckily I am able stroll through the reception of the hotel with a quick hello to the receptionist as I escape.

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Like Rothenburg ob der Tauber, it is possible to walk a complete circuit of the town walls, studded with a variety of towers and bordered by several lakes and ponds. In a few weeks it will be the Fish Harvesting Festival featuring a market of regional products and fish specialities. I’m determined to try the local carp and so take lunch in the upmarket but inexpensive Hotel Sonne. My huge breaded carp fillet is served with a side of cucumber and potato salad and a mountain of mixed leaves. It’s delicious and relatively healthy compared to the rest of the menu.

 

 

 

We Will Remember Them – Part Deux

100 years ago, fierce battles were being fought on French soil to halt the invading German army. In the UK people are familiar with the Battle of the Somme where 420,000 British Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives. Four years ago, I visited the area with my father, who was researching our family history, and we located several graves of our ancestors who died there, as well as their names carved in the many war memorials in the region.

dscf0149However, I never realised that an equally devastating battle was being fought further south in the Marne and Meuse valleys where huge numbers of French and American soldiers lost their lives trying to stop the German advance towards Paris.

I begin my education of the region just outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois where 6,012 American soldiers are remembered in the Oise-Aisne cemetery. A little further south I find an isolated memorial to the 42nd Rainbow Division of American troops, placed at the site of the Red Cross Farm where a bloody battle took place and where 162 soldiers were killed in July 1918. It’s a shocking reminder of the many fatally injured and dead the war left behind in the area.

optimized-dscf0196Continuing my journey, I stop in the small village of Vraux to see an Aviation Museum . On first inspection it looks like just a few exhibits in someone’s garden but I soon discover that there is a vast collection of aviation objects and memorabilia hidden away in the Tardis-like outbuildings at the back of the property.

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An enthusiastic volunteer explains that just north of the village was a WWII airfield, first used by the British, then the French and finally the Americans. As well as pieces of wartime aircraft, there are photos of the men who were stationed there and stories about the lives, including reconciliation between British and German soldiers and an American airman who was reunited with his long-lost French sweetheart after 43 years. They subsequently married.

Finally, I arrive at Verdun, where 300 days and nights of fighting in 1916 resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 men. Whilst the town was badly damaged by shelling, it was in the surrounding hills that the main battle was fought. Surrounding the town were several forts and it is possible to visit some them.

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optimized-dscf0266At Fort Douaumont I learn how it was easily captured, without a shot being fired, by a small German patrol early in the Battle of Verdun but how they subsequently suffered great losses during the French attempts to recapture it. 679 German soldiers were killed when a fire broke out within the Fort and caused an explosion of the stored ammunitions. Their bodies were entombed in one of the tunnels below the Fort where they are remembered by a simple white cross.

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Close by is a huge cemetery, topped by a giant building shaped like the hilt of a sword driven into the ground. It is the Douaumont Ossary, where the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers are held. The sight of all the crosses reminds us of just how many died to ensure the freedom which we enjoy in the 21st century.

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dscf0241At Fort Vaux I learn about the last messenger pigeon which was sent out with a message requesting reinforcements and which died from poison gas shortly after delivering it. The pigeon in the cartoon series ‘Wacky Races’ and the one in the animated film ‘Valiant’ are loosely based on this story.

Although the Forts and the Memorials are the main focus of a visit to the Verdun Battlefields, sometimes it is the smaller things that remind us of the hardships of war. The remains of trenches, pockmarked ground from artillery shells, destroyed villages and isolated graves marking the discovery of long lost fighters. The town of Verdun today is a vibrant, bustling place with riverside cafes and designer boutiques but the memorials found there serve as daily reminders that 100 years ago life was not always so easy for the residents and the soldiers who defended them.

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We Will Remember Them.

Chateaux and Champagne

France is well known for its amazing chateaux and its expensive sparkling wine, and within my first week I have sampled them both.

dscf0087Chateau 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.

dscf0064The 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.

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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.

dscf0156I’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.

dscf0183The 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.

champagne-revolution-1911I 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.