Discovering that there’s more to Champagne than fizz
152kms – 8 days
Champagne…it calls to mind the finer things in life, elegance, sophistication. Walking through this world famous wine region, I realised it exhibits many of the characteristics of it’s bubbly namesake. But moving at a slower pace, at times well off the beaten track (or the Route Touristique de Champagne as it’s known), allowed me to see that it’s home to much more than grand crus and cuvées. Beyond the vineyards it’s a land of jaw dropping cathedrals, industrious villages, fascinating history, and unfathomably straight Roman roads.
Sometimes when you cross a border from one country to another you notice an instant change – you’re in a new place, things are different there. As I crossed into a new administrative department, Marne, it was as though I’d entered a new world. The villages of Cormincy and Hermonville, with buildings made of golden stone and prize worthy window boxes, were reminiscent of the picture perfect Cotswolds. And they felt just as bourgeois.
Traces of the region’s wine industry were everywhere. It didn’t seem possible for so many champagne houses to line the streets of a small village. They could be easily spotted – wrought iron signs hung over their doors illustrating the picking and pressing of grapes, and old barrels enjoying a second life as flower pots were positioned on street corners like signposts. Occasionally you just needed to follow your nose, the waft of champagne taking you straight to the cellar door!
Nestled in between the grand cru vines (think the best of the best when it comes to champagne producing grapes) of the village of Saint-Thierry is the Monastèrie des Bénédictines. It’s a world of simplicity and quietness, not too dissimilar to the small independent champagne houses I’d been walking past. And it’s home to cheerful nuns who ensured I was well fed and well rested in their stunning home. That their abbey is surrounded by vineyards owned by world famous champagne houses neither excites nor phases them. It’s just champagne, and in this neck of the woods it’s nothing particularly special.
Arriving into a city on foot is a fairly underwhelming experience. The novelty of eating a lunch that isn’t a baguette with cheese, and of parking up in a cafe to people watch and pretend you’re a regular tourist is crushed by the reality of sprawling suburbs and grotty dumping grounds. My journey into Reims, following the Canal de l’Aisne à Marne, was no different. But there was a kind of charm to Reims’ industrial dark side…or maybe those wafts of champagne had gone to my head.
I’ve become a pilgrim creature of habit – on arrival in a city my first port of call is the cathedral. Reaching the cathedral is a mini-celebration in its own right, marking the end of a stage of the Via Francigena and of a gruelling few days’ walking. They are a place to stop and reflect on how far I’ve come, to sit still and cool down, and to get my pilgrim’s passport stamped.
Before I ventured inside Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims I sat opposite its gothic facade for some time, gazing in wonder. Hundreds of figures adorn its twin towers, which soar 80 metres into the sky. You can’t help but wonder, “How did they build that?”, a question you ask yourself again when you venture inside. What hits you first is the cool air. And then you gaze up, and along the 140 odd metres of the nave, and imagine that this must be what it feels like to be swallowed by an enormous whale. And then your eye catches the stunning stained glass windows, both the traditional rose windows and those designed by Marc Chagall in the 1970s. History books could be written about the cathedral – its been rebuilt countless times after fires and war damage, it was the site of 33 coronations of French kings, and it was the location of Franco-German reconciliation after World War II. Certain man made structures have an ability to stop you in your tracks and to take your breath away. This is one of them.
A heatwave was sweeping across Europe, so a rest day was in order. And what better way to dodge the soaring temperatures than to head underground into the cellars of one of the world’s most famous champagne houses, Veuve Clicquot. Their cellars, or crayéres, which started life as chalk quarries, stretch for 24kms underneath Reims. In those tunnels I expected to be told how champagne is made, but I didn’t expect to be so engaged and inspired by the history of Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the widow (veuve means widow) turned businesswoman who was known as the “Grande Dame of Champagne”. Her strength of character and tenacity were remarkable, and her innovative spirit quite staggering. She created the first vintage champagne when others believed it couldn’t be done, invented the riddling table which continues to be used in production today, and created the first rosé champagne using a method that’s been employed by countless competitors. The next time you have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot don’t be too quick to thrown away the metal casing that holds the cork in place. On it you’ll see the one and only portrait of Barbe, a woman who did so much more than just make champagne.
Sadly my time underground came to an end, and I was forced back into the 40 degree heat. Air conditioned cafes serving ice cream and cold Orangina, cavernous churches that seemed to be immune to the heat, and the refrigerated sections of supermarkets were the only places to keep cool. When my body temperature had regulated slightly I strolled around Reims’ streets, falling for its Parisian air. Its wide boulevards are lined with grand apartment blocks that display a patchwork of shutters and wrought iron balconies, and statues and fountains take centre stage in its squares. It has some beautiful Art Deco architecture too, owing to the fact that much of the city was destroyed during World War I (much like the towns I walked through in the Somme). Such as the Bibliothéque Carnegie de Reims, a library built in 1927 with money donated by the American-Scottish businessman Andrew Carnegie to replace the city’s libraries which were destroyed during the war.
With the heatwave showing no signs of easing up, and with an itch to get moving again, waking up at dawn became the order of the day (not that it was possible to get much sleep in the heat!). Leaving the city behind, my early starts opened a window on the industrious side of life in Champagne. Drinking a glass of fizz may be a leisurely affair that’s full of glitz and razzmatazz, but the process of making it is more humble and authentic, and requires a constant hive of activity. As I walked I saw machines that looked like Transformers ploughing up and down the vines, lights twinkling in the morning light. Vans whizzed along the white chalk roads that cut through the otherwise green landscape, stopping every once in a while to check the grapes are growing as they should.
My own path through the vineyards was like a champagne walk of fame…on my right the vines of Moët & Chandon, and on my left those of Bollinger, Taittinger, Pommery and Mumm. I felt somewhat starstruck by grapes, and wasn’t sure if the heat had finally gotten to me!
I soon found myself back on the canal towpath which could only mean one thing, that I was approaching another city – Châlons-en-Champagne. The administrative heart of the region, it had quite a different feel to Reims. What it lacked in Parisian chic it made up for in medieval timber frame houses, which have sprouted up in all manner of different angles yet somehow stay standing. Their ground floors are home to boutiques and boulangeries, and innumerable artisanal chocolatiers. It made for a good place to stock up on supplies before the next phase of my walk – a Roman road with no shops and next to no villages.
Roman roads…they really are straight. Unfathomably straight. 54kms of straight. After the heat came the storm, and my days walking south in a straight line were wet and dreary. The chalk roads seemed to turn into ice, and I found myself slipping and sliding with every few steps. On either side of me there were wheat fields, recently harvested and looking bare. My brain had been trained to scan the horizon for a church, the sign of life in an otherwise uninhabited world. But the only things breaking the horizon were huge wind turbines.
The lack of features in this largely flat landscape sent me into a sort of delirious, hallucinatory state. When I passed deserted agricultural buildings I would imagine them into beautiful farmhouses that I would run as B&Bs. I talked to myself in Spanish as though I was reciting a GCSE oral exam, imagined myself en route to Rome in the film Gladiator, and played out conversations with family and friends. I was brought back to reality by the whistles of birds of prey flying over head, by red squirrels that would dart across the path, and by deer that would dance through the fields in a display that never failed to stop me in my tracks.
With no shops, bars, or hotels in this area, pilgrims are entirely reliant on the hospitality of strangers who open up their homes and provide board and lodging for the night. I stayed with two wonderful families, without whom walking this stretch of the trail wouldn’t be possible. They welcomed me like a long lost daughter, and both had a way of making me feel like I was in my own home. They understand a pilgrim’s basic needs – shelter, rest, food and water. But they provided so much more, and I am eternally grateful to them both.
As if to symbolise a light at the end of the tunnel, on my last day walking the Roman road the sun was shining. The landscape looked entirely different, or maybe I just had a different mindset now that the end was in sight. Twists and turns started to appear in the road, and church steeples were visible on the horizon. I have a long way to go before I get to Rome, but I felt some sort of small victory…I had survived the Roman road.
I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity Mind, You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site.