Today’s guest post from Adriana is a great idea for a weekend getaway from Belgium. We’re super-jealous, as France’s Champagne Region has been on our list of places to visit for ages. After reading and admiring the gorgeous photos, you’ll see why!
Since we had our first child, eight years ago, we have not had a weekend away, alone. When the opportunity arose, in September, there was no question on the destination – the Champagne Region in France.
We left the kids, in good hands, and were off to explore this part of the world I longed to see.
Staying at Doyard House, Vertus
Our adventure started at the hotel and champagne house, Doyard, in the little village of Vertus, (roughly a three hour drive from Brussels). This little hotel fulfilled my wishes at a very reasonable price. I could see why it rated “superb” on travel websites.
The hotel is clean, with spacious rooms. The included breakfast is delicious, fresh and local, and, upon arrival, guests receive complimentary champagne from the Doyard Champagne House.
If you wish to rent this particular room, ask for “La Libertine.” Large in size, the room is very comfortable. The towels are large, thick and fluffy and they even include two fluffy, oversized bathrobes.
The village of Vertus is small and quaint, with a champagne house at every corner, surrounded by vineyards, far and wide. It’s the ideal place for a romantic getaway, with little traffic and few tourists, most of them preferring the large towns and cities in the region. It is close to Épernay and Reims so you can spend the day and then retreat to the quiet village.
Vertus has only one restaurant, La Comedia, but what a treat it is. The menu is not too extensive. However, what they serve is fresh, local and delicious. Hot and cold starters, mouth watering main courses, delicious deserts, and of course lots of champagne.
Fun in the Vineyards
We chose September because we were hoping to see the wine harvest. By chance, we got there, just as the harvest started. The tradition of manual picking remains in Champagne and the requirement for whole, undamaged grapes is the same today as it was in the 18th Century. In total, at the peak of the harvest, around 120,000 seasonal workers will handpick grapes from Champagne’s 34,000 hectares of grape vines.
On our second day, I woke up early in the morning to take photos and maybe even find some people in the process of picking grapes. The vineyards stretch far and wide. The weather was great; the air was crisp and fresh; and it was the perfect temperature. We drove up in the hills and I saw a lot of people working. I expected them to be grumpy and into their task but, instead, the people were jovial and extremely nice. A group asked me to join them and we chatted a bit. I could not believe how much work they had to do and they were still smiling and cracking jokes.
One gentleman was explaining the perfect posture for picking grapes so you don’t get back pain. Another group called me to take their picture. The ladies were arranging their hair to look their best. I expected something completely different than a group of nice, warm people who, even though they worked hard, they still had friendly smiles on their faces.
During our stay in Champagne, we managed to visit four different champagne houses and taste many more champagnes on Avenue du Champagne in Épernay. The first one was our host, Champagne Doyard.
Doyard Champagne House
After the First World War, Maurice Doyard brought back his vineyards from ruin, in Vertus. They have one premier cru vineyard and four grand cru vineyards all located within the prestigious zones of Vertus, Oger le Mesnil, Oger, Avize, and Cramant/Ay. Today Yannick Doyard oversees his family’s vineyard, working hard to maintain their reputation through the highest quality.
The champagne tour is led by the son of the owner and it’s very informative. We visited part of the vineyard, the caves, and learned about the champagne making process.
During our stay at Doyard, we tasted different champagnes and bought one, unique in the entire region. Called “La Libertine,” the uniqueness comes from the added 60g of sugar, making it a sweet champagne. The bottle is gorgeous, with a textured surface and the cork tied with rope and a seal. The Libertine is the result of combining three to five different vintages and cellaring for ten years.
Taittinger Champagne House
The story goes that Thibauld IV of Champagne returned from the Crusade bringing two things: the beautiful roses, planted at the entrance to the Taittinger Champagne House, and Chardonnay grapes.
The cave tour is impressive and not busy, with 15-20 people. Taittinger sits on four kilometers of underground tunnels, which house around three million bottles of champagne.
At the end of the tour, we enjoyed a delicious glass of champagne and managed to buy a much sought after bottle, from the year 2004, to drink next year at our wedding anniversary.
Buying the champagne the Taittinger shop, is cheaper than the touristy shops around the Épernay and Reims area.
Mercier Champagne House
On the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay we discovered the beautiful cellars of the Mercier Champagne House, founded in 1858, by Eugène Mercier. The lobby is dominated by the 160.000L champagne barrel exhibited in the 1889 World’s Fair.
The tour starts with a film presenting the early development of the Mercier champagne. Then, a lift takes you down 30 meters into the cellars. The lift is slow because on the way down you see different champagne related scenes, through the back window. The tour of the cellars begins on a small train. Inside there are interesting sculptures carved with gorgeous decorations in chalk.
After the visit, we returned to the surface and tasted some champagne. Out of all the cave tours, the Mercier House tour was the most enjoyable for us. Right outside the champagne house there is a large Pinot Noir vineyard. You are allowed to walk through the vines, take pictures and even have a taste.
Moët & Chandon Champagne House
Although we did not get to see the caves at Moët & Chandon, a stroll in their boutique and tasting some champagne was good enough for us. A visit to the caves is a must, as their cellars are the most extensive in the Champagne Region, with 28 kilometers of underground tunnels. Reserve your tickets in advance, so you don’t miss out like we did.
The Caves Pommery were the last on our champagne tour. The estate is impressive as is the interior of the house. The waiting area is massive and has a bar area where you can buy champagne glasses. On the opposite side, is the boutique, where you can purchase bottles from the entire collection of the Pommery House.
Pommery is a place for art too, showcasing some very interesting pieces: the large upside down elephant in the waiting area, the giant ball of paper inside the caves designed to absorb moisture, the moving wellies representing the eagerness of the cellar workers to go to work. You can also see large sculptures in the chalk walls around the caves.
One highlight was the dungeon housing their oldest and most precious bottles, the oldest dating from 1874. As with the other tours, at the end we tasted a glass of Pommery champagne.
Avenue du Champagne, Épernay
Another enjoyable thing to do in Champagne is to walk up and down the Avenue du Champagne, in Épernay. It is literally a champagne street with champagne houses on both sides. It’s an adult’s playground.
You can try them all, but pace yourself. Most houses will offer three glasses of champagne for a very low price, so it’s easy to get tipsy. (We should know). One thing to be aware of is you cannot find food or water being sold anywhere on the street, so be prepared.
Notre-Dame de Reims
We ended our wonderful weekend getaway in Champagne Region with a visit to Notre-Dame de Reims, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the coronation place of the kings of France.
The Cathedral is one of Europe’s most important Gothic structures. In Europe, only Chartres Cathedral, has more sculpted figures. Notre-Dame de Reims is one of the most impressive cathedrals and works of art I have ever seen. The interior is modest but extremely impressive with its tall columns and gorgeous stained glass.
Walking around, we noticed the baptismal area of Clovis, the first king of the Franks, which almost brought tears to my husband’s eyes. He is a big history buff. While in Champagne, the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims is definitely not to be overlooked.
I feel so fortunate to have seen the Champagne Region in September. For me, this is the best time to visit. The weather is still warm and you get to see and make the connection between the labor, heart and soul, put into the making the best bubblies in the world. Any other time of the year would just not be the same.
For more details on Adriana’s visit to Champagne, check out her AFAR Wanderlist – A Weekend for 2 in Champagne.
No car? No problem. Read about our Expat Club visit to Champagne from Brussels. A great way to meet new people and visit Champagne without worrying about who is the designated driver!
Looking for more of our favourite hotels in Belgium and beyond? Visit our Hotel Reviews page to find out where we’ve been sleeping. For more great restaurants around the world, check out our Restaurant Review page.