It’s best known for the abundance of vineyards that dot the countryside at every turn. But there’s also another side to the Champagne region: its historic towns, its quiet farmland and its bustling lakeside resorts.
I had such a fantastic, chilled out week in Haute Marne (a département that’s part of the Champagne region) just chatting and chomping cheese with my best friend from high school. She’s just moved to the area after meeting a handsome farmer on her year abroad! I thought it might be the perfect time to visit — just before real life kicks off. And boy, is it about to kick off for both of us! She’s about to start teaching lycée (senior school) students, and I’m moving to Edinburgh next month. I’m so glad I decided to take the short plane ride across the Channel to see her. These are the times we’ll remember: being young and carefree, unaffected by employment and responsibility, just enjoying the moment.
So if you’re planning a trip to the Champagne region, or are just passing through en route to somewhere sunnier, here’s a few pretty places and quaint cities that are ideal for stop-off visits.
This medieval city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 — and you can see why! From its quaint, timbered townhouses to the impressive Tour César (see featured photo) Provins is an ideal place just to stroll and soak in the atmosphere. Having parked the car next to the visitor centre at Porte Saint-Jean, we followed the city walls and winding lanes towards the Place du Châtel. Surrounded by twee buildings, the square boasts a cluster of restaurants and ice cream joints like Mammy Gâteaux, where we enjoyed flavours like salted caramel and pistachio… Yum. From there, head south towards the Tour César, the impressive 12th century prison and fortification which was occupied by the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Views from the summit are spectacular — far across the fertile countryside — and the interesting audiovisual projections make the historic building a must-see if you’re passing through this area. Tickets cost €4.30 (adult) and €2.80 (child).
Best known for its links to French president Charles de Gaulle, this pretty village is an ideal place to get your dose of Gallic culture. Park opposite de Gaulle’s sprawling, countryside manor and take a wander through the quiet streets of Colombey. We stopped at Le Comptoir de Martine (above) for a cold drink, although the shop/café also stocks a sweet selection of ‘shabby chic’ homeware. Along with the final resting place of the family, the village also has a large visitor centre for those who wish to learn more about de Gaulle and his legacy. During the summer, the mémorial stages an incredible sound and light show that’s projected onto the huge Croix de Lorraine (the symbol of de Gaulle’s Free French). Entry to the whole de Gaulle memorial (including museum, Croix and estate) costs €16.50/adult and €50/family. To attend only the ‘Spectacle son et lumière‘, (June to August) a ticket costs €5 (or free if you already have a full memorial billet).
Lac du Der, Marne
A cheap-and-cheerful holiday choice for many French families, the Lac has a variety of activities to keep kids entertained. However, it’s also a beautiful spot to wander and cycle around. We parked at the bustling village of Giffaumont-Champaubert, where there is a visitor centre, casino and an alley of eateries. From this southern point of the lake, we headed east past the centre sportif, across a flat bridge (dodging cyclists as we went) and towards the Église de Champaubert (see image). This church is the last piece of evidence that three villages ever existed below the lake’s waters: in 1974, these townships were evacuated and flooded so that the River Marne could overflow, preventing the Seine from flooding further downstream in Paris. The church was the only building that was saved, and — occupying a pretty imposing vantage point across the lake itself — it’s a striking reminder of the lengths us humans go to to control nature.
The stunning timbered town of Troyes sits on the Seine river, the same one that winds downstream into the French capital. My friend spent 7 months here for her year abroad, living slap bang in the centre of town — and what a beautiful town it is. We spent a hot afternoon wandering down the alleys, stumbling upon quiet courtyards and intricate cathedrals. You could literally spend hours strolling around here; we only stopped for a quick refreshment in one of the square’s bars.