Reims • France | Pop-Fizz-Clink aka The Champagne Tour

reims trenches-40Now, I have to admit that we are not really Valentine’s Day people. There are no cards exchanged, no chocolates or flowers gifted, and definitely no fancy overpriced dinner reservations. It’s usually like any other day around here. Last year though we changed our minds – we decided to head on down to Reims (pronounced “Rance” – don’t ask me why) to get our bubbly on. You see, Reims is the capital of the Champagne region and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a well-known champagne house. After a quick search, we settled on two houses: Martel, and Mumm.

If you haven’t done a champagne tour before, then here’s the deal. If you are planning to visit during the heavier tourist season (May through August), you will typically want to reserve a spot ahead of time, especially if you are planning to visit one of the well-known houses like Moet & Chandon. Although it depends on the house, you’ll pay somewhere between 9 and 20+ euro for a visit down to the caves and a champagne tasting. The number of tastings varies and some houses will give you the option to “upgrade” your tasting to include additional champagnes or step-up the swank level and go for the really good stuff.

The first stop of the day was G.H. Martel & Co.reims trenches-1G.H. Martel 17 Rue des Créneaux, Reims  email: boutique@champagnemartel.com

11am tour. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by this champagne house. This one was definitely the best bang for the buck: for only 9 euro we got the cave tour as well as three champagne tastings. The best kind of breakfast is a champagne breakfast!reims trenches-2 reims trenches-3 reims trenches-6 reims trenches-7 reims trenches-8

Before heading on to our next stop, we made a detour to the Reims Cathedral.

reims trenches-21The Cathedral of Reims holds an important spot in French history – this church held the coronation of at least 25 French kings and queens. You wouldn’t know it now, but Reims was almost completely destroyed during World War I, including this cathedral. It’s a beautiful church. The best part for me were the gorgeous Marc Chagall stained glass windows.reims trenches-10reims trenches-11 reims trenches-26

After the Cathedral, we headed on to our final champagne stop: Mumm!

reims trenches-30G.H. Mumm & Co. 34 rue du Champs de Mars, Reims email: guides@mumm.com

When I was in Paris with my mom and sister a few years back this was my favorite of the houses we visited on our champagne tour. This is one of the classic houses – a worldwide name – and a reservation is definitely recommended here. This one is pricier than Martel (I believe it came in around 20 euro) and you only get one tasting. If you’re looking for the classic champagne tour/tasting that isn’t super corporate (yet) – this is your spot. reims trenches-33 reims trenches-37

Honest thoughts? I think champagne tours are a bit overrated. The tours are pretty standard across all champagne houses, so if you’ve done one you’ve pretty much done them all. They can also be quite pricey. For the top-name champagne houses (Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot) – you’ll likely pay upwards of 20 euro for a single tasting of their standard champagne. Me? Having now done a few of these, I’d rather take that money I’d spend for a couple of tours and glasses of champagne and buy myself a WHOLE bottle of the good stuff.

After a day out exploring, we settled into our airbnb with a bottle of wine we picked up along the way. Or attempted to at least. Without any luck locating a wine opener, we decided to take matters into our own hands. Or shoe in this case:reims trenches-48 reims trenches-47 reims trenches-45 reims trenches-49We did successfully get it open, but we’ll need a bit more practice to get this trick perfected. And wouldn’t you know it – later that evening we finally located the wine opener.

 

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Mont-Saint-Michel • France | The “Wonder of the West”

Mon-Saint-MichelWe lucked out with the weather. The forecasted gloom would have certainly added a bit of atmosphere on our visit to this medieval city, but it was nice to be able to leave the umbrellas behind and turn our faces up to the sun. In the bay where Normandy and Brittany merge, you can find the tiny island of Mont-Saint-Michel (population of 30). In the early 8th century, Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, claimed that he was visited by the Archangel Michael who told him to build a church on the rock island. Aubert dismissed the vision, until Michael, who appeared to him two more times, drove his finger into Aubert’s skull and ordered him to build. And build he did. The Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, which was built between the 11th and 16th century, is the crown jewel of this island. It has inspired millions of pilgrims throughout the ages, and when you get your first glance of the abbey looming in the distance it is easy to why.

Long ago, the pilgrims would have braved the quicksand and infamous tides to pray at the abbey. Present day pilgrims can traverse the causeway connecting the island to the mainland. They recently built a new visitor parking lot a mile and a half inland, and they have shuttles going between the parking lot and the Mont. If you’re up to it though, I’d recommend you do as we did and leg it out to the island to really get the full experience.

Mont-Saint-MichelOnce on Mont-Saint-Michel, wander through the cobble-stoned streets and alleyways. There is a decidedly tourist feel to this island, but given it’s history, it’s purpose has always been to cater to the pilgrims that traveled so far. Embrace it. Once you’ve had your fill of the town, head up to the abbey, grab one of the brochures and do a self-guided tour (or join one of the guided tours instead if you prefer). Walking through the grounds you can almost imagine how peaceful and serene a life out here could have been back in the day. After spending some time taking in the views of the bay from the abbey terraces, we left Mont-Saint-Michel behind and make it back to the car just in time – the rain had finally arrived.

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Rouen ⋅ France

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Rouen was our introduction to Normandy – the first of many stops on that trip – and we were bowled over by this charming town with its half-timbered homes and beautiful churches and cathedrals. Art fans kind can find the largest collection of impressionist art outside Paris at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Claimed by some to be the birthplace of impressionism, Rouen was a favorite of painters such as Gaugin, Pissarro, and especially Monet, whose series of 30+ painting of Rouen’s cathedral is well-known and praised. For those looking for some historical importance, Rouen has got you covered. Joan of Arc was only 13 when she received her first visions of the saints who told her to drive the English out of France. She was victorious in many battles until finally captured at the age of 19. She was brought to Rouen to stand trial and was subsequently burned at the stake.

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The Cathedral of Monet’s paintings is the famous for its butter tower (Tour de Beurre) which was financed by the sale of indulgences to consume butter during Lent.

Rouen Cathedral

The beauty of this cathedral continues to inspire today – we spent a few minutes chatting with and watching an artist paint the cathedral. Wish I had this hanging in my living room.

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The Normandy region is well-known for their half-timbered houses – buildings with exposed wood framing – a style which dates back to the Middle Ages. I personally could not get enough of them. I mean, come on. It feels like my fairy tale stories come to life.

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I promise that we did actually take photos of non-timbered things. The Church of St. Ouen may have been my favorite of Rouen’s four churches we visited. They started building the church in 1318, but the building was halted by the Hundred Year War during which it suffered significant damage. The church was eventually finished in the 15th century, with further additions in the 19th century. It had a small little park dusted with pink petals – perfectly coordinating with my ballet shoes.

normandy-23 normandy-24 normandy-27 normandy-29 normandy-31And among all the churches in Rouen, one of these things is not like the others. The Church of St. Joan of Arc is vastly different from the other churches in this city. Built in 1979, this modern church stands in the center of the ancient market square – right next to the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, which is simply and unceremoniously marked with a plain cross. The structure of the church is meant to evoke the flames that brought Joan of Arc’s life to an early end.

normandy-37 normandy-38 normandy-39My parents are coming out to visit this coming May and a trip to Normandy is on the books. As this is a city which should be experienced by anyone visiting the Normandy region, you can bet that a stop in Rouen in on the itinerary.

Normandy • France | The Route du Cidre

Route du CidreFrance is famous for its wine. It has long been a standard against which other wines are compared (I highly recommend watching Bottle Shock if you haven’t already seen it). So when we began planning our trip to the Normandy region, I was surprised to see that the French in the Normandy region prefer to cheers with a glass of cider instead of wine.

I like to consider myself a bit of a cider connoisseur. While most college-aged kids were developing a sophisticated palate for Bud Light and those other award-winning beers that poor college kids and frat boys would buy, I was instead exploring the world of cider.

A little more research and I discovered that there is actually a Cider Route (Route du Cidre) in the Normandy region, which is a 40km circular route through the Pays d’Auge countryside. Similar to wine tasting, you can stop at the producers to taste their various ciders, pommeau, or calvados. And, if you want to turn it into an educational experience and learn a little about the cider, pommeau, or calvados making process, some of the producers offer tours although the English tour options are limited.

normandy-49Despite a very packed Normandy itinerary, we were able to squeeze in stops at three producers: Pierre Huet, Domaine Dupont, and Manoir de Grandouet.

First stop was Pierre Huet.normandy-50 normandy-51Pierre Huet was offering a tour in English when we arrived, so we decided to join in. While it’s always interesting to hear about the history of the companies, I think Jared and I have both come to the conclusion that one wine/champagne/cider tour is much the same as any other. If you haven’t done one, then definitely have at it. Jared and I were not familiar with pommeau or calvados so it was great to actually hear how you go from an apple to apple brandy. After our brief tour, we headed back to the main building for the big finale: the tastings. normandy-53As part of our tour fee, you get to taste quite a few of their offerings. First up were the ciders, and as you see above there are three types of ciders that they produce . We both got a little taster of both the brut apple cider and the demi-sec pear cider. I favored the pear cider (blame it on the sweet tooth) while Jared preferred the brut (less sweet). But both were quite tasty.  normandy-54Next up was pommeau. Pommeau is essentially a mix of calvados and pure apple juice, and is typically drank as an aperitif. It was, well, I think my tiny taster is all I think I’ll ever feel the need to drink.

And last, we got to try two vintages of calvados (apple brandy) – one was aged 8 years and one was aged 15 years.  Much like the pommeau, I am not sure I’d be able to sip this without grimacing. However, I have seen quite a few tasty cocktails where calvados is the star like these, which have me wishing we’d picked up a bottle or two. Alas, we grabbed a few bottles of cider and then moved on to the next place: Domaine Dupont.normandy-59Domaine Dupont is on some truly beautiful grounds (as the entry above surely shows). Through the windows of the tasting room you can see the seemingly endless rows of apple trees. True artisan cider. And so of course, I so desperately wanted to love their cider. Ultimately Jared and I agreed that the earthiness of the ciders was just a bit too much for us. I do appreciate that they are trying to do something a little different, but I don’t like funk with my cider (just my lambics and guezes thank you very much). They do have quite the impressive selection of calvados though.normandy-57It was late in the afternoon, but we made one final stop at Manoir de Grandouet. This one may have been my favorite (my 12 bottles purchased being no indication…). We pulled off the road towards some nondescript buildings.normandy-61 normandy-60Lucky for us that another person was just loading up their cider haul, otherwise we may have assumed that it was closed it was so quiet and peaceful. The woman running the tastings was incredibly helpful and was willing to give us as many tasters as we wanted. Ultimately, we ended up trying 5 different ciders here – all solid – and actually had a tough time figuring out which ones to buy because we liked them all so much. Lucky for us, cider tasting is a much cheaper affair compared to wine tasting: the typical 75ml cider costs just about EUR 3.normandy-63You know what else the region is well-known for? Camembert. If you have a little more time and want do a real gastronomy tour of the Pays d’Auge region plan to make a stop in Camembert to see how this cheese is made. While you’re there, grab a few goodies to pair with your new ciders.

TRAVEL: Normandy, France – Remembering D-Day 70 Years Later

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world….” — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

 On June 6, 1944, after more than a year of planning and intricate deceptions, the British, Canadian, and American Allied force launched an invasion of Normandy with a single unified goal: defeat Nazi Germany.  About 156,000 troops were involved in the aerial and seaborne landings that day – 61,715 British, 21,400 Canadian, and 73,000 American troops.  It would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war, but this is the invasion whose victory would turn the tides of the war.  It was the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Nazis – a defeat from which they would never be able to recover.

We rose early and headed out to the Longues-sur-Mer Gun Batteries.  It was gray and drizzling out, which somehow seemed the perfect setting for the somber day ahead.  Most of the German defenses were torn down shortly after the war, long before anyone thought about the potential for those seeking to see a piece of history.  These survived intact.

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TRAVEL: Strasbourg, France and the Alsatian tour

We are still getting used to our new holidays out here.  While all the U.S. was grilling burgers and raising chugging beers in honor of the men and women who have fought for our country, Jared and I were toiling away at work.  But that’s alright – Thursday was Ascension Day which meant a four-day weekend for us.  So we packed up and drove south, landing in the Alsace region of France.  The Alsace region is a little bit french, a little bit German and 100% charming.  This little region has a long history of being conquered and traded back and forth between France and Germany – some folks may have seen their nationality change 5 or 6 times during their lifetime.  Everyone wanted to claim this land for their own and I can understand why.

The first stop on our little tour was the town of Strasbourg.  Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region and also the official seat of the European Parliament.  The main site in Strasbourg (at least according to us) is the beautiful Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.   As one of the tallest churches in the world, it towers over this small town and is an absolute must-see.  Most of the stained glass windows date back to the 14th century, and some as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries.

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