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FOLLOW THE CHAMPAGNE TRAIL

Tasting at Chateau of Bligny, which also displays champagne-bottling equipmentFor a sparkling short break, follow Reg Butler as he takes a trip to the department of France called Aube en Champagne. 

That's the region south of Reims and Epernay, or south-east of Paris, which bottles over a quarter of the French output of bubbly.

I
f your dream of a French short break is to link up the maximum number of vineyards, the locals make it easy by charting a Champagne Route. Just follow the green and white signs, and you can taste your way around the cellars. 

The Aube region has been making a special pitch for UK visitors, who now represent 50% of non-French tourists. Last year, 100,000 Brits arrived - either on short breaks, or as a stopover en route to the Med.

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there:

By Eurostar to Paris, transfer to Gare du Nord, and there's an hourly direct train to Troyes.

Try flying to Paris Charles de Gaulle by BMI, and renting a car at the airport.

More information:and brochures 

Aube en Champagne Tourist Board - 34 Quai Dampierre, 10000 Troyes. Tel: 0033-3-25-42-50-00.  

French Tourist Office, Lincoln House
300 High Holborn
WC1V 7JH
LONDON . Tel: 09068-244-123 (calls cost 60p a minute)

Travelsphere escorted holidays

 

The River Aube itself is a tributary of the Seine, running roughly parallel with a large wooded area called Forest of Orient sandwiched in between. 

The regional capital is Troyes (pronounced 'trois', like French for 'three'). That's the best starting point or base for exploring the Aube Champagne country.

Troyes has grown since Roman times, protected by city walls and a sharp curve of the Seine. The curious result is a town plan shaped like a champagne cork. 

The city grew rich from medieval trade fairs, some lasting for two months. They specialised in woollen cloth from Flanders and silks and spices from Italy. 

For a camera-happy tourist, Troyes ranks nearly top in France for streets of half-timbered buildings of oak beams and cob. Five hundred wealthy merchant houses were built in the decade following a fire in 1524 which destroyed most of the city. 

All these affluent buildings have been well preserved and restored, and the cobbled pedestrianised streets have kept their historic style. Tourist leaflets map out strolls around the old centre. 

Troyes stayed prosperous through textile trading, and switched to stocking manufacture in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even today, the town makes a third of all French woolly socks.

But Troyes is now much deeper into retail business, with mammoth clothing discount centres. Two million people a year flock to 170 cut-price designer outlets which offer big discounts on high street prices. Sales during January and six weeks in June-July can save up to 70% off clothes and soft furnishings. 

What else to do in Troyes besides strolling around, going shopping and drinking champagne? On the culture-vulture front there's a Museum of Modern Art, housed in the former bishop's palace alongside the cathedral.

A display in the Museum of Tools But I much preferred a Museum of Tools, claimed as the world's finest collection of handmade tools from the 18th and 19th century. The exhibits are displayed around two floors of a magnificent town mansion built in 1556 by a rich merchant. The tools are grouped into crafts like metal working, wood, stone and leather. Don't miss this one!

Meanwhile the 136-mile Aube Champagne Route awaits. Very tempting brochures are available from the tourist office, including one sub-titled "The Aube and its hidden treasures."

Another called "Escapades 2007" offers choice of two-night half-board packages priced around 90 per person in a double room, to include a gastronomic and a regional dinner. Several of the hotels also include a free bottle of champagne, a visit to a cellar and wine tasting. 

The majority of wine growers are "harvest-producers" who harvest, make and sell their own champagne. Their ancient villages are charming, with narrow through roads which are clogged with grape-laden tractors during the September harvest.

Cellar tours and tastings are mostly by appointment, usually free or with a modest charge of around 2. 

Typical was the 18th-century Chateau of Bligny which included a "clos" - a walled vineyard - within the castle park.

On a larger scale was a visit to the Drappier company which makes 12 types of champagne, exporting a million bottles a year. The vaulted cellars were built by the Cistercian monks of neighbouring Clairvaux Abbey, founded by St. Bernard in 1115. 

The village of Essoyes is another worthwhile stop. The Impressionist painter Renoir married his favourite nude model who was born here. The artist liked the village and its countryside so much that he bought a house as a summer retreat. 

Here was the atmosphere, scenery, colours and light that inspired his best work. He also enjoyed the company of the local wine-growers. His garden studio is open, entry 2 euros. Renoir and his wife are buried in the local cemetery, and his great-granddaughter still lives in the family house.

A leaflet maps four waymarked circuits which follow in Renoir's footsteps. You can see nature through the artist's eyes, and spot some of his painting locations. The routes vary from 3 to 14 kilometres. 
In Renoir's studio
Colourful hotels and restaurants are located in the Forest of Orient which covers 70,000 acres and includes three man-made lakes designed to regulate the flow of the River Seine. 

One lake is kept for wildlife and bird-watchers. Another is dedicated to sailing and windsurfing, while the third features motorised water sports which are forbidden on the other two. Throughout this forested area there is more half-timbering, including spectacular churches.

Where else to go in France

ANNECY - French coach touring by TGV train

BRITTANY COAST - St Malo and the Emerald Coast

BURGUNDY - Go cruising by luxury barge

LOIRE VALLEY - The Garden of France

MENTON - where lemon trees bloom year-round

NICE - exploring the Riviera

PARIS - Open season for loving

PARIS - See it dressed up for Christmas


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Michelin Green Guide: Alsace Lorraine Champagne - In its classic pocket format, this is a prime choice for touring the region, and understanding its history.

AA Road Map Champagne-Ardennes - Covers the region in a single sheet map.

Destination Champagne - The Individual Traveller's Guide to Champagne, the Region and Its Wines. by Philippe Boucheron

Champagne for Dummies by Ed McCarthy - a good-humoured guide to the product in all its authentic variations, with a global assessment of other sparkling wines.


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