Though we both love a drop of quality champagne, visiting the area that it comes from wasn’t high on our list of places to visit when we started our wohnwagen journey around Europe. It was only when we realised that ‘completing the loop’ by heading back to Graepel via France and western Germany was the best option that we put it on the agenda – and even then it was only an add-on after our must-do stop in Burgundy. I’m glad to have visited it, and can see that the serious enthusiast with cash to burn could certainly get a lot out of staying there, but for a casual tourist I would only recommend it if you’re in the area and have time to kill.
We stayed in the heart of the wine-producing region, Epernay, in the comfortable and relaxed campsite on the edge of town. The countryside immediately surrounding the town is covered with vines, but after Burgundy it was surprising how little of the larger area around it is devoted to wine. The town is prosperous and some parts, such as the prestigious Avenue de Champagne where a number of grand wine houses are headquartered, reek of wealth. But it was interesting to drive around and see that just a kilometre or two away are rather depressing tenement-style apartment buildings, and overall Epernay itself left me with the impression it is a town of mixed prosperity.
Of course we did indulge in some wine-related tourism, primarily by doing a cellar tour of one of the larger houses, Mercier. This modern and high-tech facility has always been at the cutting edge of technology (as the commentary made clear repeatedly during the one hour tour), and it was entertaining to hear the stories of the company’s past while driving on a laser-guided train through several kilometres of underground cellars dug into the chalk beneath the Avenue de Champagne. It culminated with a tasting of several of their wines, but they didn’t impress us much and we certainly wouldn’t spend any of our hard-earned on buying a bottle. Mercier is one of the larger Champagne houses and now is owned by the drinks conglomerate LVMH; a case of quality marketing triumphing over quality product? That could be the story of Champagne in general, for despite discovering a couple of excellent local wines we also found a few duds, including some labels that have a high reputation and command equally high prices. Like Burgundy and Bordeaux, Champagne has treasures to be found but also dogs to be avoided, and without a trusty guide and/or oodles of time and money you’ll never know which is which.
In any case, our fondest memories of Champagne have nothing to do with wine. Our visit coincided with what was supposed to be one of the most spectacular meteor showers for many years, and on two nights we spent time on a blanket under the stars staring up at the sky in the hope of seeing some shooting stars (we did!). Epernay was where we tried the famous “Royale with cheese” at McDonalds (inspired by the movie Pulp Fiction, if you didn’t know) while using their free wifi. We convinced ourselves that it was the wifi that brought us back several times, honest! Epernay was where we had several torrid tournaments of Pass The Pigs, a simple yet highly addictive travel game that Kristen won with infuriating regularity. And it was where Kristen finally started to document (via photos) some of the roundabouts of France, which reached a creative highpoint in Epernay for some reason (eg. the one styled like an Olympic kayaking course, or the one with snooker balls and cues elegantly on display).
Epernay was a welcome rest point on our long journey back to northern Germany, but it was not the highlight I expected. Nevertheless we dragged our stay here to three nights as we were becoming increasingly reluctant to face the facts: our time in the wohnwagen was fast coming to an end…