Around Epernay - Shopping and Cellar Tours

Trip Start May 18, 2009
Trip End Jul 04, 2009

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Flag of France  , Champagne-Ardenne,
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

After another healthy breakfast (cereal, croissants, bread, cheese and ham, orange juice, tea, cofee), we walked down into Epernay town centre and found the covered market (Marche Couvert) to buy some supplies for a picnic lunch.  The market was only about 2/3 occupied - apparently the rest of the stalls inside as well as some outside are full on Saturday morning.  There was a good selection of lovely fresh produce and we bought some terrine, chorizo, and fruit and vegetables.  We had seen the usual sight of people wandering along the street with a baguette clutched under their arm, so kept walking until we found the boulangerie and bought a "demi gross" - half a large-diameter baguette.  We also passed a wine merchant so bought a bottle of vin du pays for only 3 euros.

We took our goodies back to Parva Domus and decided to have lunch sitting on the back terrace.  It had been a sunny morning but clouding over, and it looked quite threatening while we ate but stayed dry.  We thoroughly enjoyed the terrine with the fresh bread, and even the cheap vin du pays was nice.  We had poured it into our Tupperware (plastic) coffee mugs but Monsieur Rimaire offerred to bring out two glasses, which was much more appropriate.  We finished off with some lovely fresh fruit.  After our busy morning and big lunch, an afternoon snooze was next on the agenda.  We set an alarm to give enough time for some more champagne visits though.

We walked the opposite way on the Avenue de Champagne (away from town) to visit Mercier, which had been recommended by Mr Rimaire.  We arrived in time to join an English-speaking tour, starting with the standard video presentation.  This one was a little more interesting than usual, because it focussed more on the history of Mercier itself rather than champagne production.  It talked about the huge vat in the foyer of the tasting area, which had been constructed by Mr Mercier and towed to Paris for the International Exhibition of 1889; unfortunately he only got second prize, because someone called Eiffel had come up with the idea of a big tower!  Mercier sounds like quite an entrepreneur, because he also had a hot-air balloon in which he took people up for champagne tastings.

We then entered lifts to go down to the cellars.  We soon discovered that the lifts had glass backs, and we descended past illuminated scenes of wine growing and the construction of the cellars.  It was also the first time we had been aware of the depth to which we were descending.

The cellar tour itself was a bit disappointing, since we boarded a little laser-guided train which took us on the tour while our guide gave a presentation.  As a result, it missed out on the spontaneity of other tours, where you could ask questions as you went along.  We were also a little disappointed to discover that Mercier are part of the LVMH empire (Louis Vuitton, Moet et Chandon, and Hennessy).  We went back up in the lifts for our tasting and exit through the shop.  We didn't like the Mercier as much as yesterday's Moet et Chandon but that could have been a result of the wine at lunchtime.

As we left Mercier, we took the opportunity to look at the vines, which were right next to the car park.  This was the first time we had been able to get close to the vines.  We were interested to see how much lower the trellises were than we were used to, especially in those places elsewhere where mechanical harvesting is used.  This was very much set up for manual harvesting of the champagne grapes.  There were tiny bunches of grapes just starting to grow - still a long way to go before their harvest in September.

From Mercier, we continued around the corner to Castellane, which had a big tower above the main buildings.  We asked about an English-language tour but were told it was not possible - the last tour for the day would be leaving soon and was in French.  At that point a young man came forward and explained that he was the guide for that tour and that he would be happy to intersperse a brief English explanation as he gave the French tour.  Of course, we were happy to agree.

We ended up being very pleased to have gone to Castellane.  They are a much smaller producer, with 80% of their production being sold in France, 15% in Belgium, and only 5% in other markets.  The tour was much more "hands on" than the others, as we walked around the cellars and factory and saw them in operation.  We had no problem understanding the explanation from the English summary plus our small understanding of French.  Then another group of English-speaking people joined our tour, so it became an English and French tour combined, sometimes with the English explanation first and sometimes the French.  The guide did an excellent job of switching languages.

As usual the tour ended with a visiti to the tasting room and shop.  We enjoyed the champagne and also were impressed by the advertising posters that used the X from their label in many clever ways.  This time we bought something as well, a foldable ice bucket.

We had heard from the tourist bureau about a puppet play on in the old theatre in town, so returned to Parva Domus to drop off our things and head into town at another of Mr Rimaire's recommended restaurants, La Coquille, a seafood restaurant.  Madame Rimaire rang the restaurant as we walked down to explain that we had a time limit, but it turned out we had plenty of time.  Angela had a Coquilles St Jacques, with lovely plump scallops and a healthy dose of garlic, while Julian had grilled bass, which also came with a scallop and prawn.  We decided to have beer with our meal, partly to keep the cost down, but this caused some surprise to our waitress ("pas du vin?").  We decided we had time (and room) for a dessert, so both chose a creme brulee, which was superb.  We had asked aboout a dish called "floating island", which an Englishman at the next table explained was a soft meringue in custard with caramel.  We were pleasantly surprised when the waitress brought out a small serve for us to sample - but pleased we had chosen the creme brulee since the floating island was too sweet for us.

We wandered around the corner to the theatre with a few minutes to spare before the 8:30 start.  We had expected to pay 3 euros per ticket, but were told that tonight was free; we think it might have been a dress rehersal.  We had time to admire the lovely old theatre, which looked as though had been well restored - for example, the seats were near new.  We were surprised to see the number of people in the theatre with cameras, and even a video camcorder - definitely allowed in performances in Australia!

It was a strange show, with three actors plus a piano accordian accompanist.  Some of the action was performed by small paper puppets, but mostly it was by the actors carrying flat "costumes".  The story had something to do with vampires and a young girl's search for her family, who may or may not have been vampires; and the whole thing might have been a dream anyway!  We gathered this much from a brief note in the program - the show itself was spoken in Polish or Czech, with French surtitles.  At one point, the actors moved two of the flats from the sides of the stage into the centre, with the result that the projected surtitles were now displayed illegibly on the flat rather than on the screen at the back of the stage.  As a result, even the French speakers would have had trouble following the plot for several minutes!

The other advantage of the show (apart from it being free) was that it was only an hour long, so we were able to walk back up the hill for a reasonably early night.
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