The bubbly stuff is the reason most people visit Champagne, drawn to the vineyards and cellars of the region’s capital, the cathedral city of Reims. Some of the most extravagant champagne houses are here, the caves beneath them notable for their vaulted ceilings and kilometres of bottles. Épernay, a smaller town set in the scenic heart of the region, is dominated by an avenue of champagne maisons, where visitors can float from one to another like the bubbles they’re drinking.
The cultivation of vines here was already well established in Roman times, when Reims was the capital of the Roman province of Belgae (Belgium), and by the seventeenth century still wines from the region had gained a considerable reputation. Contrary to popular myth, however, it was not Dom Pérignon, cellar master of the Abbaye de Hautvillers near Épernay, who “invented” champagne. He was probably responsible for the innovation of mixing grapes from different vineyards, but the wine’s well-known tendency to re-ferment within the bottle was not controllable until eighteenth-century glass-moulding techniques produced vessels strong enough to contain the natural effervescence.
The region’s other major attraction is Troyes, some way to the southwest, a town of cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and cut-price shopping. Further south still, the small, far-flung towns of Chaumont and Langres also merit a stop.
Many people miss out the Ardennes in the far north on the Belgian border, which is a mistake: it’s a breathtakingly wild landscape offering nature-lovers a tempting array of hiking, cycling and boating opportunities. The region’s main town, Charleville-Mézières, is thrust into the limelight every three years by an international puppet festival but is worth a visit at other times for its lovely seventeenth-century palace.