My son was surprised I was going to Champagne. As far as he was concerned it was like planning a trip to Coca-Cola. Could such a place really exist? We forget that real people live and work in brand-name destinations such as Cologne and (de)Nîmes. The département where I was heading is at the bottom right-hand corner of Champagne, which might explain why it misses out on producing the top-notch champagnes to be found around Reims. But at least it also missed out on being beseiged by the Germans in 1870 and 1914. Consequently, whereas Moët and Cliquot were trashed, the vineyards south of Troyes, administrative capital of Aube en Champagne, have never had to start all over again.
Determined to bring back some booty I hired a car and took the N19 down as far as Bar-sur-Aube, northerly limit of the Côte des Bar Champagne Route. Bar was just what you expect a French town to be, all shutters, geraniums in window boxes and old men sitting in the town square. I paused here to try andouillette, the local stringy sausage made from those bits of the pig we'd all rather not know about, and then my little hired car and I were off.
Crossing south over the River Aube I was immediately into Kent, or so it seemed. Rolling hills and poppy-strewn cornfields lay ahead of me but this was a distinctly French take on the Home Counties, with trees standing sentinel along the open roadways, like tall bushy lamp-posts, plus the occasional fairytale châteaux and, of course, rampant viticulture on the upper slopes of these chalky hillsides. It was an odd conjunction. English arcadia in the valleys and bright green fields of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay on the hills.
The roads were French, though, suitably dusty and devoid of traffic, apart from the occasional tractor en route to tip-toe like Martian explorers between the long, vulnerable rows of vines. My first stop was at Essoyes where Madame Renoir brought the great man to meet her folks in 1894 and he stayed for 25 summers. Even today you can see that his portrait Gabrielle au jardin was painted in the orchard behind his studio, the Atelier Renoir, which is not really worth paying €2 (£1.40) to visit unless you have a thing about Renoir's fireplace and a daybed he might have slept in. But the atelier does double creditably as a centre for young artists today.
Now I wanted something to drink. Continuing south west I passed through a number of small villages, pleasant but unremarkably built from blocks of chalk and local timber. Each, however, was home to several Champagne propriétaires-récoltants whose premises, solidly affluent, front directly on to the main road. Each one offered the chance for dégustation which, if you're English, means the danger of a quick fizzy high on so many varieties of champagne that you emerge half an hour later lugging more crates of the stuff than you'll ever manage be able to load on to Eurostar.
I had an appointment to meet Marie-Joséphine, great-granddaughter-in-law of Armand Vézien who founded Champagne Vézien and was mayor of the commune of Celles sur Ources during the Champagne War of 1911. Vézien grand-père was one of 36 mayors from the Aube region who resigned when the départements of Marne and Aisne convinced the government that they alone could call their saute-bouchon (literally meaning leaping cork) wines Champagne. Eight thousand enraged growers marched from Aube carrying a burning effigy of the prime minister and matters escalated until a battle with government soldiers in Aÿ left 41 buildings gutted and the streets strewn with broken glass and sparkling wine. Aube won the right to call its wine champagne and now in the tranquil commune of Celles sur Ource a population of 470 people runs 45 different Champagne houses.
Marie-Joséphine showed me round the yard with its fully functional oak press (which is capable of squeezing 4,000kg of grape at a time) and the 30ft-deep cellars where champagne is created by a process so painstakingly detailed that you wonder how anyone thought it up in the first place.
After loading up the boot of my car with all the bruts and blanc de blancs I could afford, I took to the road in bleary search for a bed. The rural Hôtel le Magny at Les Riceys had taken my fancy because Les Riceys is the home of the other famous wine from round here: rosé des Riceys, a vintage so rare there are some years in which it isn't produced at all just to keep the price up. After an evening munching fromage de Chaource and imbibing some of this precious pink stuff I was asleep in an instant and woke to the pleasing hum of the swimming pool covers being electronically retracted.
It was time to head back but I just had to make one last detour to a village that would feature on any epicure's itinerary. Chaource itself lies north of Côte des Bar and produces the runniest cheese in existence, more a slow-moving yoghurt really. I parked outside the extraordinary tall church of St-Jean-Baptiste, 13th century with bizarre 16th-century bolt-ons. (The baroque north portal in particular induces awe and hilarity in equal measure.) Loading up now with fromage it was time to head back, north through the ancient forêt d'Orient (behind an equally ancient tractor, alas). I arrived just in time to leap on board the Paris train.
Carting all this produce between Paris's Gare de l'Est and Eurostar at Gare du Nord made me curse whichever Napoleon decided there should not just be one Gare de Paris, but now that I'm home and living off my trophies, the journey feels very worthwhile - even if my 12-year-old does think Chaource stinks the place out.
Adrian Mourby travelled to Champagne as a guest of Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope. co.uk), which offers return fares on Eurostar, from London Waterloo to Troyes, changing at Paris, from £79 until 27 September.
Until 31 October, AllezFrance, Great Escapes (0800 160 5718; www.greatescapes.co.uk) is offering short breaks to Champagne, with accommodation at the Holiday Inn Fôret d'Orient near Troyes, from £109 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return crossings on Hoverspeed from Dover to Calais for a car and two passengers plus two nights' accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis. The hotel has a swimming pool. The above package can also be booked on an accommodation-only basis for £37 per person per night, based on two sharing. For departures between 1 November and 31 March 2004, the price drops to £92 per person for bed and breakfast accommodation and includes a extra night's accommodation for free plus a complimentary visit to a champagne house.
For further information about visiting the Champagne region, contact Maison de la France (09068 244123, calls cost 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com). Other useful websites include www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com or www.champagne.frReuse content