Chalk ridges and leaden skies, each the colour of gloom, fuse together to blur the horizon. A few sheep scavenge on freeze-dried meadows. The life has been drained from a blank land, weary of winter. January's melancholy smothers the Champagne region, east of Paris, just as it does the rest of northern Europe. The pulse of life in the scattered, red-roofed villages never exactly races, but today it is barely perceptible. Happily for the residents, beneath ground in hundreds of caves, the region's raison d'être is bubbling away nicely. As the young wine ferments in millions of bottles, the pressure of carbon dioxide builds up. But this week the corks have not been popping, because the main city in the Champagne region has just fallen off the map.
French monarchs were crowned in Reims for more than 1,000 years. The civic heroine is Joan of Arc, who arrived triumphantly in 1429. Next to the railway station stands the former school where, in 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered after six bitter years of war. But Ryanair has capitulated after just seven unprofitable months of flying between Stansted and Reims.
The city's link with international flying survived for barely 200 days. On Wednesday, the "Coronation City" lost its sole scheduled air route when Ryanair switched its preference from champagne to sherry: the no-frills airline is abandoning Reims in favour of boosting the frequency of flights to Jerez in southern Spain.
The route to "Reims Champagne", as the airport styles itself, has been running only since the last day of April 2003. Any new air service takes time to bed down, and the Reims run had been typically filling three out of five of the available seats on each Boeing 737. That might seem like a lot of empty space, but it is only marginally below the industry average.
The trouble is, most of the people on board have been paying paltry amounts to fly; my seat cost a grand total of €11 (£8), including all the taxes. Ryanair is used to making that much profit per passenger, never mind revenue. So it is bidding au revoir to Reims, and a civic sadness has descended on the city that bills itself as Le Sourire de l'Europe. Losing a link with the biggest, richest and most prestigious city in Europe is nothing to smile about.
"Quel dommage!" says Philippe, as I lumber out to my bicycle, which is parked outside the Brasserie Martin. "Shame!" The reason for my slow motion is all the excess baggage I am carrying in the form of lunch. To try to spread a little largesse on behalf of the departing Brits, I had chosen to splurge on the legendary buffet at the brasserie.
All-you-can-eat buffets are the budget traveller's ally, especially before a no-frills flight. Traditionally they represent a triumph of quantity over quality as the hungry traveller tries to plunder as many calories and vitamins as possible from the flat-rate meal. But in the €12 (£7) special at the Brasserie Martin, the usual salads are supplemented by snails, prawns, artichokes, roasted peppers and slabs of sausage constructed from the more interesting body parts of a variety of livestock. For those who like to live dangerously, there is even an unlimited supply of smoked salmon. But from tomorrow, the supply of tourists flying in from Britain drops to zero.
Philippe and his colleagues would be forgiven for feeling as bitter as the coffee he serves. There is no way of sweetening the loss of a link from London. But in the aerial buffet that airlines lay out to tempt travellers, Reims has proved to be a bit like that odd dish of coleslaw in the corner that no one touches.
"Something has to give," says Ryanair's chief executive, Michael O'Leary. Even with the favourable economics of the Boeing 737-200 (a bit like running a taxi service using a 1980 Vauxhall Cavalier - you need not worry about depreciation), the airline struggled to attract passengers. The final departure from Stansted carried only 42 people, less than one-third of the plane's capacity.
The local chamber of commerce provided "marketing support", in the form of cash for ads, to Ryanair to persuade it to operate the route. "It's not fair play by Ryanair," says Benoît Gueritas, a reporter for the local news channel, who is taking a TV crew out to the airport to cover the event. "Eight months is not long enough to make a success of the route." But 100 airports around Europe are clamouring for a link to London, and unless a Ryanair route rapidly becomes profitable it is chopped without formality.
My guess is that the link has failed because not enough Brits have holiday homes in the area, and those who do tend to drive. Reims is easy to reach from Calais thanks to the new A26 motorway. If you drive, rather than fly, you can take as much champagne home as you wish, rather than the six bottles that will consume your Ryanair cabin baggage allowance. And despite Reims' good looks, fascinating history and uncommonly good buffets, the city is not a compelling weekend break destination - particularly in winter, when sunnier climes are readily accessible in return for an extra hour's flying time and a couple more pounds on the fare.
In the other direction, travellers from north-east France are already well served by cheap flights to London from Charles de Gaulle airport, and have access to lower Eurostar fares from Lille to London than you or I can get travelling in the other direction. Anyone from the Metz region, which should theoretically be within the Reims catchment area, can take advantage of fierce airline competition between Luxembourg and London or nip over to Hahn, which is closer to parts of France than it is to Frankfurt, its nominal location. So Reims dropped off the map.
This could be the worst day in the city since the wonderful art deco opera house closed down and turned into a pizzeria. The loss to Reims is much more significant than the unfortunate few who will lose their jobs as a direct result of the route being cut. If Ryanair cannot make a success of the link, it is most unlikely that any other airline will try. The Irish carrier's costs are so low that its break-even point on a route is well below that of other airlines.
There is some talk in town of Jet2 flying in from Leeds/Bradford, but to French travellers West Yorkshire is not as tempting as the West End. And while British visitors to Reims can tour the grand champagne houses such as Mumm and Piper-Heidsieck, French tourists heading for Leeds could look forward only to Tetley's bitter.
The sky above the airport is scowling, but the ground staff are somehow still smiling, even though the only regular flight to the airport, and the justification for their existence, is about to disappear. The final flight from London arrives, but no passengers trouble the helpful man in charge of the tourist information desk.
We shuffle through a-soon-to-be redundant security checkpoint, file out to the aircraft and depart five minutes ahead of schedule. And we fly over villages with extravagant names such as St-Hilaire-au-Temple and Mourmelon-le-Petit. The darkness conceals the vines that the rain has anointed with tears.Reuse content