Hidden Treasures of Champagne

  • 01 of 08

    Hidden Treasures of Champagne

    Champagne Treasures Map
    Google/Mary Anne Evans

    Champagne is best known, of course, for its lovely bubbly, for the dignified capital city of Reims, the delights of Epernay, the medieval streets and houses of  pretty Troyes and its nearby designer outlet stores and malls. But there’s more to Champagne than these famous sights. Take a tour around the Haute-Marne, one of the departments in Champagne, and discover some hidden treasures. 

    For a more detailed view of the map click here.

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  • 02 of 08


    Saint Dizier theatre
    Licensed under Wikimeida Creative Commons/G Garatin

    The Italian Theatre

    This small fortified medieval town on the N4 south west of Bar-le-Duc and south east of Chalons-en-Champagne is the first delightful find. Start with its blockbuster, horseshoe-shaped Italian theatre in the main square. Outside it’s a lovely neo-classical building of warm stone; inside it’s full of quirky details like wooden staircases, statues and glittering chandeliers. The actual renovated theatre is lovely, seating just 334 today. In the past, seats were strictly given according to status with the Circle as the best while the chicken coop at the top was kept for the servants who sat in the Gods near Paradise. The theatre is small and intimate, but with a magnificent cupola and chandelier that was one of the major features of the Italian theatre. 

    Each year there is a music festival in the town, using the Theatre and other venues. Find out more from the Tourist Office.

    Fabulous Art Nouveau Ironwork

    The town is known for its decorative ironwork which you’ll see on balconies and in public statues. Much of the 19th-century work was produced in foundries around the town, chosen by the famous Hector Guimard to manufacture his designs in 1903. Walk around and you’ll see items that look familiar. The balconies and a lovely drinking fountain which originally had hooks for glasses were the work of Hector Guimard who designed the now iconic Paris Metro sign. 

    Tourist Office
    4 Avenue de Belle Foret
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 25 05 31 84

    The Tourist Office produces a good walk map taking in the main sites.

    Where to Stay

    There are hotels in Saint Dizier, but for a rare treat, try these two.

    Château du Clos Mortier is a delightful, family-run bed and breakfast. Each of the 5 rooms is entirely different in character and decor, all prettily decorated with different colour schemes. All have wonderful views over the garden. It has an unusual location right next to a hypermarket, but don't worry; once inside the gateway you could be anywhere in the countryside. It’s slightly outside town, but the owner is more than happy to drive you into town for a slap-up dinner at a restaurant (I recommend L’Archestrate below), and fetch you when you’re ready.

    Alternately, drive 14 miles to the little village of Vecqueville, for a thoroughly rural night at the Ferme de Sossa. It’s a working farm, so it's ideal for families with enough animals to please the children. Rooms are a good size; some with an upper half storey reached by an old wooden staircase. Eat dinner cooked on an open fire with the freshest local ingredients. This farm B&B is good and very reasonably priced.

    Both of these properties have English-speaking owners.

    Eat at L’Archestrate, 17 rue Emile Giros, 00 33 (0)3 25 08 31 89. It’s in a pretty old house but the cooking is right up to date. Friendly, good value and fun. 

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  • 03 of 08

    The Characterful Little City of Joinville

    Getty Images/SOBERKA Richard / hemis.fr

    A Fun History Lesson

    Just a couple of minutes’ drive from Vecqueville, the little Renaissance city of Joinville has some surprises for the first-time visitor. The Marne river runs through the town, quite small at this stage near its source on the Langres plateau. Categorised as one of the Petites Cités de Caractère (Small Cities with Character), Joinville has small narrow streets full of pretty stone houses running up to the old château where the view stretches over the countryside.

    Start with a remarkable dip into the history of Joinville at L’Auditoire. The large house built in 1561 once served as the courthouse. Today it's a museum on several floors showing different aspects of daily life in the Ancien Regime, and alludes to its past with a courtroom where justice was dispensed. The judge faces the prisoner who is seen ‘etre sur la sellette’ which translates as being in the hot seat. Another room has a model of Claude de Lorraine on horseback with the family tree painted onto a wall. One of the most effective rooms shows the funeral procession of Claude de Lorraine with life-size models of horses and mendicant figures in darkened rooms.

    With true twists and turns of fate, Claude de Lorraine from Joinville fell in with François I. Fortune favoured the bold and Claude became the 1st Duc de Guise. His grandson Henri was assassinated at Blois in 1588 for threatening the power of the king. If you can, watch the sound and light show at Blois Château; it brings all the intrigue to life.

    It’s hard to imagine today, but the city was a real centre in the past; visited by Francois I six times; and Mary Stuart also stopped here.

    Le Château du Grand-Jardin

    Built between 1533 and 1546 by Claude, Duc de Guise, this should be your next stop. It’s a lovely low Renaissance building, with the duke’s apartments and a huge hall used for concerts. The façade has sculptures showing Claude of Lorraine’s military career, as well as references to Bacchus and wine. But its glory is the garden. Stroll through a maze and past a series of walks and parterres, formal beds and trellised arches as well as the ‘English’ park from the 18th century with the natural style that was such a contrast to the neat, formal French gardens. There’s a good children’s trail in a booklet in English to keep the children occupied and a series of events during the summer, from comedy to music

    Le Château du Grand-Jardin
    5 Avenue de la Marne
    Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 25 94.17.54
    Open end of March to Oct 30 daily except Tuesday
    May 30 to September 18: Daily except Tuesdays 10.30am-7pm
    End of March to May 29 and Sep 19 to Oct 30: Weekends, school holidays 2-6pm
    Adult €4; concessions €2, under 12 years free

    All information from the Tourist Office which will arrange visits to all of the attractions above as well as the Notre-Dame de Joinville church with its treasure of the belt of St Joseph brought back from the Crusades by Saint Louis (open 9am to 6pm), and the Gothic chapel of Sainte Anne. 

    The Tourist Office site is in French, but there are English-speaking guides for your visits.

    Check out the hotels on the previous page if you want a good place to stay.

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  • 04 of 08

    Voltaire’s Château in Cirey-sur-Blaise

    Chateau de Cirey dining room
    Mary Anne Evans

    One of the great pleasures of travelling through France is coming across the unexpected. And I certainly had no idea about the château where the great writer Voltaire spent a very pleasant exile with his mistress, the formidably intelligent and well educated Emilie du Châtelet.

    This is a real find, a delightful, still privately owned château and well worth the detour.

    Read my guide to Voltaire's Château

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  • 05 of 08

    Live the past at Vignory

    Vignory church
    Mary Anne Evans

    Vignory, just off the N67, is another of the  Petites Cités de Caractère (Small Cities with Character) and certainly lives up to the honour. 11th-century Vignory may be small (today at least), but it was an important place in the past, with a House of the Knights of Malta, a medieval garden, communal wash house, protective ramparts and a ruined castle in a commanding position. You can visit the castle, but leave that to last. Instead start at the astonishing, huge Romanesque St-Etienne Church, flooded with light from the large high windows. A stop on the pilgrim route, it contains some extraordinary medieval carving on the pillars and in the chapels.

    Don’t miss the delightful, small Museum of History and Heritage, full of old tools and agricultural implements testifying to its rural past.

    Then make your way to a small back street, the rue des Bonnetiers for the House of the 18th Century. This fascinating 18th-century house is still being restored but with enough old furniture, built-in beds, shutters and objects to give you a very real idea of the cramped and restricted lives of our ancestors.

    Finally go up to the castle which is being restored by the local community. With its great views, round towers, old siege engines and large donjon (keep), it conveys some of the strategic importance of this fortified building that dominated the valley of the Marne river.

    Information on Vignory 

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  • 06 of 08

    Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises and Charles de Gaulle

    Funeral of de Gaulle
    Getty Images/Henri Bureau

    A few kilometres to the south west there’s a very different piece of French history. Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises is the small village where France’s most famous President, Charles de Gaulle, had his country house. Today you can visit the modest house with its pretty garden and views, the small village church where de Gaulle is buried alongside many of his close family, and best of all, the impressive Memorial Charles de Gaulle. The memorial takes in the whole of de Gaulle’s life, starting with his early years playing with toy soldiers, through two World Wars, then his disappearance from public life and his time as President of France.

    More about Colombey-les-Deux Eglises

    More on the Charles de Gaulle Memorial Museum

    Where to Stay

    There are two good hotels and restaurants in the village. La Grange du Relais is a small, family run hotel with pretty rooms, a pool and intimate restaurant.

    The Hostellerie La Montagne is a little further away, is a bit more upmarket and has an excellent restaurant.

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  • 07 of 08

    Chaumont, Capital of the Haute-Marne

    Chaumont Viaduct
    Mary Anne Evans

    Chaumont, the capital of the Haute-Marne department, is more gracious Renaissance and 18th century than medieval. The compact city stands on a commanding ridge between the valleys of the Marne and Suize rivers, so take a walk first from the tourist office to the castle, home from the 11th and 12th centuries of the Counts of Champagne. The old town clusters around its defender; a little maze of narrow streets with stone-built houses distinguished by the small Renaissance round staircases built onto the outside walls. On the walk, you'll come across the Tour d’Arse, the remains of a 13th-century town gate. Anybody photographing this is bound to speak English.

    The star attraction is the Basilique St-Jean-Baptiste. Enter via the 14th-century Gothic doorway into a magnificent interior with a superb organ above the west front. Don’t miss the haunting tomb of 1471 with its mourning figures, and the stone Tree of Jesse. If you’re here in 2018 you’ll catch the special Feast of the Grand Pardon. It began in 1475 when the Pope issued Le Grand Pardon. Everyone who visited the Basilique on the feast day of St Jean the Baptist when it fell on a Sunday was given a pardon for their sins. Now the festival is every four years, always falling on Sunday June 24th.

    Jump back to the 21st century at Les Silos, 7-9 Ave Foch, now a graphic arts centre and mediatheque. It has temporary exhibitions, but also hosts the annual poster festival (Festival de l’Affiche) which happens each year from mid-May to mid-June. It’s a must see event for anybody interested in poster art, both historic and contemporary.

    Chaumont Viaduct

    But one of the most dramatic attractions of Langres is outside the town. The splendid viaduct to the west of the town was built in 1857 over the river Suize. It was built in 15 months, an astonishingly short period and has 3 levels. The first operates as a footbridge, the second carries all the equipment to power the track and the third is the train track. Connecting Paris to Basle and Reims to Nice, the viaduct is 50 metres high and 600 meters long. Pass it at night and it looks even more massive with lights playing on the structure.

    More information on the Chaumont Tourist Office website

    Where to Stay

    Stay in the traditional, small Logis Hostellerie du Château which combines old-fashioned hospitality and modern comforts. And there's an outdoor pool.

    If you like gardens, go for the Château de Chaumont with the added bonus of lovely views.

    Or if you want a rural retreat, with an excellent bistro-style restaurant, make for the Auberge de la Fontaine in Villiers-sur-Suize about a 25 minute drive south east from Chaumont.

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  • 08 of 08

    The Fortified City of Langres

    Gerard Feron/Langres Tourist Office

    The dramatic fortified city of Langres still has much of the old defensive walls, so if you do nothing else, walk along the ramparts past the 12 towers and 7 gateways for a great view. It'll take you about 90 minutes. Make your way up the spiral ramp of the Tour de Navarre where there’s a good film of the city and an audio guide that takes you back into life in 1521. Langres had a strategic importance from Gallo Roman times; it was at the crossroads between Rome, England and Germany and grew rich through trade.

    Just how rich the city was is seen in the architecture, particularly the Renaissance house at 20 rue Cardinal Morlot. The front is plain; the glorious ornate façade is at the back, hidden from the tax collectors who visited the town in the 17th century.

    Langres wasn’t just a mercantile city; it had huge religious importance as well from the 16th century on. This was the seat of the powerful bishopric, warranting its own city within a city where cobbled streets with old canonical houses surround the Saint-Mammès Cathedral.

    The Tourist Office has very good maps and guided walks for all interests. Take in the Art and History Museum with its Gallo-Roman mosaics and remains as well as pottery, Langres cutlery and more. Or visit the birthplace of Denis Diderot, the son of a local cutler and one of the great figures of the Age of Enlightenment. Born in 1713, he is best known for his Encyclopaedia, on display in the Maison de Lumières Denis-Diderot. Or just stand and admire his splendid statue, placed with his back to the church and religion as befitted the thinking of the age.

    More information from the Langres Tourist Office Website

    Where to Stay in Langres

    There are two main hotels in Langres. Le Cheval Blanc  is located in a former church, so expect the odd vault and beam in the rooms at this Logis hotel. There is a modern annexe as well and a good restaurant.

    The Grand Hotel de l’Europe is a former coaching inn in the main street with a pretty dining room and decent sized rooms.

    A Trip out of Town

    If you’re here with enough time to spare, make a side trip to the Chateau du Pailly, south east of Langres. It’s an interesting community project, owned by the state but run by the locals who have a splendid ambitious 20-year plan. Take a guided tour with an English guide who lives here and walk around the moated castle, built around 1226 and added to over succeeding centuries. There are odd staircases leading to nowhere; doors in the middle of walls; deserted staircases but also a splendid renovated chamber on the top floor and a great view over the gardens.