Interested in French crafts? Basket making? Artisan jam makers and craft beers? Old mills? All these are more are on offer In the southern part of the Haute-Marne department in Champagne, where the river Marne has its source.
Base yourself in the fortified medieval city of Langres while you explore some of the delightful and different attractions in this part of Champagne.
Langres is not far from any of the attractions listed here. There are good places to stay in the town and it has its own attractions as well as a great monthly artisan market on Thursdays.
Have more time? Look for more of Champagne's hidden treasures, like Voltaire’s chateau, the small Renaissance town of Joinville, an extraordinary viaduct in Chaumont with its surprise attractions and more.
Tour Baissey Village and Mill
It’s a 19-km (12-mile) drive on small roads from Langres south west to Baissey, a small village on the river Vingeramme.
Once upon a time, Baissey was a thriving village, growing from a Roman settlement with villas on the hillside and a water mill below. Today the mill keeps its wheels turning though it’s for the tourists to see rather than for producing the vital flour that kept the village self-sufficient.
Go into the mill for a tour with Mme Houdart, the wife of the President of the association running the mill. The charming Parisian must be the most fashionably dressed guide in France (in fact she does it for love and the interest). The mill is large and on several floors and the stories you hear are delightful. Listen to the bell that was rung to summon the miller when the wheels were malfunctioning. It’s loud as it had to be; millers were invariably permanently deaf from the continuous pounding noise made by the wheels. Fading photographs on the walls bring the past to life; small rooms show where the miller and his family lived and worked and how the village functioned. Life was hard and you leave profoundly grateful to be living in the 21st century.
Hungry for lunch? Drive another 15 minutes south to Vaux-sous-Aubigny and an excellent lunch at Le Vauxois.
Learn Basket Making in Fayl-Billot
It’s a 25-km (16-mile) drive from Langres south east to Fayl-Billot and the centre of what was once the vital skill of basket making. The town houses only one of two national schools of wicker production and basketry in Europe (the other is in Germany).
Basket making is as old as civilisation itself and in the 1900s, wicker coffins, today so popular, were unearthed at the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia, dating back to 5,000BC.
Today’s weavers still use the old methods and old tools to make the baskets; there’s nothing mechanical in sight. You can see the story at the Maison de la Vannerie, part of the Fayl-Billot Tourist Office with an English speaking guide. Today’s craftspeople produce both traditional baskets and innovative art works which you can see here.
The Tourist Office in town has lists of local basket producers and there are several shops in the village with an irresistible selection of styles, shapes, sizes and colours. Be warned: the baskets are expensive but they will last a lifetime!
If you’re in the region in January, make sure you see the annual Basket Makers’ Festival on Saint Antoine’s Day which is the nearest Saturday to January 17 (Saturday Jan 20, 2018). Check with the local tourist offices as it takes place in any of three locations: Fayl-Billot, Bussières-les-Belmont or Grenant. The churches are decorated with special baskets; there’s a religious service, then the the Confrérie des Façonneurs du Noble Osier (Guild of Noble Wicker Workers) parades around the streets before awarding the staff of Saint Antoine to that year’s winner.
Just a short hop northeast from Langres takes you to Anrosey (10 kms or 6 miles) and a long low farmhouse straight out of a children’s fairy tale. Enter the main room and you’re surrounded by shelves, groaning with a huge collection of French enamel coffee pots. It could be a museum, but in fact it’s part of the jam-making operation of the formidable and extremely busy Jeanne-Marie Collin. She makes extraordinary jams: raspberry, strawberry, apricot of course, but also more unusual varieties like the old-fashioned medlar. You can see her kitchen which is surprisingly small, taste the jams over coffee and of course, buy. For anyone interested in jam making, it’s a real treat.
Drive southeast for 27 kms from Langres (16 miles) to get to the extraordinarily beautiful former abbey of Auberive, a collection of old mellow stone buildings near the source of the Aube river. Founded in the 12th century as part of the order emanating from Clairvaux, the Cistercian abbey was rich, owning farm buildings and mills, lakes and an iron and salt mine. The industrious and experienced monks channelled the river waters into canals which today form a wonderful series of waterways, surrounded by trees and flowers. The grounds stretch out from the abbey buildings, containing a collection of rare apple trees, at their most spectacular in the spring. The complex was rebuilt in the 18th century and it’s those gracious, neo-classical buildings that you see today.
The Abbey was bought in 2004 by the Volot family who have turned it into an important cultural centre. Each summer from June to October 1, a new contemporary art exhibition fills the long rooms and spills out into the grounds. It’s always interesting, sometimes controversial and always worth a visit.
If you’re staying nearby, get to one of the concerts held inside the abbey during the summer, a mix of jazz, classical, modern and international.
The small town of Orges, is another of those places with an unexpected attraction. The Flower Makers’ Mill (Moulin de la Fleuristerie) is the only remaining workshop in France that makes the components for artificial flowers – pistils, petals, leaves and fruits. They are still made on 19th century machinery powered by the 110 volts of electricity produced from the paddle wheel that turns slowly and and hypnotically. Customers span the world of fashion and confectionary, from Chanel to the Royal theatre of Denmark, from the Moulin Rouge to the world-famous patissier, Lenôtre.
Guided visits in July and August (10.30am; 3pm and 4.30pm) show you the process of transforming ordinary materials into delicate coloured flower parts.
Cutlery museum (Musee de la cotellerie)? Surely not! But you’ll be surprised; this is a wonderful way to see a past way of life when there were no high tech instruments to operate on you… no sewing machines to make those dresses… no electric shavers. The list goes on. So without all those mechanical and technological instruments, how did people manage? You find out in the museum which shows you the skill that went into producing knives for ladies, for gentlemen, for needlework, to hunt with, to cut cloth for men’s suits, to cut garden flowers.
But making these tools by hand was not just practical; they became works of art. Highly skilled craftsmen made knife handles in tortoise shell or ivory, bound with silver bands; delicate sewing scissors in the shape of birds like the heron and wonderfully ornate small boxes containing make-up accessories. You get drawn into the designs, noticing different patterns on the blades of knives and marvelling at the huge scissors made for tailors.
There are still some knife and scissor makers and sharpeners working in the town.