THE CHAMPAGNE AND CHATEAU TOUR
Words and pictures from our online reporter Ken Amery
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Champagne and Chateau Tour
There were a record number of 45 members of the congregation and their friends who boarded the Armchair Tours coach at 6.45 am. on Thursday 7 th October, for their trip to the Champagne region of France. Our driver this year was Gary, who had an endless supply of jokes and some very strange headgear!
The trip through the tunnel to France was mostly uneventful, apart from a mishap at the Shuttle terminal, when a certain social committee member, who shall remain nameless, threw away a bag containing sweets instead of the similar bag containing sweet wrappings! Roy, your secret is safe with us!
Our first stop was at the V2 Rocket base at La Coupole near St. Omer. The base had been built in the latter stages of the Second World War, by Russian and Polish prisoners for the launching of rockets against London. Thankfully, the Allied forces liberated the area before any launches could be made from here. Even with the state of the art exhibitions and cinema shows, the whole building had a cold sinister air about it. This was probably due to two things (as well as being underground) – It was difficult not to forget that many prisoners had been ill treated and died during the construction of the site and possibly the “what if” factor. If the site had been ready for operations months earlier, just how much death, injury and damage would have been caused?
We arrived at our home for the three days at 7pm that night. What a home! We were staying at a former residence of the Rothschild family – the Chateau de Montvillargenne in Chantilly, which has now been turned into a luxury hotel. The accommodation and facilities were excellent and the group meal that evening, included in the price, was superb. During our stay, some of the more energetic travellers ventured into the hotel swimming pool, while most of us settled for a leisurely walk around the gardens and grounds.
After a breakfast, every bit as good as the dinner the previous evening, we travelled to Epernay – the home of Champagne, accompanied by more hats and even more jokes from Gary! The first thing you see at the House of Mercier, founded in 1858 is a large wooden cask, which can contain the equivalent of 200,000 bottles of champagne. This was constructed for the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1889. Unfortunately it wasn’t the prize exhibit – that year, a certain Mr. Eiffel had constructed something even larger! We were met by our guide, Alice an English girl working there until she went to University. The tour was a fascinating look at the world of champagne and included a laser guided train ride through 12 ½ miles of tunnels where the champagne bottles are stored. Making champagne is a delicate art and it can take many years for it to reach maturity and be ready for drinking. Here we learnt something about the art of “riddling”. To ensure that the deposit, formed in the champagne bottle during the fermentation process can be completely removed, the bottle has to be turned or “riddled”on a regular basis – once a day for six to eight weeks. Although much of the “riddling” at Mercier is done by mechanical means, they still employ two men to do this work manually. A good riddler can turn 40,000 bottles a day and it takes three years to become one! Another reason why champagne is more expensive than other wines! The final stage was to taste and perhaps buy some of the finished product.
From here we travelled to Rheims, for lunch, a brief look around the city and a walk around the cathedral, where twenty-five Kings of France had been crowned. The cathedral, with its magnificently carved façade and stunning stained glass windows – both ancient and modern, is described as a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. It was then back to the Chateau, where we enjoyed another excellent meal.
On our last day the plan was to visit the Chateau at Chantilly. Unfortunately due to what was described as an “incident” by the gendarmes who blocked our way, we would not be allowed on the Chateau access road for at least one, possibly three hours. A hasty revision of our plans led to a diversion to Le Touquet, on the coast, where most travellers managed a quick lunch and perhaps a bracing walk along the sea front, before boarding the coach for the return trip.
The return journey was uneventful, apart from Gary’s jokes! We arrived back in Bray at 8.30pm., tired but having enjoyed an excellent three day break
9th October 2004
Our memory of this trip was marred by some sad news on our return. Those of you who travelled with us will remember Cherry, who won the quiz competition. Sadly, just before she arrived home on Saturday night, her husband aged 39 collapsed suddenly and died. On behalf of all those who travelled with her on this trip we have sent her a letter of condolence.
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