Well hello there lovely blog readers. After writing my piece about Reims, I wanted to share my highlights of my recent trip through the Marne Valley. And I think the best way to do that is through an itinerary which you can use to inspire any future trips you might take through Champagne.
Whether or not you believe Dom Perignon was the ‘father of champagne’, we have a lot to thank the monasteries of France’s Marne Valley. While vineyards have existed in this north eastern corner of France since Roman times, it’s generally accepted that it was the Benedictine monks who brought sparkling wine to the world.
Today, the Marne Valley stretches for 100km along the River Marne and forms part of ‘The Champagne trail’, one of the world’s most prestigious wine destinations.
It’s home to some 300 champagne houses, six heritage sites and quaint towns filled with heaps of history. Follow this itinerary, inspired by a trip I took through Reims, Hautvillers, Épernay and Chateau-Thierry, and you’re guaranteed to get a taste of L’Art de Vivre.
I hope it’s useful. Enjoy!
Explore the Champagne Trail: 4 days in the Marne Valley
Day 1: Reims
Reims is a historic town and gateway to the Champagne Trail if you’re travelling from Paris. It’s here you can jump off the fast train from Paris at the Gard de Reims and start your champagne adventure.
Read my piece on 9 reasons you’ll really like Reims for the full lowdown on its highlights. Spend one or two days exploring quaint streets, historical monuments such as the Subé fountain and the rather impressive Notre-Dame Cathedral.
When you’ve done the historical sights, there’s a good selection of shops to explore. Browse traditional chocolatiers, coffee shops and stores that specialise in ‘Biscuits rose de Reims’ (traditional pink biscuits typically served with Champagne).
To kick off the Champagne Trail, squeeze in a tour of one of the many champagne houses located in Reims such as the prestigious Veuve Clicquot cellars. Learn about the ancient origins of these caverns, known as crayères and the life of ‘la grand dame de la Champagne’, Madame Clicquot.
Snapping a pic on the glowing yellow stairs that lead out of the cellars is also a must. Find more info on the VQ cellar tours here.
Stay: You’ll find all sorts of places to stay in Reims. We stayed at the Best Western Hotel de la Paix (2, Place du Cardinal Lucon) which was really central and less than a 20-minute walk from Reims railway station. The rooms went well beyond what I expected – they were pretty modern with great bathrooms and the breakfast buffet was great. There’s also a lovely bar.
Read my latest piece on 9 Reasons why you’ll really like Reims.
Day 2: Épernay, The ‘Capital of Champagne’
Épernay is a great place to stop after Reims on a tour through the Marne Valley. This town, known as ‘The Capital of Champagne’, is surrounded by quaint villages and 30,000 hectares of vineyards. So the drive here is quite pretty too.
The obvious place to start is L’Avenue de Champagne which was once known as ‘The Royal Road’ as it was the prime business avenue. Spot some of France’s most famous champagne houses such as Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, which has been here since 1728. You’ll also see Perrier-Jouet, and Pol Roger, a champagne house who named their best cuvée after Winston Churchill. He named L’Avenue de Champagne ‘the most drinkable avenue’ in the world.
Interestingly, there are 200 million (yes million) bottles stored in the cellars beneath this street and the cellars reach 100km in length. If you book ahead, some of the cellars are open for tours. The street itself isn’t as visually impressive as I expected, but the champagne houses themselves are quite ornate. I hear a wine museum is set to open in the manor house opposite the Perrier–Jouët so look out for that this year.
You may also spot the Hôtel de Ville, a former private mansion of Monsieur Auban-Moët Town Hall which boasts some impressive architecture. It was built by the Brothers Bülher, who were the creative drive behind the Tête d’Or Park in Lyon.
Épernay was pretty quiet in the evening when we visited (perhaps because we were out of season) but you should find plenty of places to eat and drink. Try La Table Kobus, a cosy but high-end eatery where you’ll find stylish French dishes and one of the most deliciously oozy chocolate fondants you will ever try!
C Comme Champagne is a really down-to-earth and friendly place where you can browse various champagnes from smaller, family-run vineyards (and get a good price too), before you pull up a bar stool and try out the bubbles yourself. Frederic the barman is a friendly character too.
The Hôtel Jean Moët (7, Rue Moët) is a stylish and comfortable boutique hotel that’s a great base for a night or two. It’s right by C Comme Champagne champagne bar (handy) and it’s pretty relaxed with good wifi, new bathrooms and mod cons etc.
Day 3: Hautvillers, Brasles & Chateau-Thierry
The picturesque town of Hautvillers & burial place of Dom Pérignon
Hautvillers is one of the most quaint villages you’ll find in the Marne Valley. Known as the ‘Cradle of Champagne wine’ and twinned with Beaulieu, in Hampshire, it’s just a 15-minute drive from Épernay.
It’s perched high above the valley and you’ll find picturesque scenery and charming architecture all rolled into one.
Book ahead if you’re visiting during the warmer months and book yourself onto a walking tour of the village, meeting at the Hautvillers tourist office. Our English-speaking tour guide regaled us with all sorts of interesting stories and took us to the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers – owned by Moët et Chandon champagne house. It’s here you’ll find the resting place of Benedictine monk, ‘The Father of Champagne’, Dom Pérignon. The huge organ here dates back to the 1600s and you’ll spot medieval-style chandeliers made from the wheel of a traditional wine press.
Lunch and Tastings at Le Gallais – A Family–owned vineyard
After exploring the likes of L’Avenue de Champagne and the big brand champagne houses, it’s good to get a taste of the smaller, family-run champagne houses. Because as I learned, without these vineyards, the larger champagne houses simply couldn’t survive.
Drop by Le Gallais vineyard in Boursault (book your visit in advance) and walk around the grounds of the Château de Boursault. It was originally built for the Cliquot-Ponsardin family in the 1700s and the famed Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot – who has gone on to inspire business women worldwide – lived here during the end of her life. It’s pretty spectacular and I’d love to know if it’s been used as a film set.
Le Gallais family who live in the main house have been here for five generations and now welcome tours and tastings in their wine cellars and tasting room. (the food is delicious too).
Interestingly, Le Gallais provide champagne to the Champagne + Fromage group in London. They also sell their wine to some of the big champagne houses and various Michelin starred restaurants across the Champagne province.
The views from their glass-walled tasting room here are spectacular.
Organic Wine Tastings at Champagne Joël Michel, Brasles
After the tour at Le Gallais, head to Brasles, less than an hour’s drive from Boursault and Épernay. It’s home to Champagne Joël Michel (1, place Gaston et Georges Brigot), another family-run winery that’s really interesting to visit if you want to know a bit more about organic champagne.
The growers here use natural techniques to cultivate their grapes and use no fertilisers whatsoever.
The champagne here way surpassed what I was expecting. The Brut has a very slight pink tinge that they liken to the ‘oeil de perdrix’ – the eye of the perdrix bird.
And if like me, you’re won over by packaging, you’ll love the artistically labelled bottles. The tasting room is super cosy with a lovely central fireplace, contemporary photography and contemporary photography.
I’ll let you into a secret – ask for a glass of their ratafia, a type of fortified wine. It’s pretty powerful and very tasty.
Explore the streets of Chateau–Thierry
An hour’s drive from Épernay takes you to Chateau-Thierry, another place that’s steeped in history. It was home of the author and poet Jean de la Fontaine so drop by the museum which was once his house (12, rue Jean de La Fontaine). You’ll be able to browse elegant vaulted architecture and reception rooms filled with art and artefacts, and find out a little bit more about his life.
After the museum, spend the rest of the day exploring this traditional French town. You’ll find good shopping, very good chocolate shops, and various cafes and bars. If the weather’s nice, take a walk by the River Marne – the river that played an integral part in the region’s export of wine.
For dinner or lunch Try Restaurant L’address Rive Droite (7, rue Drugeon Lecart). I can vouch for their profiteroles – they are huge and taste incredible. Close by is the Chateau-Thierry tourism office, in case you’re keen to find out more about the town.
Stay: There are various hotel chains, BnBs and private guesthouses available in Chateau-Thierry. We stayed at Le Garden des Fables which in all honesty, was a little too quirky for me. You should however, find plenty of options to suit your taste!
Day 4: Exploring the history of Chateau–Thierry
The streets here are PACKED with charm so it’s worth spending a morning just exploring the traditional French houses with their beautiful facades and shutters. For some of the best (and most instagram-worthy), walk the streets that take you up to the Château Médiéval. I could have snapped the buildings here all day.
Once you’re at the top, you’ll get to understand the lay of the land here. Also look out for the Chateau-Thierry American monument which you can see in the distance. If you’re into virtual reality, the chateau tour guides will show you a nifty app that allows you to see how this medieval fort may have once looked.
Once you’re back in the town, it’s worth checking out the food markets in Chateau-Thierry where locals pick up their cheeses, olives and various other groceries (you’ll smell the cheese before you see it!).
Oh, and we’re on the Champagne trail, so we couldn’t leave Chateau-Thierry without sampling some of its finest champagne. Champagne Pannier (23, rue Roger Catillon) was founded by Louis-Eugène Pannier in 1899 and sits on 2.5km of 12th Century cellar space. It’s open Monday to Saturday and their champagne (especially their classic Brut Rosé) is lovely, so go!
From Chateau-Thierry it’s around an hour’s drive back to Reims where you can take the fast train back to Paris.
Oh and lastly, a few notes on logistics…
Best Time to Go
I would recommend waiting until the warmer months to see the Champagne province at its most beautiful, when the skies are blue and the rolling vineyards are at their greenest. The second half of October is also a great time to visit for the Champagne and You festival and various gastronomy events.
A few disclosures: This was a whistle-stop press tour of the region, so is simply an itinerary of The Champagne Trail highlights. Do check out the Champagne tourism website as a second resource for planning a trip here.
Also, make sure you contact each individual establishment well in advance, especially during the summer during peak season, as many tours and hotels get booked up very quickly.
Lastly, we had a driver between the vineyards so if you’re on the bubbles, you’ll need to do this too! There are loads of cool ways to get around the Marne Valley if you don’t want to drive, including a champagne bus. Some areas even have tuk tuks which you can hire too.
For more info visit the Chateau-Thierry tourism office website.
Have you been to the Marne Valley and The Champagne Trail? If so, feel free to share your thoughts and tips in the comments below.