Tuesday June 13th.
Talk about been there, done that. It was not a great morning for us. Things started off fine. I walked to the Best Boulangerie almost ever, picked up a delicious baguette for lunch while Alan paid the Capitain and organised for the lock to be ready for us.
Off we went at 8.30, a perfect day for travelling, sunny but not too hot. We waved at a friendly fisherman. 45 minutes later guess what happened? The engine light came on. Alan said he’d noticed the temperature gauge was creeping up quite quickly so was keeping an eye on it. Bugger! We floated around with the engine off for a while then turned around and headed back the way we had come. We waved again at our friendly fisherman who looked confused.
Deciding to cool the engine off we staked up on the bank and I made coffee (always a good idea) while Alan checked a few things and topped up the coolant tank which he thought looked ok but took 3 litres of water. Hmmm. Engine back on and the gauge stayed in the cool zone. Ok, maybe that’s it? So we turned around, again, and headed off, again. Friendly fisherman (by now I felt we were friends) just laughed at us and shook his head. Yup.
So off we went, two hours after we left Chalons, our eyes glued to the temp gauge. It was ok. Must have been the coffee.
We arrived in Mareuil-sur-Ay (try pronouncing that one), a perfect little mooring in the Champagne region not far from Epernay. There was a choice of mooring on the bank with no power/water or on the pontoons, €23 for 3 nights. There is a boulangerie, a tabac, bar and mini supermarket, all open now and then. We had a wander around the village with its Champagne Houses including the famous Billiecart-Salmon then aperos with our British friends on Arwen.
The next day we rode our bikes up the very steep hill (ok we pushed them up the last bit) to Mutigny, a small village amongst the Premier Cru vineyards and had the best tour we’ve had with Doris Huet from Sentier du Vigneron who walked us through the many parcels of land, giving us insights into the long and very regulated processes of Champagne producing. She has great English and a lovely easy to understand manner. If you are ever in the region I highly recommend adding this experience to your itinerary. Afterwards we tasted their own brand bubbly which was delicious. Next we stopped in at the Zimmerlin-Flament Winery in Mutigny for a tasting and purchased a couple of bottles. Then a very fast downhill bike ride into Ay where, recommended by Doris, we tried a café gourmand in lieu of lunch followed by a ride along the towpath back to Mareuil-sur-Ay.
The following day I needed a rest after all that exercise yesterday so we pottered around the village, visiting the beautiful gardens at Billecart-Salmon, another famous brand. The boulangerie was open and worth the wait. Later on a big storm passed through, deafening thunder claps and torrential rain but it blew through quickly.
On Friday we left Mareuil hoping to stop at Ay to visit the museum but the mooring wasn’t great so we pushed on to Epernay, up an embranchement of the Marne. The mooring is right at the end of the embranchement, about 5 kms, and is run by the local tennis and rowing club. A delightful Capitain took €44 for 2 nights which is horribly expensive, but it’s Epernay and they have the Avenue de Champagne so I can see why they charge so much. (Alan had welcome drinks later with the Capitain and some French boaters who were complaining about the high charges).
So we headed out for a wander and ended up at Moët et Chandon’s spectacular Champagne House, taking their English language tour, €24 each including one tasting. Fun facts: They have 1000 hectares of their own vines which produce 25% of their requirements and they buy in the rest from contract growers. All their Champagne is made with varying amounts of the three grape types, Pinot Noir, Meurnier and Chardonnay, they don’t just blend 2 like some other houses do, for example Blanc de Blanc or Blanc de Noir. This gives them their signature citrus notes and “thin bubbles”.
There are 34,000 hectares of vines in the Champagne AOC région, (they are not allowed to increase the size) and so price per hectare ranges from €1.2mill to €1.7mill for parcels in the Grand Cru areas. Vines are not allowed to be more than 1.3 metres tall, 300 million bottles are produced every year and grapes can’t be harvested until the AOC boffins give the go ahead. The harvest generally takes 3 weeks using 150,000 pickers who descend on the area for the vendage and the picking must be done by hand. Every aspect is regulated very strictly so you know when you buy a bottle of Champagne it will be good!
After Moët we dropped in to one of the Champagne bars and tried a couple of the smaller houses bubbly. Because we’re equal opportunity tasters.
Saturday was another hot day. We walked to the Carrefour hypermarket to stock up but in the afternoon it was back to business, this time walking up to Mercier Champagne House for their excellent cellar tour. They have 18km of cellars underground cut into the chalk, all in one level, luckily for us they have a train that takes you through and an audio guide for all the different languages. Very helpful. Monsieur Mercier started his empire at 20 years old in 1858, with a desire to bring good quality Champagne to the masses and what a quirky man he was. For the Paris Exposition of 1889 he conceived and then built an oak barrel large enough to hold 200,000 bottles of wine, weighing 20 tonnes. Only problem was getting it from Epernay to Paris. 24 oxen were used, along with 18 horses for the steep bits. 5 adjoined houses had to be demolished, 2 bridges collapsed and trees were cut down to squeeze the procession through. Minor details though for M Mercier It took 3 weeks. He won second prize at the Exposition, overshadowed by a little building called the Eiffel Tower.
Mercier cellars were the first to be built to a rational plan which i guess allows access by the little train.
After the tour we tasted the Brut and Blanc de Noir, preferring the second so we made a small purchase! Hoping to taste one when we have family staying soon and one to take home. Maybe.
That evening we invited Don and Agnes off Moonshadow for aperos.
The next morning we moved a massive 45 minutes down the Marne to Cumières where there is a lovely mooring with free electricity and water. From there we rode our bikes up another very steep hill to the stunning wine village of Hautvilliers where the famous Dom Pérignon lived, invented the first Champagne and is buried in the Abbey. He was born in 1638 and died in 1715. He was a monk and cellarmaster at the Benedictine Abbey in Hautvilliers. He perfected amongst other things the art of producing clear white wines from black grapes by clever manipulation of the presses, started using corks instead of wood and also used thicker glass for the bottles which often exploded!
Both the Abbey and the village are stunning and well worth the exhausting ride. It was about 30°C so we stopped at the local cafe for a cold Paniche (shandy to us). Blissful!
So that’s where we are today. It’s hot and very windy and we are sitting on the deck admiring the vine-covered slopes above the village of Cumières thinking how lucky we are to be in this beautiful area. We are now on the River Marne and steadily getting closer to Paris!
This weeks stats:
Chalons-sur-Champagne to Mareuils-sur-Ay,
4.3 engine hours, 27kms, 5 locks.
Mareuils-sur-Ay to Epernay, 2.2 engine hours, 12kms, 2 locks.
Epernay to Cumières, 0.7 engine hours, 7kms and 0 locks (hurrah!).
Totals 5 weeks, 66.4 engine hours, 341 kms, 133 locks and 2 tunnels.