Goodbye, Reims…

Its been a fantastic week in Reims, and we have 8 empty champagne bottles to show for it! We are off to Paris for 2 nights, assuming the torrential rains or the rail strike doesn’t interfere. Then we will kick off the Nordics leg of the journey in Copenhagen!

So language in Reims was a bit difficult – I had about 6 weeks of French in high school, which has certainly been better than nothing. And as a vegetarian, I haven’t been eating especially well (other than our lunch at a 2-Michelin starred restaurant). Don’t get me wrong – the cheese & bread is delicious, but I haven’t had much else during our time here.

The German had a great observation – every culture has some stereotypical thing you see people carrying as they walk down the street. In the UK, its usually an umbrella. In the US, its usually a Starbucks cup. And here, its baguettes. Seriously. We can’t take more than a few steps outside of the apartment without seeing someone walking down the street with a baguette. Yesterday we saw someone running down the street with a baguette, like there was some kind of baguette emergency.

Also, everyone smokes here. They really are living up to the stereotype of smoking Gallouis cigarettes and carrying baguettes down the street.

Another thing which struck me about Reims is that everything closes for about 2 hours midday for lunch (other than restaurants, of course). Shops close, kids go home from school, and everyone stops and eats. As someone who ate lunch at her desk for the past several years, I was really struck by how nice it seemed that everyone stopped and took a midday break. I don’t know if people in offices get to do the same, but I hope so…

Zumba in Reims

So after all the eating we’ve been doing, I thought it would be good to check out a local Zumba class.

I found one within 10 mins walk of our place. I was excited that I managed to locate it pretty easily. One of the other women waiting for the class was very friendly and spoke a little English – I’ll refer to her as Nice Girl from here on out since I never got her name.

This photo was on the wall in the lobby of the dance studio, so I was a little worried:


The main room was a huge studio with plenty of windows. About 20 women showed up for the class, mostly right before it started. Nice Girl pointed me out to the instructor, who shouted “enchanté” from across the room as the prior class put away their mats. (I think it was some kind of gymnatics class, and the same woman was the teacher.)

Class started about 10 minutes late (yet still ended on time). I chose a spot in the back like a good newbie.

Class started, and it was pretty much impossible to follow this woman. She was often off the beat (or maybe they count music differently in France), forgot the choreo pretty regularly, or just wandered around the room most of the time. One song she had to skip because she couldn’t remeber the choroegraphy, and neither could anyone else in the class.

When she was actually doing the routine, there was absolutely no cueing whatsoever. Though to be fair, she did occassionally shout things out in French – it could have been verbal cueing, though probably just encouragement, but since it wasn’t “champagne”, “fromage” or “baguette”, I had no idea what she was saying.

At one point, mid-routine, she makes her way over to me and starts rambling at me in French. I give her the standard “I don’t speak French” (in French) while I’m thinking “Shouldn’t you be teaching this class right now?!”. She continued to talk, so Nice Girl had to stop dancing, come over and translate. Apparantly the teacher just wanted to know where I was from – obviously that was so urgent she had to ask it in the middle of a song.

So I just did my best, as did the rest of the class (a few of whom walked out early). I tried following the front row girls, but they weren’t as good as my own front row crew. 🙂 Halfway through at a water break, Nice Girl came over to compliment how well I was following, which was sweet of her.

There were a couple songs that I knew, but the choreography wasn’t always the same (which really did my head in). One of them my class knows as “Zumba Let’s Go” (a Jessica specialty – I made sure to lip sync the part Jessica normally sings). At the chorus, the entire room was facing my direction and I was pretty confident the choreo was the same, so I slapped my ass with gusto… which was not their choreography, of course. I am pretty sure everyone enjoyed that.

At the end of class I was trying to figure out how to pay. The instructor came over and I thanked her very much and then we had sweaty air kisses. Nice Girl came to help translate, but it was very hard to understand what was happening. I guess its €165 for a year of classes, €45 for the summer. And the way to sign up is to mail in a dr’s note saying you’re fit enough to do the classes – Nice Girl empasized that this was very important (wtf?) along with a photo. At one point I thought the teacher said I could pay for a single class for €25 (which is still far too much for that class), but then she kind of ran off. So I decided to just take all the info and bail. Suffice to say, I won’t be going back. If classes cost a ridiculous amount of money, they should tell you up front! (And you all know I tried to figure that out in advance.)

There’s a different Zumba class on Friday afternoon – I might try giving that one a shot. It coudn’t be worse, right? 🙂

Champagne, continued…

I booked an all-day tour through Viator which took us to the Epernay area. I was excited to see the Avenue of Champagne, and also taste at some of the smaller houses that aren’t generally open to the public.

There were only 5 people (including us) in the group, plus our guide Christine, who was great. She was incredibly knowledgable but not overly preachy. As we drove through the charming (yet foggy) countryside, she told us more about the champagne traditions.

Everyone must strictly adhere to process in order to be called “champagne”. Grapes are only allowed to be harvested by hand so the skins of the grapes aren’t damaged. This means you need a LOT of people to help, since the entire champagne region has to be harvested in 10 days – people come from all over the country to help/get additional income. The grapes can only be transported 30 minutes after harvesting to the press – anything more compromises them. And there’s some kind of quota each house must produce, and since champagne needs to age for at least 15 months, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that there won’t be a champagne shortage anytime soon.

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The thomb of Dom Perignon

The weather wasn’t great (again – apparantly it rains 300 days per year here) so we started at a church with the tomb of Dom Perignon. He was a monk who was very passionate about champagne, and everyone credits him with making it popular.

 

Next was a drive down the Avenue of Champagne, which is basically one grand building after the next… pretty much all of the major champagne houses are represented there. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to just knock on the door and ask for a glass of champagne.

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A small portion of the Moet & Chandon property on the Avenue of Champagne

Our first appointment was at Moet & Chandon (which includes Dom Perignon), the largest champagne producer in the world. They say a bottle of Moet & Chandon is opened every 2 seconds. Their tour also started with a video, which I liked much better than Taittinger’s… less propoganda and a lot more champagne porn – slow motion video of champagne being poured, bottles being corked, etc. The German thought it looked like an Apple commercial.

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Paying my respects to the patron saint of champagne

 

The tour was still interesting, albeit we knew all the basics already. We did hear them say multiple times that someone from Moet was credited with the phrase “Champagne is the only wine that makes a woman more beautiful.” At the end of the tour, the tasting was done in the cave, which was a nice touch. But at the end of the day, I don’t really care for the taste of Moet & Chandon, and sadly they didn’t offer us any Dom.

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Exit through the gift shop, of course. I liked how the Dom section was black, while Moet was all white. It was huge, and completely over the top.

From there we went to have lunch at a small producer called Julien Chopin. We had 3 courses paired with their champagnes. My vegetarian lunch was surprisingly great, and everyone else seemed to enjoy all sorts of meat like pate, veal, etc. Of course there was local cheese and bread on hand. The dessert course was entirely pink (Beth would approve)! And then we finished with some of their Ratafia, which is a bit like port but made from chanpagne grapes.

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I’m not sure which was better – the rapsberry tart or the rose champagne…

 

Our final stop was at Andre Goutorbe, which is about as small as it gets – they produce around 50,000 bottles/year, and don’t export anything. It’s a truly family-run house. The husband and wife team are involved in all of the day to day operations… in fact, the husband was moving bottles on a fork lift while we were there.

They showed us how the grapes get pressed. Apparantly, they save the best juice for their chapagne, and then send the second-best stuff to Krug and Moet! My favourite was the Blanc de Blanc that had been aged in oak. And instead of a cage they tie the cork with string, which is a nice touch.

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Each cork has be to tied by hand.

So all in all, another great day drinking champagne, and I actually ate something besides bread and cheese!

Reims, so far

We arrived on a Sat evening, and easily found our way to our AirBnB. This is our first time using the service, and its worked out brilliantly. The apartment is small (even smaller than my SF place) but well-designed, centrally located, and has everything we need (other than maybe an umbrella). Our host even left us a bottle of champagne to welcome us to Reims.


We grabbed a quick dinner at a nearby bistro. The vegetarian food was so-so, but the house champagne was excellent and the The German had a decent meal.

They have an incredible cathedral here, and our host let us know there was some kind of light show there that night. We wandered over after dark and it was unexpectedly great – there were multiple projectors casting imagery onto the cathedral itself. At times the cathedral looked like it was painted in oil paint, then it looked colourized, or sometimes there were scantily clad men pretending to work on it (that part was weird). All with dramatic music. Not bad for our first night.


The next day was Sunday and most shops are closed. Luckily, I did manage to find an open cheese shop. The cheesemonger spoke English and was very helpful recommending some local cheeses. We also bought The Best Butter Ever. Seriously. I didn’t think I cared much about butter but The German is a fan and the cheesemonger recommended it so we bought it. I don’t think I’ve ever had such flavourful butter before. I’m now officially a Butter Snob.

The cheesemonger recommended a bakery down the street that was open so we could get some baguettes. Neither of us speaks French and not many people speak English here, so its been fun negotiating things with my terrible tourist French and charades. That said, we still managed to purchase a pretty incredible baguette.

A similar transaction happened in a wine store just before it closed (whew!), and since it had been raining non-stop, we decided to hunker down in the apartment for the rest of the day. We basically ate bread, cheese, butter, and champagne for lunch and dinner, while making great use of the wifi for travel planning and Netflix.

Monday it was still raining but we needed to get out of the house (at least for more bread), so we went to check out the interior of the cathedral. It is certainly impressive.


Since the rain wasn’t letting up, we decided the wisest thing to do would be to head to a champagne cave. Taittinger is the only champagne house that doesn’t require advance reservations, so we decided to walk there and maybe find lunch on the way. However, most places are closed on Monday, and looking things up on Yelp & Foursquare didn’t help. So one hour later we were drenched and decided to skip food and go straight to champagne.

The Taittinger tour was very interesting (and thankfully we arrived in time for an English one). A few things I learned: in France you are required to pick grapes by hand – no machinery allowed. Also, Taittinger is one of the largest houses, and 70% of their sales are from their base champagne, which is of very high quality (as they tell you, over and over again).

The tour starts with a video that explains that only “champagne” comes from France (for those dumb Americans who don’t know that), how France is the best country in the world, and how Tattinger is amazing and better than all other champagnes ever. This was accompanied with footage of the Eiffel tower, snooty people drinking champagne, etc. The condescending video went on for about 10 minutes before we got to go into the cellars. Thankfully, it improved from there.


They have almost 300 hectacres of grapes, and the caves are in a 13th century abbey over 4th century chalk mines. So in other words, this place is serious about bubbly has some major history. All in all, the caves are pretty impressive – they are seriously old and very massive. Quite a difference from Napa. Our guide did a great job – it was the right amount of education and photo-taking before they took you to their very modern tasting room.

We paid for the tasting that got us the maximum number of glasses (duh – have you met me?). It started with their most popular champagne, the Brut. This really is a great glass of champagne. Then we had a choice – I went for the Rose and Stefan had the Brut Millisémé, which I have to admit was much better. The final glass was of their highest end bottle, the Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blanc (€120/bottle), which was just as amazing as the snooty intro video implied.

It was raining even harder when we left, so we took refuge in a champagne store on our way home, where a very helpful clerk recommended a few bottles for us. (Incidentally, prices at the champagne houses are actually more than the local stores.) I’ve been telling clerks “I like Krug, except for the price” and they’ve made great recommendations.


So in summary, we spent hours walking through the rain to drink champagne on an empty stomach, and it was glorious!