2015-08-03 Chalons-en-Champagne – Fismes

Today’s photo shows one of the Moet et Chandon vineyards in Hautvillers in Champagne. Hautvillers is where Dom Perignon perfected the production of white wine from red grapes around 1690. The techniques he used caused bubbles to form in the white wine and this sparkling wine eventually came to be known as champagne all round the world.

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Today – 80 km. Total so far – 2265 km. The heatwave was back with a bang today. It was 35 degrees leaving Chalons-en-Champagne and 38 degrees when I arrived in Fismes.

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Weeping willow tree at Chalons-en-Champagne campsite. It was near mid-day before I got away from Chalons campsite as I didn’t want to leave such a lovely site.

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St Etienne cathedral in the centre of Chalons-en Champagne. This cathedral was consecrated in 1147, so it is nearly 800 years old.

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Route touristique de Champagne. In such a scenic area, it is hard to believe that in 451 AD up to 300,000 men were killed here in the Battle of Chalons when a coalition of Gauls and Romans defeated the Germanic tribes lead by Attila the Hun.

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Though Attila was defeated in this battle, his forces continue to rampage through France and Italy and it would be another 3 years before the Huns were totally defeated. At the time of this battle, Attila’s empire was as big as the Roman Empire and encompassed most of Eastern Europe. The battle marks the last significant Roman victory and mirrored the First World War in that a coalition of French and Italian armies eventually defeated the Hungarian and German forces.

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Street art in Vraux Why did the chicken cross the road ? or as they say in France “Pourquoi le poulet at-il traverse la route ?”.

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Canal de la Marne a l’Aisne at Conde-sur-Marne. This canal travels about 58 km to the north through Reims and to the town of Berry-au-Bac on the river Aisne. The canal was completed in 1866 but had to be totally re-built after being destroyed in World War 1.

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Traditional oak barrel for fermenting champagne at Ay. Many famous champagne brands, such as Krug and Bollinger, are based in Ay. The name of the  town is often used to refer to wines from Champagne in the same way as Bordeaux is used to mean wines from the Gironde. It is hard to believe though that this sleepy town only 3 km from Epernay was the epicenter of the Champagne Riots of 1911. Bad weather in 1910 led to a 96% of the crop in the vineyards around Ay being lost. Champagne producers had to ship grapes from other parts of France and this led to a lot of resentment in the local area. Finally, in April 1911, the poor harvest and low prices they were being offered for their grapes caused a mob of vineyard owners to attack the champagne houses in Ay. Dozens of premises were ransacked and then set on fire during the evening of April 12 1911. The French government had to send 40,000 troops to the region to restore order. In the aftermath of the riot, champagne houses were forced to pay an agreed price for grapes and to pay more for grapes from Grand Cru villages such as Ay.

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Moet et Chandon vineyard in Hautvillers. I was surprised how little fencing there was around these valuable vines. These grapes are literally worth thousands yet I could have easily helped myself to some of them. Moet et Chandon now own the 25 hectares of Benedictine Abbey grounds in Hautvillers where Dom Perignon himself grew his grapes and perfected the methode champenoise. The company also recently paid for the Abbey building and cloisters in Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers to be restored.

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Approach road to the village of Hautvillers There was quite a steep climb up to the village. The hill is obviously beneficial for growing wine but not so beneficial to a weary cyclist on a very hot day.

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Hautvillers, where champagne was perfected by Dom Perignon 325 years ago. Dom Perignon is often credited with inventing champagne whereas in fact, he spent his whole life trying to remove the bubbles from his wine. Dom Pierre Perignon was employed as cellar master at the Benedictine Abbey in Hautvillers. It was there that he perfected the production of white wine from red wine grapes, particularly Pinot Noir. But he looked upon bubbles in his wine as a fault that would destroy the glass bottles if there was too much pressure. It was actually, an English scientist called Christopher Merritt who discovered that the bubbles were caused by sugar which built up when the wine stopped fermenting during the cold winter in the Champagne region. The English loved the sparkling wine and would often add extra sugar to French wine to make it even more bubbly. Indeed, it would be 100 years after Dom Perignon’s death before the French took to champagne and many of the famous champagne brands such as Moet et Chandon and Tattinger date from this period.

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View of the Moet et Chandon and other vineyards from above the village of Hautvillers. Vineyards, vineyards as far as your eyes could see. I was about 150m above the road in this photo and still had another 100m to climb to get to the top of the hill.

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Field of stubble on fire. There were tractors in the adjacent field lifting bales of barley straw out of the way of the fire but they were unable to collect all the bales in time as the fire was spreading quite quickly. About 10 minutes after I took this photo, a fire engine overtook me on its way to tackle this blaze..

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World War 1 cemetery at Marfaux. This was the first of hundreds of cemeteries I was to come across this week. Most of these soldiers were killed in Spring 1918 when the Germans launched an attack to surround Reims but were fought back by Allied forces.

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Bligny-Chambrecy Italian cemetery. I was well aware that Italy had joined the Allies in World War 1 in 1915 and had fought a bloody campaign in the Italian Alps against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But  I had no idea that Italian troops had fought here on the Western Front. It turns out that Italy sent a total of 41,000 troops to help the French repel the German advance in Spring 1918. Over 5,000 Italians were killed here in Champagne-Ardennes and over 3,000 of them are buried in a cemetery on a hill overlooking the town of Bligny.

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38 degrees at 8 o’clock in the evening in Fismes. Today was the hottest day since I was down near the Med 2 weeks ago.

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Municipal campsite in Fismes. The campsite is located in the industrial part of town but is beautifully maintained and it was a great place to spend the night. I had to use a code to access the toilet but the facilities were spotless. It is only a small campsite but is very well laid out and they even had 240V charge-points at each pitch.

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