Watery delights in Champagne

Think of Champagne and you’ll think of the obvious. Le Champagne is the wonderful sparkling stuff of celebration. But then there’s La Champagne: the ‘La’ means we’re talking of the region a couple of hours or so east of Paris where, of course champagne is exclusively produced, but there’s a lot more to it than that: one of the great wildlife sights of Europe along with some extraordinary village churches and a boat ride with a difference. Writes Tim Locke with photos by Diana Jarvis.

Cranespotting and other nature treats around the Lac du Der

Part of a vast, watery landscape in La Champagne, the vast Lac du Der reveals all sorts of birdlife, enough to hook even the most least kitted non-birders. It wasn’t made for the birds, but within weeks of the reservoir’s opening in 1974, all sorts of feathered species grabbed their opportunity and settled in.

In winter, it’s France’s best site for spotting cranes (grues in French means both cranes that fly and cranes that you see on building sites). They winter on this, part of a chain of lakes that was constructed as a flood avoidance scheme between the 1930s and 1970s. Feeder canals regulate the flow with the rivers Seine and Marne, and that way Paris has avoided seeing a repeat of three catastrophic inundations in the first part of the 20th century.

Avian giant: one of thousands of cranes wintering around Lac du Der Credit: Diana Jarvis

Avian giant: one of thousands of cranes wintering around Lac du Der. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

With a wingspan of up to 2.2m, cranes are France’s largest wild bird, present here from mid-October to mid-March, though at their most numerous during November to January. They need to keep a lookout for white-tailed sea eagles, which are their main predators. The cranes make the Lac du Der their major stopover from northern Europe, Scandinavia and Russia en route to Spain. The big, hedgeless fields hereabouts provide the ideal feeding ground, stuffed full of seeds, worms and other goodies, while the adjacent lakes are their bedroom.

What else apart from cranes?

You’ll see great egrets, which are here all year, standing tall in the water, along with profusions of ospreys, coots, swans and geese, with the biggest range occurring during May to August when you might even see over a hundred species in a single day.

Elsewhere around Lac du Der

It’s not all about birding, though: the lake brings over a million tourists a year, for cruises, canoeing, boating, swimming, jetskiing, walking, swimming and cycling. Accommodation is busy all year round and there’s no low season.

Birders on the lookout by a dam on Lac du Der. Photo Diana Jarvis.

Birders on the lookout by a dam on Lac du Der. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

Follow the story of how the valley was drowned to the nearby Village-Musée-du-Lac-Der, open in the summer months, which remembers the 300 inhabitants displaced by the drowning of the valley to create Lac du Der. It was founded by local villagers who’d collected all sorts of items relating to everyday life in the valley. The centrepiece is a painstakingly detailed scale model of local heritage buildings, many of which have disappeared; they were made by an elderly local who first modelled his house and then the church – a true labour of love. Outside stands a re-erected half-timbered church, from one of the drowned villages, rescued from oblivion.

Lac d’Orient

Three more reservoirs here, and you’ll see similar birds and in similar numbers to Lac du Der, though it’s not so well known, and paths take you further round the shores than at Lac du Der. In the forest and on the lakeshore in August and September this is the only place in France where you can see the rare black stork, while in winter you might glimpse white-tailed eagles in the forest. Particularly special is the fauna – local and historic species – housed in a series of very large enclosures in the Espace Faune de la Forêt d’Orient. So large, in fact, that you walk on a wide strip between fences and look out – and feel that it’s you who are enclosed. You’ll encounter roe deer, wild boar, a range of reptiles and various creatures that used to roam wild hereabouts, including bison, European elk and, if you’re really patient or just lucky, the elusive auroch – the ancestor of domestic cattle.

Two bison and a calf graze in the Espace Faune de la Forêt d'Orient. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

Two bison and a calf graze in the Espace Faune de la Forêt d’Orient. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

Montier Photo Festival

The Montier Photo Festival, on wildlife, takes place in 15 venues on the third week in November– one ticket covers all. Since its opening year in 1997 it has grown to become the leading photographic exhibition of its kind in the world. Anyone can enter for it, but be aware the standard is stratospherically high.

Moulin de Dosches

Windmills would once have been dotted all over the place in the Champagne region but nearly all of them have disappeared. That prompted a team of locals to recreate a fully functional four-sailed 18th-century windmill, the Moulin de Dosches, in 2007. They sell flour and run a boulangerie here, and make a point of sourcing organic wheat. Should you be in the area for the cranes in late November, beat a path here for the windmill’s Christmas festival, with fireworks and plenty else happening.

Magical mystery tour in Châlons

The medieval cloth-making town of Châlons-en-Champagne is laced with canals, but the electrically powered boat cruise named Métamorph’eau’ses is like no other you’ve probably ever experienced. The boat glides through tunnels, and as you go, the darkness is magically transformed into a sound and sight show: eerie lights, shimmering and swirling images, and hypnotic colours are projected from the boat to the accompaniment of a musical medley – think of it as a moving art gallery on steroids.

They run the 45-minute trips from the tourist office in daytime, past a training school for circus artistes, the UNESCO-listed church of Notre-Dame-en-Vaux and a house where Marie-Antoinette once lodged. At night it’s even better as images are flashed up onto heritage sights beside the water too. Book well ahead, as the night tours in particular are hugely popular.

Psychedelic wonderland on the boat trip around Châlons-en-Champagne. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

Psychedelic wonderland on the boat trip around Châlons-en-Champagne. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

Variations on a half-timbered theme

Around the great lakes are plenty of opportunities for getting into deepest rural France. Here village populations seldom number more than a hundred and you’ll likely see more deer or coypu in the fields than people in the street. It’s great country to ride a bike – for inspiration, see the tourist authority’s free cycling map to the area. You can amble along silent, unfenced roads past houses with serious-looking woodstacks and poplars hung with mistletoe

Up to the 19th century, buildings were invariably made of wood, as timber was readily available, the carpentry skills were prevalent and other materials were unaffordable. So it’s no surprise that half timbering – pan de bois – is so much the local hallmark. During the late 15th to early 16th century numbers of half-timbered churches were built: these extraordinary barn-like structures are really worth going out of your way for. Fourteen of these are entirely timber-framed; a further 14 are part stone and part timber. All of them were restored in the 1970s and 80s.

Hidden well away, Troyes’ 16th-century Hotel du Lion Noir was rediscovered in 1997. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

Hidden well away, Troyes’ 16th-century Hotel du Lion Noir was rediscovered in 1997. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

Outines, a veritable metropolis of 113 inhabitants, has the largest of the pan de bois churches, standing noticeably wonky in the swampy soil. At Lentilles, the church of St James and St Philip has an interior lit up wonderfully by its 16th-century stained glass.

One of the region’s major cities, Troyes has labyrinthine alleys, streets of overhanging houses of an eye-opening range of colours and supposedly a hundred steeples: yet more pan de bois and it’s gorgeous-looking to boot. It suffered a major fire in 1524 but was rebuilt almost identically afterwards and its centre avoided much of a makeover after that. It’s a place perfect for unstructured wandering, through hidden-away galleried timber-framed courtyards such as the Cour du Mourtier, and into its numerous churches – no other city in France has such a wealth of stained glass. Waterways hem the historic centre into an area uncannily like a champagne cork in plan: you can’t go far in La Champagne without being reminded of Le Champagne, so that might be the perfect cue to seek out a glass of that heavenly fizzy stuff.

Lentilles church, where the wall above the porch is clad in chestnut shingles. Photo © Credit: Diana Jarvis.

Lentilles church, where the wall above the porch is clad in chestnut shingles. Photo © Diana Jarvis.

Eat and stay

Auberge du Lac – Hotel incorporating the justly renowned restaurant (Au Vieux Pressoir) under chef Patrick Gublin with regional cuisine served in low ceilinged restaurant with big beams – a rustic look with rough stone walls but a calming, mellow atmosphere. For breakfast a huge spread of local products including pressed apple juice. Simple but well-equipped bedrooms and a fine spa.

La Maison des Officiers – Immaculately converted former military livery stables and house in Montier-en-Der – ideally placed minutes from the lake, this has ten bedrooms and kitchen area. B&B only – owners live off premises so you can take the whole place over with a house party. High ceilinged with good quality part repro furniture. The very reasonably priced rooms overlook the large yard or the extremely quiet village square with its church.

Acknowledgements

Tim Locke visited the area as a guest of Champagne-Ardenne Tourism, travelling via Eurostar to Paris and then by high-speed train to Rheims, returning by train from Troyes.

4 Comments

  1. Well done, Tim – well-researched but with an individual voice and particular slant. So much better than all the random Top Ten list versions of Champagne trips I’ve spotted on other sites.

    • MannedUp says:

      We love Tim’s article and hope he’ll contribute further pieces. It sounds a gorgeous part of France.

  2. Kerry Dale says:

    I’ll be travelling there with my family over the summer. We’ll be birding there and look forward to visiting heritage sites and Champagne cellars. Thanks for the suggestions.

  3. Lisa McCracken says:

    I feel inspired to go birding. I love the idea of a glass of bubbles afterwards!

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