We once again team up with travel writer Anthony Peregrine who over the years has designed and operated several fascinating and memorable French holidays for Bibby's customers. His chosen destination this year is to the Champagne region of France. Champagne: the word itself summons up all the effervescence of celebration and a zestful elegance and we'll have ample opportunity on this trip to discover that that's true, not least with a visit to one of champagne's major production houses. But, splendid though the bubbles are, there's much more to this lovely rural region.
In contrast to the sophisticated image, it's had its tough times. Strategically positioned in North-East France, Champagne has been kicked about whenever northern Europe came to blows, notably during the Great War of 1914-18. Reims, where we'll be based, was almost completely destroyed by German shelling. It's been put back together with monumental authenticity - the cathedral remains a Gothic masterpiece plus elements of art deco, and wit. It's now one of the liveliest towns of northern France.
We'll track the war to the battlefields of Verdun as significant in French history as the Somme is in British and brilliantly commemorated, and evoked, by the French. On a lighter note, we'll discover the food of the region with a trip to, and boat ride through, the Ardennes hills and then it will be back to bubbles, when we visit independent family champagne producers.
These farming men and women constitute the backbone of the region but are rarely heard of beyond the champagne region. Their wines, as we'll see, are terrific, their food not bad, either and their welcomes are first class. Over the five days, then, we should build up a picture of a region which dazzles on the world stage, but remains rooted in the soil, and unflinching historical reality.
CURRENCY - Currency required for this tour will be the Euro.
PASSPORT REQUIRED - We require full christian names, date of birth & passport country of issue. Please have these details ready when booking.
The 4 star Mercure Reims Centre Cathedrale Hotel is ideally located just a short distance from Notre Dame Cathedral. All the comfortable air-conditioned bedrooms are en-suite with TV, telephone, tea making facilities and Wi-fi. There is a restaurant and lounge bar. There is a lift.
Late morning transfer to Hull for the overnight ferry crossing to Zeebrugge. (Meals not included).
We travel through Belgium and into France to Reims for 6 nights half board accommodation at the Mercure Reims Central Cathedrale. Our tour will be accompanied by distinguished travel writer Anthony Peregrine who will join us in Reims for the duration of our stay.
This morning we visit Taittinger - one of the great Champagne houses of Reims a highly sophisticated big-name champers house, with extraordinary cellars dating back to 4th century AD, when they were used for the extraction of stone for building. Now hundreds of thousands of bottles of champagne age in peace underground. A good introduction to the international side of champagne production. The visit concludes with a champagne tasting. We return to Reims in time to buy lunch and then join Anthony for a gentle walking tour of Reims to help you get you bearings of this wonderful city. The tour concludes at the stunning cathedral.
Drive round the edge of the Montagne de Reims, one of the three key production areas of champagne. The 'montagne' isn’t really a mountain, more a low flat hill with bespoke-tailored vines rolling up and down the slopes. Like a necklace, the country road links champagne villages boasting the prettiness of hard-won prosperity and the sense that champagnes, sparkling around the world though they may be, are really rooted in a landscape upon which man and nature have bestowed epic tranquillity. We spend time in the town of Epernay which disputes with Reims the title of 'capital of Champagne'. Here's the avenue-de-Champagne, which Churchill called 'the most drinkable street in the world'. Here also is a tethered hot-air balloon, offering an unbeatable view of the surroundings as you ascend to approx. 150 metres (price not included). Onwards then to the tiny village of Chamery where we enjoy a buffet lunch at a local family owned champagne producer, after which we take a little tourist train trip out into the fields and through the vines, led by a proper wine-maker, to explain how champagne grapes are produced.
Today, we leave the champagne region - just - for its next-door neighbour directly to the north, the Ardennes, a region of hills, valleys, forest and hearty food hard against the Belgium border. It's quite a change from the flatter land of Champagne. We go to its capital, Charleville-Mezieres for coffee and a look at the splendid central, arcaded square - it was modelled on the Place des Vosges in Paris and is outstanding. One of the sources of renown and pride in the Ardennes is their mastery of, and taste for, cooked and cured meats - hams, salamis, pates and the rest. We visit a leading charcuterie production house, have a tasting of their meats - and then lunch on site. In the afternoon we get back onto the coach for the short drive up into the forested hills of the Ardennes and then down to the delightful little town of Montherme, which is almost completely encircled by the River Meuse. There we take a river boat for a 90-minute exploration of the Ardennes landscape, riverside cliffs and forests.
A contrast today as we head for Verdun. It would be very remiss indeed to be in this part of North-East France and not visit the place whose name tolls through French history as the name of the Somme tolls through the history of Britain and the Commonwealth. This was the French army’s most resolute hour, the longest and bloodiest battle in history - in which they held out, for almost the full year of 1916, against the full might of a German army determined to break through right here, advance on Paris and so win the war. It was, in short, desperate. 'They shall not pass', it was said. And they didn't, though hundreds of thousands died on both sides between February and December and the hilly landscape was devastated. To such an extent that six or seven villages were never rebuilt. They were deemed to have 'died for France'. We'll visit one, with streets still detectible and plaques indicating who had lived where. All around, the land is now forested - the French government forbade building or farming, for too many bodies lay (and still lie) beneath a surface still pitted with shell craters. As well as the destroyed village, we'll visit one of the (mainly) underground forts which the French built to defend Verdun against the Hun - and the vast national ossuary where thousands upon thousands of French soldiers with no known graves lie beneath monumental memorials. This is truly moving. We include lunch at a nearby cafe/restaurant. Later in the day we visit the renewed Verdun Memorial - for exceptional, and contemporary, coverage of the Great War across this region, and Verdun in particular.
Easier, and less emotionally charged day today. Short drive to Hautvillers, the prettiest village in Champagne, with startling views down to the Marne river valley and, in the church, the tomb of monk Dom Perignon. He probably wasn't, as often claimed, the inventor of champagne - but he certainly pushed its development along, thus becoming the most important person in its history. From there, another short drive to the village of Cramant on the Cote-des-Blancs, another key champers production region. There we visit the family champagne-producing premises of Champagne Voirin-Jumel where lady of the house Alice Voirin will introduce us to her vineyard and her wines - and provide a simple but interesting buffet brunchy-lunch. It should be fascinating, and tasty! Gentle drive back to Reims, for a free late afternoon - or further exploration of the city.
Departing after breakfast we bid farewell to Anthony and head north to Zeebrugge via the beautiful city of Ypres, the site of some of the First World War's biggest battles. Mid-afternoon we continue our journey north to Zeebrugge for our overnight crossing to Hull.
Hull to local area. Arrive home lunchtime.
2 nights aboard P&O Ferries in 2 berth inside cabins (meals not included), 6 nights dinner, bed & breakfast plus 4 lunches, Luxury coach travel with on-board toilet & facilities, Services of experienced tour driver, Services of excellent guide/travel writer in Reims.
EXCURSIONS - entry to Taittinger champagne house (including tasting), tourist train journey, charcuterie visit (including meat tasting), river boat trip, entry to underground fort and Verdun Memorial, vineyard visit.
Please note that this is quite a demanding tour with several visits on foot and is therefore not suitable for people who have mobility issues.
DEPOSIT: £80.00 per person
Single supplement: £300.00, Outside cabin single occupancy: £40.00 return, Outside cabin supplement: £25.00 per person return, Lower berth supplement: £20.00 per person return, Return dinner & breakfast package on P&O Ferries: £60.00 per person in the Kitchen Restaurant.