Mon 26th Oct – Mon 2nd Nov
From Luxembourg City we headed to Metz, the goal, to visit the newly opened Pompidou Centre which we had heard a lot about. The first thing that hit us as we arrived was the bright sunlight reflecting off the water as we crossed over one of the many stone bridges straddling the Moselle River (upon which the city is built).
Matt had read up on campsites at Dom’s and found a ‘camping municipal’ slap bang in the centre of city. Theoretically this should have been easy to find, but the fact that it was located in narrow gully and disguised by a veil of tall trees seemed to flummox our sat nav and so it took us a while. When (thanks to google earth) we did work it out, we arrived only to find that it was closed, but luckily the carpark in front did have a row of free camping bays for motorhomes, so we nestled Heidi in between two rather more glamorous looking companions before setting off to conduct a preliminary recky of Metz.
As we stepped outside Matt and I were elated by the temperature which was blissfully warm compared to Luxembourg City. It was a great time of day to take in the sites as many beautiful buildings were illuminated by the afternoon sun.
We did the touristy thing and walked around the very dramatic cathedral which seemed to be an incredible feat of architecture, stonework and craftsmanship. Then having taken our fill of photos we sat down in a cafe opposite to enjoy an early evening drink serenaded by a large Mexican looking bloke with a guitar. That evening Matt (who has been getting creative with the last of the dried Chipolte Chillies we brought from home) treated us to a delicious twist on traditional spag bol which incorporated chorizo (now a cupboard staple for us), cinnamon and the said chillies. I know it sounds a bit unusual… but it is seriously good!!
The next day, filled with the ‘vigours of spring’ (thanks to the newfound sunshine) we set of bright and early towards the Pompidou Centre. The lack of open cafes gave us the clue that we had been a bit premature, and needless to say when we arrived at the organic, rather alien looking structure, we were of course half an hour early, but it was a lovely morning, so what the hell. After forty five minutes of wandering around the outside, casting a critical eye over the build quality, structure and design there was still no sign off life and we realising we may never get in, we decided to cut our losses and go in search of coffee. It was only later after visiting the office de tourism that we found out that we had in fact misread the opening times and that pretty much everything of interest was closed on a Tuesday, so we contented ourselves with a flick around the covered market and a visit to some of the shops whilst trying to dodge the various pick pockets who were busily eye-ing up my little rucksack. We weren’t at all phased by having to be a little street wise and really enjoyed wondering around the city and spending another enjoyable evening dining in Heidi, but were sad the next morning to find that a nice german couple in the motorhome next door had been broken into in the night and to their dismay had their laptop and other bits stolen whilst they were asleep. Feeling really sorry for them, and feeling that we had had a lucky escape, we decided that it was time to move on and so we headed for Epernay a small town in the heart of the champagne region.
In Epernay Matt’s homing instinct took us directly to the office de tourism where he quickly sussed out a great independent family-run Cave for us to visit (I think it was the fact that they offered free overnight parking for Motorhomes that clinched the deal). Soon we were on our way driving past fields and fields of vines with mounting excitement and feeling the most relaxed and carefree we had felt to-date…
…a little too relaxed and carefree as it turns out, as we both completely forgot what side of the road we were supposed to be on until we found ourselves face-to-face, playing chicken with an oncoming car…
It had started when we decided to pull over to telephone the Monsieur Copin (owner of the Jacques Copin cave) to confirm our arrival. The only spot to pull over had been the opposite side of the road (something we had never previously done before) and consequently when pulling out again on the empty country road Matt’s natural instinct to keep left had kicked in. I, (excited from the conversation with the very friendly and accommodating son of Monsieur and Madame Copin) had been basking in the sunshine that streamed through Heidi’s windows daydreaming about all the fabulous champagne we were going to taste, when Matt’s slightly dumbfounded comment ‘what IS he doing!’ alerted me to the fact that something was wrong. As Matt is often bemused by the antics of french drivers I had not expected it to be anything drastic, so was surprised as I looked up to find the oncoming driver coming at us on the wrong side of the road (or so I thought).
Everything then went into slow motion as Matt veered further left onto the bank to avoid collision and the driver (having the opposite instinct) mirrored this manoeuvre and veered right onto the same bank (so we were again head to head). At that point Heidi was pretty much committed and Matt was out of manoeuvres so it was left to the other driver to swerve left around us glancing off Heidi’s back right bumper leaving a shell shocked Matt (who has never had an accident in 25 years of driving) muttering the words ‘it was my fault… I was on the wrong side’ as we pulled to a stand still. As Matt jumped out and ran up the road to talk to the driver, I wombled around (efficiency under pressure never having been my strong point) trying to open up the emergency triangle before hopping out to check that Matt was not being beaten up by some irate frenchman angrily waving a baguette (well that was the cartoon version that was happening in my head). Luckily the guy Jerome was the nicest guy we could have chosen to hit, who rather than being angry was oscillating between being genuinely concerned for our well being and congratulating himself on his nifty driving skills.
With the coolness of a cucumber and the eloquence of someone who clearly was better in english than we were in french Jerome suggested that we follow him to his place of work so that we could exchange details. At this point the sat nav was still flashing the address of the Jacque Copin champagne house (our intended destination) and as we tailed our good-humoured acquaintance, a seed of dread and humiliation began to take hold…. ‘oh no, I thought… I bet he works there’! Feeling slightly nauseous at the thought of having to rock up somewhere and go ‘oh sorry we have crashed into you… but by the way can we taste some champagne, get drunk and stay for the night’ I began to panic at the inevitable mortification that would ensue…
Luckily as it turned out, he did not work for Jacque Copin, but for Lansom (so only slightly less mortifying) as the manager of their organic champagne production. As I waited in Heidi surrounded by a gathering of tutting colleagues who (clearly thought that we were complete imbeciles) Jerome and Matt sorted out the paperwork and we then headed back down the road to Jacque Copin (hoping no-one would notice the rather large scrape down Heidi’s rear flank and the dangling tail light).
Things started to look better in the morning after a good nights sleep and once Matt had gaffer taped up Heidi’s tail light in his inimitable style, we resumed our Champagne tasting goal, walking all of 3 metres into the reception were a genial Mathieu (the son of current Monsieur Copin and grandson of the original Monsieur Copin) proceeded to give us a tour. It was great to see and hear first hand the heart-felt passion of this family of ‘Récoltant-Manipulant’ (who’s wine is produced from grapes they themselves have grown and harvested by hand) and gain an insight into the level of inherent knowledge and experience that goes into creating their own, unique varieties of Champagne. After hearing the stories, the proof was then in the pudding as we were blown away by the great tasting and incredibly good value for money Champagnes, one of which we enjoyed along side our rather tasty dinner for our second night’s stay in Heidi. Needless to say their cunning ploy of free over night pitches paid off as we came away having spent far more on Champagne than a two night stay would have ever cost us.
Having seen first hand the handiwork of a small independent Champagne producer we decided to check out the other end of the spectrum and so headed into Reims where we had a tour of the Pommery (the biggest producer in the region) Champagne caves. This was also a brilliant experience though of a completely different nature. For 18 euros (more than the cost of one of the bottles of the Jacques Copin Champagnes) we were treated to a guided tour of the dramatic underground caves that not only housed over 25 million bottles of champagnes produced by the Vranken-Pommery estate, but were also home to collection of assorted contemporary works from some renown french artists, echoing the tradition of mixing art and champagne that had been started by the redoubtable Madam Pommery, the Grand Dame of Champagne in 1858 as she forged her highly lucrative and much desired empire. I believe (reading between the lines) that Madam Pommery had been quite a force to be reckoned with and probably would have given Margret Thatcher a run for her money had she been alive in the 1980s. Indeed, Matt and I noted with some amusement that Monsieur Greno (the original partner in the business) clearly didn’t last very long when Madame Pommery took over (after her husbands untimely death), a hunch that was confirmed by the fact that she had obviously ordered a gate to be built in the wall where his name had once been (presumably to wipe out any recollection of his inconsequential being).
Having thoroughly enjoyed our forays into the art of Champagne production, we headed west to Vernon to the home of my lovely cousin (and Dom’s lovely sister) CH. We were so excited to be visiting, as CH and Ben (her partner) had recently bought their first house together, a lovely two bedroomed farmhouse with outbuildings and large garden that was now home to their two chickens Blondette and Grissette. Unfortunately Ben was away on location (he is a ‘Chef Designer’ in charge of the creative vision numerous films) but CH was there to provide us with a very warm and exuberant welcome. Consequentially I eventually rolled into bed many glasses of wine later feeling somewhat worse for wear.
That weekend we enjoyed full emersion into rural french life as we visited the large dynamic food market (me feeling somewhat green from the night before) and then joined a large group of CH and Ben’s friends in their annual apple picking exploits gathering 1 1/2 tones of apples which they would then make into very delicious homegrown cider (a tradition started by Ben and their next door neighbour David) … they do live in Normandy after all.
Not ones to shy away from work Matt and I rolled up our sleeves and got stuck-in (our efforts were richly rewarded by David the following day as he insisted in loading Heidi up with 6 large bottles of finished article that they had produced the year before). That evening, feeling somewhat achy after hours of picking and loading up, we were delighted to be invited to dinner by two of our fellow pickers, Remy and Melanie, as a result (I believe) of Matt’s dry sense of humour (Matt having not been at all phased by Remy’s hazing of ‘Les Anglaises’ and having given back as good as he got).
An evening of french banter (which we just about were able to follow) ensued as Remy’s friend Ken prepared a traditional Burgundy dish that is the exclusive purview of wine makers from that region and that very few french people (let alone Anglaises) get to try, as it is made from the pulp of the burgundy grapes once the wine has been pressed. The meal was very french affair with many delicious courses; fish (whelks, shrimp and oysters); cold meats (saucisson, pork rillette and cured beef); the main course; cheese and then desert. Matt handled it admirably, even managing to politely sample a whelk during the fish course while I tucked into the oysters, though he did get a told off for his wine etiquette by Ken who explained the correct protocol to him. Apparently in France the person who brings the wine must be the one to sample it before serving to ensure that it is up to standard. Matt good-humouredly pointed out that English etiquette was to ensure that all the glasses were full at any given time which caused amusement and set off more banter. In fairness to Ken, we hadn’t quite realised the calibre of wine that had been brought and it was only when we realised that it was a 17 year old Grand Cru (one of only a hundred bottles) that we really began to appreciate the importance of the protocol…. as lets face it, without any explanation an innocent ‘Anglais’ could well end up just necking it without even realising its calibre.
The next day, we all over slept a little and then awoke bleary eye-ed to trying to get our heads around what to cook for lunch, as CH’s french cousin Bruno was coming over with his wife Lucile and their two kids Lilly Rose and Jules. CH and Matt headed off to the butchers to buy some meat and came back with some amusing anecdotes about being told off for not understanding the ‘Boucherie’ etiquette or apparently the time it takes to cook a beef bourguignon. They arrived back in the end with a joint of beef, having been thoroughly chastised, and we all set to work preparing veg for the roast.
Bruno and Lucile arrived (luckily half an hour late as we were running behind schedule) and we spent a laid back afternoon enjoying a long all fresco lunch, relaxing in the garden, telling stories (Bruno has a great sense of humour) and playing with the kids. All too soon the time had come for them to depart as they had to drive back to Paris, so we said our goodbyes and then collapsed into comfy chairs for the evening. Though we had all vowed to get an early night in preparation for our early start in the morning, CH and I still managed to stay up chatting in our usual fashion and didn’t get to bed until way past 1pm.. so the 6.30am start the next morning was a bit of a shock to the system. But we managed to get Heidi loaded up and wave goodbye to CH as she set off for work before hitting the road once more ourselves.