CHAMPAGNE-ARDENNE IS COMPRISED OF DEPARTMENTS:  A. ARDENNES    B. MARNE    C. AUBE  and   D. HAUTE MARNE  

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FRANCE CHAMPAGNE ARDENNE ChablisIt is probably self-evident to most people what the region of Champagne is best known for – that unparalleled variety of wine that is the hallmark of the region. Indeed, the champagne industry has been highly regulated by the French government since the early twentieth century, and a wine can only be called “champagne” if it is made in this region, according to EU law. The region of Champagne, however, offers much more than just champagne – its rich cultural heritage easily rivals other regions of France. It proudly boasts five UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims. Champagne is also a region marked by interesting diversity, its cultural and historical attractions balanced by the natural landscape of the Ardennes hills in the north, as well as lakes and forests popular with locals and tourists alike.

Champagne lies in the northeast of France, sharing a small section of border with Belgium, where the breathtaking Ardennes hills dominate the landscape. The Ardennes were formed by the meandering of the river Meuse and its tributary the Semoy, eroding the steep valleys over millions of years. Today the stunning scenery of the Meuse Valley can be viewed on a day trip by car or on foot, and the more adventurous can embark on mountain biking trips to explore the area. Champagne is also home to several artificial lakes, the largest of which is the Lac du Der, also the largest man-made lake in Europe. The other main concentration of artificial lakes is in the Forêt d’Orient, or Orient Forest Regional Natural Park, 25km east of Troyes. Here at its conglomeration of three lakes, water activities are all the rage, such as sailing, fishing and water skiing.

The region is one of France’s least densely populated, so it should appeal to visitors seeking a quieter getaway, something different from often tourist-overrun regions such as the Alps, Brittany and Provence. The mostly undulating landscape south of the Ardennes is predominantly used for agriculture, with barley and alfalfa being the top products.

Many visit the region primarily for their interest in champagne, and will not be disappointed by the hundreds of champagne cellars, wine tastings and workshops on offer. While the main wine centre is Épernay, the official Champagne-Ardenne tourism office has marked out five different champagne tourist trails (the Route Tourisque du Champagne) around the region, all clearly signposted, totalling 600km and with around 80 different points of interest. Gastronomic buffs will like to try the game that comes from the Ardennes, as well as another signature product of the Ardennes, smoked ham. The presence of the many lakes in the region also signals the abundance of fish. Pork is a popular meat, with sausages and black and white pudding all characteristic of the region.

Those with a taste for culture and history will be pleased by Champagne’s churches, museums and historic towns. Reims, justifiably the main tourist city, boasts a good fine arts museum, and architectural gems like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Basilica of St-Remi, and the Palais du Tau, all UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Reims Cathedral also has the honour of having once been the site where all the kings of France since the late tenth century were crowned. Troyes, a close second, is largely known for its andouillettes (a type of sausages), gothic architecture, and distinctive stained glass tradition. Examples of the Troyes style of stained glass can be seen across the region on nearly 2,000 windows of a variety of buildings.

Also particular to Champagne is a group of about a dozen timber-framed churches found mostly in the vicinity of the Lac du Der. This represents a unique form of religious architecture, built almost entirely from wood, and found nowhere else in France. Located along country lanes amidst rural grasslands, following the trail in search of these bucolic churches brings with it the irresistible charm of going back to a quieter, calmer time.   

Champagne’s diversity offers impressive architecture, rustic small towns hidden in the countryside, stunning scenery, outdoor activities, and of course, the champagne trail. It is a region that certainly deserves more attention from visitors, but then again, one could argue that that would only undo its charm, reserved now for those discerning enough to appreciate the region’s treasures.