HAUTVILLERS, France — This small village in France's Champagne region, about an hour and a half from Paris, would be worth visiting for its picturesque charm alone.
Winding cobbled streets meander past tiny houses, shops and restaurants swathed in roses and columbine. From the buildings dangle wrought-iron signs — some rustic, others elaborate — symbols of the trade of each building's occupant. Continuing up the steep lanes to the top of the village, near Hautvillers Abbey, one gets an unobstructed view of the vineyards that spread out in all directions like an emerald quilt.
But what makes Hautvillers special — even in grape- obsessed France — is that it was here in the 17th century that a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon did not, as popular culture would have us believe, invent champagne. What he did discover was a way to keep the bubbly from exploding by storing it in thicker bottles and using string to lash down the corks.
Since I've already dashed one illusion, I might as well dash another. There is documented evidence that it was not even a Frenchman who discovered the country's favorite drink, but, gasp, an Englishman: 17th-century scientist and physician Christopher Merrit. In fact, the French considered the presence of the bubbles a flaw instead of what gave the wine its sparkle.
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Still, the famed champagne house of Moët & Chandon thought highly enough of Dom Perignon to name its prestige cuvée in his honor. I think it was a good call. Popping the cork on a bottle of "Christopher Merrit" just doesn't have the same cachet.
So, while in Hautvillers, go ahead and revel in the illusion of Dom Perignon being the man who gave us champagne. The town's residents certainly do, and the two most important statues at the abbey are, predictably, those of the famous monk, who was its cellar master, and St. Vincent, patron saint of wine.
Hautvillers is one leg of the so-called Champagne Triangle, which includes Reims and Épernay. Even without the champagne, Reims is a city well worth a visit, primarily because of the importance of its Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims and the Saint-Remi Basilica.
The cathedral could be described as France's version of England's Westminster Abbey — the traditional coronation site of all French kings. The 13th-century cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, with its rose window; its statue of Clovis, the 6th-century Frankish king credited with unifying France; and paintings by Tintoretto, Poussin and Chagall. The basilica, a short walk from the cathedral, conserves the relics of Saint Remi, the bishop of Reims who converted Clovis to Christianity.
But Reims does have the champagne: The famous houses of Louis Roederer, Taittinger, Mumm, Krug, Piper-Heidsieck, Pommery and Veuve Clicquot are all headquartered here, with their bottles aging in the miles of caverns and tunnels below the city center.
Most are open for tours and tastings, but if you have time for only one, I suggest Veuve Clicquot, "the champagne of royalty." During the Napoleonic Wars, Madame Clicquot, something of a marketing guru, made her wine indispensable in the royal courts throughout Europe. It was a particular favorite of the imperial czars of Russia; Napoleon himself was a fan, preferring to uncork it with an army saber; and today, it holds a royal warrant from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.
The town of Épernay has been called the capital of champagne, and the palatial Avenue de Champagne is lined with elegant mansions belonging to some of the region's most important houses, including Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouett and De Castellane. A good introduction is to hop aboard the little train that leaves from the tourism office for a cruise past the mansions before returning to the office for — what else? — a tasting of the region's best bubbly.
Rising to the occasion
I'm of the opinion that there is no bad place to sip champagne, but entrepreneurial Parisian Olivier Couteau has come up with what has to be the most original: a tree house. The Perchingbar is nestled 18 feet high in the trees at Parc Arboxygène, an extreme adventure park that's a 20-minute drive from Épernay.
To claim my reward — a chilled flute of Mumm's — I had to negotiate a raised walkway and a swinging rope bridge (easier going up than going down, I can assure you) to reach the world's only champagne bar in the trees. A wraparound terrace is perfect for warm-weather sipping while watching the zipliners skimming through the trees around you. Inside the tree house, plush banquettes and sofas provide seating for 30 guests, and all-natural wood and solar panel lighting add to the ambiance.
The town of Troyes, south of Reims, is not, strictly speaking, part of the Champagne Triangle, but that didn't stop town planners from laying out the city center in the shape of a champagne cork, with boundaries composed of tree-lined boulevards and the River Seine.
There already was a town here when Julius Caesar and his Roman legions came conquering, and the visible layers of history make Troyes a joy for the walker. Your first stop might be the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Troyes, known for its beautiful stained-glass windows. The town, in fact, has been lauded for preserving all of its stained-glass windows through the French Revolution and two world wars, and painstakingly restoring them to their original condition. Next to the cathedral, the Bishop's Palace now houses a museum of modern art.
Your best memories of Troyes, however, are likely to be of strolling its picturesque streets. Narrow alleys are lined with half-timbered houses, some so close together that it's possible for a cat to leap from one balcony to another. One of the most well-preserved of these houses is the Maison du Dauphin, built for an heir to the French throne.
Champagne — the region and the drink — are worthy of reverence. The region is one of France's loveliest, and as for the drink, I'll let Dom Perignon have the last word. He might not have invented champagne, but he gave us the best description of drinking it when he said, "I am tasting the stars."