It won’t shock you to hear that Champagne-Ardenne is the home of the world’s favourite sparkling wine.
Many people will spend entire holidays touring the prestigious Champagne houses and descending into the cool Crayères, chalk caves where vintners have stored champagne for hundreds of years.
The city of Reims is steeped in Champagne history, and also just happens to be where nearly all the French kings were crowned.
Yes, there’s far more to Champagne-Ardennes than just the drink: Charles de Gaulle called the region “home”, and there’s a first-rate theme park, sober war memorials, rolling countryside and neatly-conserved medieval towns like Troyes.
Lets explore the best things to do in Champagne-Ardenne:
1. The Champagne Trail
Few beverages share champagne’s reputation for luxury and prestige, and you can immerse yourself in its culture and history along a 250-mile designated route.
This runs along the plain and over hills furrowed with green vines tended by growers cultivating pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes since the 1600s.
You’ll pay homage to your favourite brands, learn about secondary fermentation and, of course, taste world-class wine.
Whatever your plans, there are certain experiences you shouldn’t leave out, like entering the Crayères, cool medieval chalk quarries where wines have been stored for centuries.
Veuve Clicquot is essential, with 24 kilometres of galleries, while those at Ruinart reach heights of 50 metres.
2. Reims Cathedral
Every French King, from Charles the Simple to Charles X, was crowned right here.
Before you enter, pause below the portals, which have more sculptures than any other European cathedral except for Chartres.
Combine a visit to the Episcopal Palace of Tau next door, where the cathedral’s treasury is on show and where the the post-coronation banquet would take place.
See the sainte-ampoule, which contains a fragment of the flask used to anoint the kings in the coronation ceremony, but was smashed in the Revolution.
For fans of modern art, Marc Chagall designed the stained glass windows on the axis of the apse, and these were added in 1974 several decades after the cathedral was damaged in the First World War.
3. Nigloland, Dolancourt
Champagne-Ardenne may not be a region that kids will get excited about: Until they see this theme park, which is just behind France’s big-hitters like Disneyland for popularity.
Most of the attractions are for under-10s, but older kids can look forward to a decent set of roller coasters and thrill rides, including the new Donjon de l’Extrême, a 100-metre drop tower, the highest in the country.
Waiting times are never more than hour or so, even in mid-summer.
Grown-ups can relax by ambling through Nigloland’s extensive forest and flower gardens.
4. Avenue de Champagne, Épernay
You can’t visit Champagne and not come to this grand street in Épernay where several iconic brands have their headquarters.
You could say it is Champagne’s spiritual home, with extravagant manifestations of the wealth that the industry brought these winemakers in the 18th and 19th century.
There are some 200 million bottles of champagne beneath this street, which we’re told makes it even richer than the Champs-Élysées .The first house on the avenue to open its doors to the public was Moët & Chandon way back at the start of the 19th century; it would be shame not to drop in for a visit and pick up a couple of bottles!
5. Ouvrage La Ferté, Villy
During the Battle of France the Maginot Line was mostly circumvented by the Germans, but isolated positions like Ouvrage La Ferté saw heavy combat, which makes it unique but also a deeply moving sire because of the loss of life.
It’s been left as it was at the end of the conflict and is now a war memorial.
The two large concrete combat blocks are pocked with shell damage, and you can go into the tunnels on a guided tour.
You’ll be able to climb up into the moving gun turrets, feel the weight of a machine gun and load an anti-tank gun, to drive home what it was like on the Maginot Line.
6. Château de Sedan
This is a castle of serious proportions, and when it was completed in the mid-16th century it was the largest feudal fortress in Europe.
Four thousand men could fit inside its walls, the narrowest sections of which were still seven metres thick.
It’s a place that will really spark kids’ imaginations, particularly if you come when there’s a falconry demonstration or jousting tournament.
On a tour you’ll meet characters in medieval costume, like a belligerent knight challenging you to a duel, and as you go through the ramparts and bastions you’ll learn about the Princes of Sedan wielded power at this fortress.
7. Abbey of Saint-Remi, Reims
This building is part of a UNESCO site with Reims Cathedral.
It’s a romanesque and gothic basilica attached to an abbey that was founded in the 8th century.
The basilica still contains the relics of Saint-Remi, who was canonised for baptising the Frankish king Clovis at the turn of the 6th century.
The building as we see it is from the 1000s and 1200s, although it was looted in the Revolution and the roof needed replacing after German bombing in 1918. There’s a lot of detail, rich in symbolism that you have to keep an eye out for, like the “Couronne de Lumière” a chandelier with 96 candles, one for each year of Saint Remi’s life.
8. Place Ducale, Charleville-Mézières
If you’ve ever been to the Place des Vosges in Paris, you can discover its near-identical sister square in Charleville-Mézières.
It was designed by Clément Métezeau, the 17th-century royal architect who was also responsible for the seawall at La Rochelle.
It’s a rectangular plaza 127 metres by 90 with arcaded renaissance palaces on three sides.
In summer you can soak up the atmosphere for a few minutes from one of the square’s cafes, and at this time of year there are also beach-style games for little ones, with a big paddling pool and carousel.
Also on Place Ducale is the Museum of Ardennes, with natural history and archaeological exhibits telling the story of the region.
9. Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière, Troyes
Set in the beautiful Hôtel de Mauroy, a 16th-century renaissance mansion, this unusual museum presents the many tools needed for manual trades in the 18th and 19th centuries, just before mass production.
There are 11,000 tools in all, exhibited in 65 showcases, displayed to seem like they’re being held by an invisible hand.
The tools are organised according to their craft, and it’s surprising to see how they evolved over the centuries and don’t appear so different from the ones we have in our toolboxes today.
You’ll find axes, forks, hammers, needles, planes, knives, trowels, spades and a lot more, all collected by the Jesuit priest who founded the museum.
10. Villa Demoiselle, Reims
Just across the road from the Pommery Estate is a Belle Époque masterpiece, commissioned by the art collector and wine merchant Henry Vasniers in 1890. The building had been threatened with demolition but was bought by the Pommery owner Paul-François Vranken in 2004 and completely restored.
The interior combines Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture and fittings, including a mahogany bar designed by Louis Majorelle and a fireplace by Paul Alexandre-Dumas, one of Majorelle’s followers, and submitted to the 1900 World Expo.
Round off a visit with a glass of champagne in this matchless house.
11. Troyes Cathedral
As with the abbey in Reims, a religious building has occupied this site since the dark ages.
The current building took several centuries to complete up to the 1700s.
This was partly down to a couple of catastrophes: A tornado destroyed the steeple in the 14th century, and then a lightning strike brought it down again in 1700, after which it was never rebuilt.
The building is a marvel of gothic art, exemplified by the rose window on the north transept with the most intricate tracery.
Precious art abounds inside the building, and you could lose a lot of time studying every piece of renaissance sculpture.
12. Musée d’Art Moderne de Troyes
This museum gives you an absorbing overview of French art from the middle of the 19th century up to the 1960s.
It’s based on the collection of the Troyes textile industrialists, Peter and Denise Levy, who donated it all to the city in 1976. You don’t have to be an art connoisseur to know many of the artists who have works hanging in these galleries: Degas, Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Georges Braque, Matisse and Gustave Courbet, just by way of introduction.
There are also four bronze sculptures by Degas, as well as sculptures by Aristide Maillol, Auguste Rodin and Picasso.
13. Memorial Charles de Gaulle, Colombey-les-Deux-Églises
After Charles de Gaulle died in 1970 a 43-metre-high granite Cross of Lorraine was erected in his memory on a hill next to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, his home village.
In the Second World War the cross was a symbol for the Free French forces that he led.
In the last ten years a new visitor centre has been added, which has details that may surprise even the keenest 20th-century historians.
The permanent exhibition adds context by outlining the world-changing events unfolding throughout his lifetime, and the part he played in them as military leader in the 1930s and 40s, and then as President of France.
You can cycle across much of the Champagne-Ardennes countryside without having to spend much time on the roads.
You can thank the greenways, which are reclaimed cycling trails on the towpaths next to canals or following the route of disused railways.
There are more than 400 kilometres of trails across the region already, and more are being added each year.
As an example, Le Canal de Haute-Seine starts in the medieval centre of Troyes and arrows through the green countryside for 33 kilometres using former lock houses as rest stops.
15. Apothicairerie de l’Hôtel-Dieu-le-Comte, Troyes
After a walk around Troyes’s quaint medieval streets you should take a peek inside this fun little museum.
It’s an 18th-century apothecary with its original oak shelves holding a large assortment of old ceramic jars and more than 300 painted medicine boxes.
If you ask at the reception they’ll give you an English guidebook, which among other things details the rather disturbing ingredients used in medicine in the 1700s, like powders made from animal bones, human skulls and precious stones.