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July 18th 2012
Published: July 18th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

The Eurotunnel never ceases to amaze me. It is a wonderful feat of engineering and a standard bearer for how two countries can work together and achieve something special. I remember watching a live television broadcast in 1990 when the two tunnels finally met in the middle and the engineers could breathe a sigh of relief that all their planning had worked. One of the huge cutters that sliced its way through the chalk and clay deep under the seabed was then turned 90° and entombed forever in the walls and the other cutters completed the tunnels. It was not until 1997 that fare paying passengers began using the Chunnel. There are actually three tunnels; two for the trains and one that would be used for evacuation purposes in the event of an emergency.

It has never been easy for the Chunnel and over the 15 years it has been open it has never really got ahead. It still faces huge competition from the very popular ferries and most of our friends who are crossing over to France this summer are using that mode of travel. The ferry companies seem to have the ability to provide excellent specials (£49 one-way) and people like the fact that you can relax in the restaurants and café on board rather than sit in your car. We have used the Chunnel on numerous occasions and familiarity is quite possibly the reason that we were back on it this year. It is always a fun start to the tour as you drive through the car park and see the directional arrows on the tarmac pointing to the word FRANCE in much the same way a supermarket car park says EXIT. We lined up with hundreds of other holiday makers and then I drove the car up the ramp and onto the second-level of the train. I am not sure how many cars are driven on but it must be in the hundreds and this method is repeated every 15 minutes with four departures an hour. It is all very simple – you drive in one end of the train and continue to drive down the middle of the carriages until you are asked to park behind the car in front of yours. They then seal each of the carriages and when you arrive in France you just drive off in the same direction but now on the other side of the road.

After we met DWR at a small village just outside Calais we drove some three hours to Epernay. Thankfully DWR had arrived at the village with enough time to get to the boulangerie and buy us some savoury pastries for lunch as, of course, the French still like their afternoon siesta. We then drove all the way to our overnight stop on the toll roads; another great engineering achievement that enables easy transportation across France. We drove well over 250 kilometres at 130km/h with very little traffic and on the most perfect of road surfaces. The other advantage is the cost – they are very reasonably priced to use. For the entire trip down to Burgundy it cost us the equivalent of NZ$80. Of course if you do not want to pay there is other roads that you can travel on but it is hard to beat the ease of the AutoRoute to get to your destination. We went up and over Paris and the Reims road and then dropped down to Epernay.

As we reached the outskirts of Epernay the heavens opened in dramatic fashion. It was a deluge of epic proportions and I could not see the road let alone the cars ahead. After coasting along at 130km/h we were very quickly down to about 40km/h. The wiper blades were on full and not achieving much and the Satnav had no idea where we were as we were on a brand new stretch of road. It was all well timed and thankfully we were able to get off the main road and head towards our hotel in the centre of Epernay. After finding DWR at the Ibis Hotel we set off to explore the city feeling really summery with our rain jackets and jumpers on. We did not get that far and made a decision to sit in Le Banque, a champagne bar at one end of Avenue de Champagne. We did not have to fight for a seat as we were the only patrons and the only diners were the waiters and bar staff. The bar area was well stocked with olives, peanuts and vegetable crisps and we made every effort to eat them all. The rain continued to fall outside and this was a nice way to fill in time and to make decisions in regards to where we would eat later. Why we did not just stay there is anyone’s guess. We were dragged outside by the noise of a parade and caught the final moments of the Bastille Day observation at the war memorial. There were many French flags, returned service people, the Mayor and local dignitaries and we listened to them sing the French national anthem accompanied by a local brass band. It was all very French. Later that evening as we ate at a restaurant (I had sardines followed by moules) more pre-Bastille Day celebrations took place. This time it appeared every motorbike in Epernay was in the parade as they must have continued to pass the restaurant for ten minutes. Several hundred motorbikes went past and the air was thick with the smell of fuel; even me, one of the least interested people in motorbikes found it all quite entertaining. Well a bit – the facetious side of me wanted at least one to spin out on the greasy road!

Our visit to Epernay could not have been complete without a visit to a Champagne House. The Avenue de Champagne is the second wealthiest street in the world and is the home to many of the largest Champagne producers. As it was now Bastille Day many were not allowing visits but we found one that was. I have been to the Gratien and Mayer caves in the Loire and know what to expect but these ones were really special. There is nearly 150km of caves tunnelled out through the chalk beneath Epernay. The caves are where the bottles are prepared and then stored as the magic of champagne comes alive in the bottle. We visited Georges Cartier and within their 1.5km of caves they store just over 3 million bottles. It is a staggering sight to see the bottles stacked high and obviously disappearing for some distance away from you. What looks like a stack of about 150 bottles is really just the first layer and you have to read the signs to find out how many bottles are there – in the first passage there was 96,241 bottles stacked up. The climate of the caves is a perfect resting place for the bottles while the fermentation takes place. There is little or no light and it is cool with water dripping from the ceilings in much the same way natural caves leak water.

During the German occupation of France in the Second World War the caves were inhabited by German soldiers and they made themselves at home. Caseloads, if not train loads, were sent back to Berlin and I am sure the soldiers within the caves will have knocked off a small proportion of the stock. With the harvest stopped during the war there was a finite amount available and many a clever cellar owner blocked off their goods. The light coloured chalk walls throughout the caves are etched with centuries of graffiti with age old comments like “Napoleon is Brave” but it is the WW2 etchings that really catches the eye. Swastikas, Hitler portraits, Iron Crosses were easily identifiable and added a certain historical imagery to the dark tunnels. I am sure that the young German soldiers found the caves a refuge of sorts as they had even made small rectangular cuttings with a cross on the top for the storing of Holy Water or rosary beads. The other hole through that was visible but now filled in was the “accidental” entry into the Moet and Chandon caves, which run alongside these ones. This occurred about 15 years ago and I am sure caused much consternation and some mirth when it happened. I was not told how long it them to alert Moet to the problem. It did highlight the maze of caves that crisscross beneath this city.

We left Georges Cartier after two tastings. One of their standard Brut and the other their Premier Cru and tucked a couple of bottles into the boot before we left – I am sure that we will have ample opportunity to try them in the next few weeks. It is also nice to make the comparison with the Tenterden bubbly that we tried with Gill and Peter. I must admit that the English version is getting very good and I would be happy to sample it again – the similarities with Champagne should be there as it is the same line of chalk that travels under the Channel and into the south of England.

We used the toll roads all the way to Tournus where we met up with David at the péage booth. Once again the roads were clear and we could get along at 130km/h (the speed limit drops to 110km/h if it is raining) for most of the trip. Being Bastille Day the roads were busier but we were never held up – the only hold ups were at the AutoRoute Services, which were jam-packed with holiday makers. By using the toll roads we have cut the trip down in time for the trip from Calais to Tournus.

We have enjoyed many a great holiday in Burgundy. All of them have usually been in Brandon, a small village near the medieval town of Cluny. For this holiday we are across the valley looking back at Brandon but the area retains the name. There is not a lot to the town and in fact where we are (La Place) is quite isolated so the first task when we arrived in Cluny was to get ourselves to a supermarché to buy provisions. It was a bit like Supermarket Sweep for a while as NLS crossed off her list of food and supplies and DWR surveyed the alcohol aisles; we had two trolleys on the go and both were fairly full by the time we made the check out. We managed to get a good selection of local wine for around €6 a bottle; this should keep us going until we get out and about to the many vineyards that dominate this area. Spirits are still cheap and a better buy than at the UK Duty Free stores and beer is just ridiculously cheap with a box of 24 costing €5.50.

After a quick drive out into the Brandon area we caught our first glimpse of the farmhouse we would be staying at. It sits high up on a hill with wonderful views down the valley including the distant sight of the Brandon church spire. There are two farmhouses side by side on the property and for this week we have one, and once John and Mark turn up on Friday we will inhabit both. Philip and Pat had arrived slightly earlier than us and had started to unpack and prepare the house. On first inspection it is a lot more comfortable than the house we used to rent, which when we went to see it had sadly slipped into a state of disrepair. I say sadly as we all have such good memories at the house but I am sure Burgundy Version 2012 will bring many more. Certainly as we ate dinner on the terrace for the first time it all felt very comfortable and familiar.

Our first vineyard visit was to Cave de where we tried some wines and then purchased some for the stay and for the trip ahead. We bought: C de L : Cremant de Bourgogne Brut ; C de L : Macon Villages ‘Florieres’ 2011 ; C de L : Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2009 ; and a sweeterwineperfect for an apéritif C de L : Délice d’Automne. Driving through the valleys with the vines stretching up to the skyline I could not help thinking of the Central Otago region, which we drove through in February. The landscapes have so many similar characteristics and it is easy to see why both regions have become so dominant in wine making.

Now, to allay the fear that our sojourn into France will be all ‘wine, cheese, moules and frogs legs’ we have actually been out experiencing new places. The part of Burgundy we are visiting is made up of small villages and hamlets in much the same way the rest of provincial France is. DWR and PAW have been coming here during the summer for nearly 20 years and one of the historical sites they have wanted to visit but never been able to enter is Le doyenne de Mazille. We were lucky enough to get a guided tour on this year’s visit and were shown around the property by a very enthusiastic owner who took great pride in his property. Historically, the first mention of Mazille is in an act of the year 893AD when the widow of a Maconnais aristocrat gave all her land in Mazille to the monks of Cluny twenty years after the great monastery, and as one of 50 establishments in the ‘environs’ of Cluny it provided wood, cereal and wine for the great monastery. The doyenne comprises a compact group of buildings on the North side of the village, which looks down into a deep valley. If the monks could visit today they would be fascinated that a busy road is now within sight of their chapel and that the path they trod up the hill is partially covered with trees. Fortified during the 100 Year War, today it is surrounded by the remains of that protective wall. At the heart of the settlement is an L-shaped ‘logis’ made up of two immense rooms with gem-like windows. The higher of the two rooms was accessible by a grand staircase, the remnants of which is visible and is unique in France for being conserved. There is a belief that due to the unusually large size of these rooms in comparison to other provincial religious houses that at some point it was a considerable Royal or ecclesiastical residence. We walked through a barn like room in which a Peugeot dating back to WW2 was parked awaiting restoration and out into the chapel, which looks out over the valley and gardens. The chapel still has some of the original carved capitals similar to the Church of Notre Dame at Cluny thus allowing them to be dated to around 1240-1250. It is very interesting and I am pleased PAW and DWR knew about it as without prior knowledge you would struggle to find it. In fact as we drove the busy road the next day and looked back up the hill in the direction of the chapel it looks like any other Burgundy village scene. The owner’s guided tour was great too – fast paced, informative, and with an infectious ability to tell the story of the property. It even transcended my garbled French.

The weather is stunning and we have made the most of it. About 25 minutes away is the spectacular Chateau de Cormatin. Here we sat near the small lake, surrounded by honking geese and in sun chairs commandeered off Dutch visitors by DWR. We read books and some nodded off for a couple of hours. It is a stunning property, which has been carefully restored over the past thirty years by the owners. The gardens have been carefully appointed with hedge rows, trees, and a large maze dominating. There is a kitchen garden stuffed full of herbs and vegetables and I may have unwittingly been the recipient of some pilfered red basil on my roasted peppers later in the evening; NLS and DWR made the heist look all so easy. We returned home to enjoy the sunset over the valley and a very nice bottle of champagne in the garden; a gift to us from PAW, Tricie and DWR to celebrate our 14th Wedding Anniversary. There is hope that we may have to open another later in the week if Bradley Wiggins continues to lead the Tour de France; the Brits are getting excited and if all goes to plan over the next few days he should be wearing the Yellow Jersey along the Champs-Elysées for Saturday’s final stage. Without wanting to jinx him perhaps Wiggins will do in the Diamond Jubilee year what most thought Andy Murray would do a few weeks ago, and win a major world sporting event. If he doesn’t win we will have to find new excuses for popping a cork – from previous experience that should not be too hard.

The drinks in the garden were a wonderful end to a very pleasant few days and I am pleased to say that all the good things I remember about France are flooding back; with the temperatures hitting the high 20s we should be fine weather-wise too and the base has been set for a great couple of weeks in the Burgundy region.

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