Wednesday, April 23, 2014

La France V.I.P. -- Spend the night aboard a péniche (river barge) B&B on the Marne River in Epernay

View of the Marne River from my porthole window aboard La France V.I.P. in Epernay

The summer I turned 18 and my brother turned 21, we flew from Los Angeles to London on Laker Airways, the world's first long-haul, low-cost airlines, for a backpacking trip through Europe. It was 1981. Budget travelers, Jon and I survived on a limited diet of bread, lots of bread, cheese and an occasional beer. Letters home expressed our wonder at the sights: people drinking bottled water in Paris (was something wrong with the tap water?), chickens with their heads still attached at the markets in Spain and down comforters at our pen-pal's house in Germany.

Back in the day when American beds were made exclusively with sheets, a blanket and a bedspread, the down comforters were a luxurious revelation. They made such an impression that Jon and I used some of our meager funds to buy two "comfies". Even though they were big and bulky, we toted them everywhere. Their cozy warmth made sleeping on night trains much easier. Our strategy, developed over time, was to find an empty train compartment, shut the door, sprawl out on the seat and pray that no one would interrupt our sleep. Of course, someone always did.

Perhaps those sleep-deprived nights explain why I wanted to find just the right accommodation for Jon's and my recent trip to the Champagne region. I originally thought about returning to the Maison des Vignes de Verzenay, the charming B&B where Stéphane and I had stayed in 2012 but rejected it as too "normal". Even though Jon and I have aged in the intervening years since our epic trip to Europe, I still wanted something more adventurous. Recalling that my children had been urging me to use Airbnb, the global website that's currently the world leader in travel rentals, I scanned their offerings for Epernay.

La France V.I.P. in Epernay

Looking up from my laptop, I asked my traveling companion, "What do you think about spending the night on a péniche?" Since Jon was immediately on board (bad pun intended!) with the idea of sleeping on a French river barge, I registered with Airbnb and sent a request to France, the hostess. Within minutes she replied that two double rooms were available at the price of €120 per room, plus an additional €18 booking fee payable to Airbnb.

Breakfast aboard La France V.I.P. 

Even though I had studied photos of The France V.I.P online, we were very pleasantly surprised by the size of the barge. On the top deck, there's an indoor seating area where we were served an appetizing breakfast and a heated outdoor space with a jacuzzi, barbecue grill and another seating area. On a warm evening, the spacious deck would be the ideal spot to relax after a day of tasting champagne. If you're in the mood for more bubbly, the refrigerator is well-stocked with a variety of champagnes available for a reasonable fee.

The boat's galley, massive living area with a billiard table, four double rooms (the Captain's cabin is the most spacious) and toilet/bathroom are located belowdecks. Since we were the only guests, Jon and I were given our choice of cabins. That evening, as we watched the sun cast its last rays on the Marne River while sipping champagne and dining on provisions from the local grocery store, Jon and I agreed that we've come a long way since our first trip to Europe.

Pluses: A very unique experience for a couple, family or friends traveling together. Peaceful location, yet close proximity to Epernay. Possibility to eat on board. A variety of entertainment options, both inside (billiards, darts, boardgames, multiple televisions) and outside (jacuzzi, barbecue, etc). Gracious and discrete hosts, we saw Franck when we checked in and France when she brought our breakfast in the morning. Free parking nearby. Wifi is available in a small building located next to the boat.

Minuses: While Jon and I were fortunate to have the entire boat to ourselves, we probably wouldn't have enjoyed the experience nearly as much if there had been other guests aboard. Also, €120 for a double room with a shared shower/toilet would have been somewhat expensive during low season in Epernay.

La France V.I.P. (Vacances Insolites en Péniche) Hosts: France and Franck

If you would like to stay on a péniche in Paris, be sure to read Aussie in France's post: A Barge on the Seine in Paris – what better holiday accommodation can you get?

The view from the breakfast area to the belowdecks living room.
I opted to stay in a smaller cabin. The Captain's Cabin is much larger.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

“What’s your favorite Champagne?”

Budding leaves in Clos Saint-Hilaire. Billecart-Salmon's rare Blanc de Noir cuvée is produced exclusively from grapes grown in this one hectare vineyard. For each vintage, there is a limited release of 3,500 to 7,000 bottles of Clos Saint-Hilaire.

With special thanks to Jon, my brother and first traveling companion in Europe, for writing the following guest post about our memorable trip to the Champagne region of France.

When visiting Paris in April I was asked by my host, “what’s your favorite champagne?” The question confounded me. I drink plenty of California and Spanish sparkling white wine and call it champagne, and I’ve enjoyed actual French champagnes occasionally, but I didn’t think I had a favorite. I felt some pressure because I believed my answer would influence a two-day itinerary for our visit to the Champagne province. So I was struggling, what is “champagne,” what is Champagne as a place to visit, and is there a champagne sparkling wine I care enough about to claim as my favorite? This was way too much thinking about a beverage I connect with fun, light-heartedness and the best of times. I resolved that while I may not have one now, I would have a “favorite” champagne by week’s end.

Paris feels like any other big city with weekday traffic issues on a morning departure out of town. The driver was not Parisian, so we were not naturally tuned to the tempo of the commute. I was assigned navigator duties, which means I operated our Volvo’s integrated GPS unit (not user-friendly), and was responsible for sorting through the highway signs that hopefully directed us toward Champagne. I don’t know French, and none of the signs said, “Champagne this way.” Without collision or a frayed sibling relationship, my host and I successfully exited Paris and soon arrived in an amazingly different place, the French countryside. Driving through newly tilled rolling farmlands, I tried to remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter…”

Champagne tasting with Jérôme Lafouge of Billecart-Salmon

Navigating the A (A4) and N (N51) and D (D71) roads, and many others intentionally and unintentionally, Reims-to-Epernay and Epernay-to-Reims, we seemed to be on the mother roads of Champagne. Our goal was to start small and experience champagne houses first at the grass roots. On good advice our initial visit was at Bonnevie-Bocart, 55,000 bottles per year, within the oddly named village of Billy-Le-Grand. Origin apparently unknown? After Bonnevie-Bocart, where we were fans of the Blanc de Blancs champagne, we ate lunch nearby and drove next to the medium-sized champagne house of Billecart-Salmon at Mareuil-Sur-Ay. Slowed by indecipherable road construction detours and feeling a little hurried, I wasn’t aware of the gem we had found when we first arrived at Billecart-Salmon. Jérôme Lafouge, our Billecart-Salmon guide, greeted us as a friend would and with warmth made us welcome. For several hours he opened the house to our small group of Australians and Americans, happily sharing his knowledge about champagnes and Billecart-Salmon. By the time we surfaced from walking the cellars we were deep into the afternoon - Happy Hour – and Jérôme was now serving and teaching, with a passion. Everything we tasted seemed perfect. Jérôme, our companions, Billecart-Salmon and that moment were all perfect. For me this is what champagne does best, it sets the moment. Family, friends, new friends all become a little closer with champagne in the glass.

Recommendation, find a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (my new “favorite”) or any other champagne for a moment with family & friends.

Billecart-Salmon (Be sure reserve your visit in advance via Billecart-Salmon's online contact form)
40 Rue Carnot
51160 Mareuil-sur-Ay

Bottles and bottles of champagne in Billecart-Salmon's cellar