LUXURY TRAVELER
 


The magnificent castle La Motte Tilly on the Nogentais plain in Champagne-Ardenne
Photo: CRT Champagne-Ardenne

THE ABC REGIONS OF FRANCE
(Encore Edition)

The ABC regions of France - Alsace, Burgundy and Champagne - has been at the heart of history since the beginning of civilization and today's influences, dating back as far as Julius Caesar, are still evident.  The past is everywhere -- in the architecture of majestic castles and cathedrals, as well as humble cottages and inns.  

In your travels, you will discover the ancient forests that gave life to nearby medieval villages built in the "half-timbered" architectural style of the times. From literally hundreds of museums that preserve this region's history of romance, rebellion and revitalization, to the fairs and festivals that preserve its rituals, customs and heritage, the past is always present.

The ABC of France regions of Alsace, Bourgogne and Champagne regions of France is known first and foremost for its wines.  Gastronomy however, comes in a close second.  Rich and robust regional recipes that have been handed down for generations are served daily on weathered farm tables, in centuries old wine cellars as well as three star restaurants.  

With so many vineyards, cellars, wine bars and restaurants, you can plan your trip one of two ways: do lots of research - plan carefully and well in advance or come ready for adventure and make your choices along the way. Either way you can’t go wrong. 

Now you may follow the links below for information on the A B C Regions of France
 

A B C



Canals in the cathedral city of Strasbourg
Photo:
Airdiasol - Rothan
 

A B C
 

Alsace

Located in the center and at the crossroads of Europe, Alsace has played a major role in France’s history since the beginning of written civilization. Here you’ll discover many infamous medieval ruins as well as a series of expertly renovated fortresses including Haut-Barr, Hohlandsbourg, Fleckstein and Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, one of the most popular attractions in all of Alsace. Renowned for its sheer size and medieval magnificence, this towering fortress offers some of the most breathtaking views in all of Alsace.

No trip to this region would be complete without a walking tour of historic Strasbourg, home of the majestic "Cathedral Notre Dame" and "La Petit France," the oldest and most beautifully preserved area of the city UNESCO World Heritage, And don't miss the beautiful town of “Colmar," with its medieval architecture, sculptured gables and fairytale houses. From castles to cathedrals, wineries to walking tours, there's so much history and architecture to experience that you'll want to allow plenty of time to savor it all. See the  Unterlinden Museum and the masterpiece created by Grunewald - The Issenheim Altar Piece - was executed by Matthias Grünewald between 1510 and 1516.

The Castles of Alsace

Alsace is home to more ruins of medieval castles than almost anywhere else in France.   These remnants have become as much a part of the region's landscape as the trees and soil, reminders of a mysterious past that continues to haunt the imagination and stir curiosity. Haut-Barr, Fleckstein, Hohlandsbourg, and Haut-Koenigsbourg are among several of these vast fortresses that have been expertly preserved and restored to their original magnificence.

The Haut Koenigsbourg castle, dominating the plain at 757 meters above sea level, is a fortress built in the12th Century then rebuilt and modernized in the late 15th Century. Abandoned in 1633, this highly prestigious castle that once belonged to the Hapsburgs at the time of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, became the property of the Emperor Wilhelm II of Hohenzollern in 1899. This Emperor dreamed of re-establishing the Western Empire and he indulged his passion for the Middle Ages by ordering the restoration of the castle. A pivotal element in the restoration, this castle built on a sandstone spur that was previously relatively easy to defend and providing an excellent lookout station, now enables visitors to enjoy a fabulous panoramic view of the plains of Alsace, the Black Forest and sometimes even the Alps.

Though their purpose was to protect the surrounding area from attackers rather than to impress the eye, their architecture is both impressive and beautiful in its own right. They are particularly interesting for their color—a pale, luminous pink, owing to the mountain sandstone into which they were built.

More than 500 castles were built in Alsace between the start of the 12th Century and the middle of the 14th Century. Often built on the top of the rocky pinnacles so typical of the Vosges Mountains, these outcrops were natural defensive positions. Some of these castles were actually built into the sides of the mountains, incorporating natural caves into the architecture so that the castle and mountain became one. Both home and fortress, they were the target of many of feudal war, and sometimes the haunt of robber-barons. 

Gastronomy in  Alsace

Despite being the smallest region of France, Alsace has become a major hub of food and wine, with 34 Michelin-starred restaurants to its name—more than anywhere else in France outside Paris. 

But even the savviest holiday travelers don’t necessarily head to a gourmet restaurant when they want to savor the authentic flavors of Alsace.

Winstubs, or bistros, are unique to the region and frequented by both visitors and locals, who gather for hearty specialties including choucroute (Alsatian sauerkraut garnished with myriad variations of sausage, potatoes, spices, and more), baekeoffe (meat stew), and tarte flambée (savory bacon and onion tart).

Altogether, there are more than one hundred winstubs found throughout Alsace, each with its own special way of preparing signature dishes.  Another treat for travelers -- in virtually every town annual wine festivals spice up the seasons.  These events can last several days, so be sure to check into one of the many small, family run hotels—or auberges— for unparalleled hospitality and delicious meals.

But no matter where you stay or dine, a trip to Alsace is not complete without a pilgrimage to the Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg, an historic cellar, dating back six centuries.

Each year, the wines in the Cave Historique, which represent nearly 40% of all the Alsatian vineyards, are sampled, and those deemed most promising are then stored in barrels, where they mature to their peak. After months of the best care and a final round of tasting, the wines are bottled onsite for unmatched quality. Today, with its expert oenologists and ideal storage conditions, the Cave Historique is perfect for the best Alsatian wines, and its vaulted ceilings and iron gates make it an aesthetic treat as well.

You may follow this link for further information on the Alsace Region of France



Photo: Beaujolais
An ancient chapel amidst a vineyard on a hilltop in Burgundy


A B C
 

Burgundy

History is literally at your fingertips everywhere in France, and Burgundy is no exception. Its landscape is dotted with Romanesque churches, Benedictine and Cistercian abbeys, and stunning cathedrals. Historical routes include a Romanesque Road through green hills, focusing on the Romanesque Churches of Brionnais. The Route of the Burgundian Dukes in northern Burgundy leads travelers through the Arcy Caves and many castles. Tours of the chateaus of southern Burgundy lead from the Morvan to the Bresse, stopping off for visits at 16 chateaus along the way.

The largest surviving Cistercian church in France is here in Burgundy as well, at Pontigny in Yonne. Burgundy's Route des Chateaux features palaces built by the architect of Versailles and frequented by notable figures from history including the poet Alphonse Lamartine and France's first elected president. With exquisite grounds and intricate gardens, they are among the most beautiful sites in France. Burgundy's country roads and 16 tourist routes take you through quaint towns and villages where the architecture and history reveal the heart and soul of this region. Historical routes follow the footsteps of dukes, monks, and writers, while Craft and Nature roads showcase the countryside.

No matter how you choose to discover Burgundy, be sure to make time for the UNESCO World Heritage sites of "Fontenay," one of the best preserved Cistercian abbeys in France, "Vezelay," a charming medieval town that was once one of the major pilgrimage sites of the Christian world and "La Charite, a famous monastery town for much of the Middle Ages. Another not to be missed site for history and architecture is Dijon, the regional capital of Burgundy. Take a tour of Notre Dame Church and visit the town center, one of the best preserved in France, and the richness and diversity of its architectural heritage make it unique.   And don’t forget to climb the 315 steps to the top of Philippe Le Bon tower for a spectacular 360 degree view above the colorful Burgundy rooftops.

These and many other itineraries present pieces of the fascinating patchwork of cultural and natural influences that illuminate Burgundy's remarkable history.  Past and present exist side by side, and as you follow their threads, you can't help but develop a deep appreciation and affection for the region known for living well.

The Castles of Burgundy
The panoramic countryside of the Burgundy region is dotted with impressive and historically significant castles, many of which are open to visitors. Burgundy's Route des Chateaux passes by 17 castles from different periods of French history including Renaissance, Neo-Classical, and Baroque.

They include palaces such as Chateau de Bazoches, home to the architect Vauban; Chateau de St. Fargeau, built by Le Vau, the architect of Versailles; and Chateau de la Rochepot with its Burgundian varnished tiles.

Also featured are Chateau de Sully, birthplace of France's first elected president, M. Mac Mahon. For sheer splendor, it's hard to match Chateau de Cormatin with its gold-leaf ceilings. Or, for an irreverent look into the past, visit Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, where paintings of members of the king's court are accompanied by not-so-flattering commentary.

Many are ‘chateaux forts’ built for defense. Others reflect the Renaissance period where style was more important. ‘La Rochepot’ was definitely built for defensive purposes, though its marvelous Burgundian roof reflects a somewhat romantic image of mediaeval times. Châteauneuf is more forbidding. High on a hillside overlooking what is now the auto route A6 to Paris and the Burgundy canal; there is still a feeling that someone is watching you from the ramparts, just checking that your intentions are friendly!

Not the case in Bussy-Rabutin where style is mixed with satire. Roger de Bussy-Rabutin was exiled here for life after a spell in prison in Paris. His offense was to insult the court particularly, the favorite lady of the King. He had the walls decorated with paintings of the members of the Court (especially the women) with some not very flattering remarks on their looks and sexual desires. The tour is interesting, as you would expect and the gardens are delightful. Gardens are definitely the delight of Cormatin. The chateau is stunning but, it is the gardens that many visitors come to see. They are being painstakingly brought back to their original glory and design.

Nothing quite prepares you for Bazoches. The restoration work on this splendid castle has been extensive and it can now be enjoyed. This was the home of Vauban who was the great architect of castles and fortifications for Louis 14th. France is covered with so many fine examples of Vauban’s work that one wonders how much time he spent in this magnificent home.

Other interesting castles are to be found in Tanlay, Ancy-le-Franc, St-Fargeau, Ratilly, Guérigny, Epoisses, La Rochepot, Couches, Cormatin, Curbigny (Drée), Pierre-de-Bresse, Berzé-le-Chatel, Pierreclos, Sully and La Clayette.    And if you want to go back in time, don’t miss an exciting mediaeval adventure in St.-Fargeau, where a 13th century castle is being built over the next 25 years using the exact methods and materials available during that time.

Gastronomy in Burgundy

Burgundy’s rich heritage has produced some of the world’s best food and wine, and with it, some of the top chefs and best restaurants. The standards are strict and restaurants and vineyards alike are carefully monitored by the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), an organization that judiciously puts its mark onto quality products

In Burgundy this means that the Poulet de Bresse (Bresse chicken) you ordered came from a pure lineage and was raised on natural ingredients before winding up your dinner plate. Other great favorites include Boeuf Bourguignon (beef stew with vegetables, braised in red Burgundy wine), Coq au Vin (chicken stewed in red wine), escargots (snails), ginger bread and of course, anything prepared with famous Dijon mustards.

These regional specialties have been emulated all over the world; you’ve probably ordered one or more of these dishes in restaurants outside of France. Now that you’re here in the country, and better yet, actual region of their origin, you owe it to your taste buds to treat yourself to the real thing.

Don’t miss trying one of Burgundy’s most famous concoctions – the Kir, a mix of local crème de cassis (black-currant liqueur) and white Aligoté wine that was named for Canon Kir, a priest who made the drink popular. This drink is an excellent aperitif or compliment to the regions robust cheeses that include goat cheese and Citeaux and Epoisses.

In 2006, the Burgundy region yielded over 60 restaurants that earned membership in Les Restaurateurs de France and twenty starred restaurants. This achievement alone supports the claim of Burgundy being one of the leading gastronomic regions in the world.

For further information on the Burgundy Region, including a list of restaurants, is available by following this link.



Photo: CRT Champagne-Ardenne - Oxley

ABC
 

Champagne-Ardenne

Like the drink that bears its name, Champagne-Ardenne evokes a mystery and charm all of its own. In Champagne, visitors encounter the spectacular Chateau de Sedan, the largest fortified castle in Europe, complete with reenactments of battles and traditional medieval street festivals. Also important in Champagne's history is the splendid and ornate Chateau de Cirey, where French philosopher Voltaire entertained the intellectual elite of the 18th century. In this historic region, you’re invited on a breathtaking route where you’ll discover romantic villages, magnificent chateaus and numerous churches. Quaint cottages with their leaning porches and pointed gables, and rustic, half-timbered buildings hearken back to an age of expansion when wood was more plentiful and practical than traditionally-used stone. Large planks of oak make the frames, filled in with masonry, plaster, or a mixture of horsehair and plaster. All in all, 85 historic churches and chapels with thousands of stained glass windows dot this area, dating back to the 16th century.

Plan to visit, Reims, a city of art and of history that welcomes you to its famous UNESCO World Heritage sites: the cathedral of Notre Dame and the Palais du Tau, the cathedral museum, and the basilica and Museum-Abbey of Saint Remi, dedicated to the bishop who baptized Clovis. Take a stroll along the streets by day or by night, and visit the countless sites, monuments and museums which are testimony to the history of Reims. Once the capital of Champagne, shaped like a Champagne cork, Troyes is a city of beautifully preserved medieval architecture. A stroll through the narrow cobblestone streets reveals dozens of 15th- century half-timbered houses, Renaissance mansions and superb churches with some of the most exquisite stained-glass windows in France. In fact, the city boasts over 300,000 square feet of intact stained-glass windows dating from the 12th through the 17th century.

Other cities to see include, Essoyes, where impressionist painter, Renoir spent every summer until his death in 1919 and of course the village of Hautvilers, the birthplace of Champagne, made famous in the 18th century by the monk and cellar man Dom Perignon, the inventor of the champagne wine method. The village is also famed for the 140 wrought iron signs that hang from the houses of the village, each one telling a story about the occupant of the house. From the village are some stunning panoramic viewpoints over the vineyards of the Marne Valley.

The Castles of Champagne-Ardenne

The castles of Champagne-Ardenne are some of the best preserved and historically significant in all of France, and a tour of any number of these architectural treasures will leave you breathless and wanting to know more about the politics, philosophy and passions of this region.

At the border of Champagne-Ardenne's Nogentais plain sits the magnificent castle of Motte Tilly, where poplar and lime trees still grow in profusion just as they did in the18th century, when the country house was built. This splendid castle and the surrounding landscapes were the setting for Milos Forman’s film ‘Valmont’, a 1989 adaptation of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’.

Situated in a secluded position in the Vallée de la Blaise, Château de Cirey-Sur-Blaise, classed as a Historic Moment, is still occupied by its owners, Count and Countess Hugues de Salignac-Fénelon. It owes its fame to Voltaire, who took refuge here after a warrant for his arrest was issued for his deeply satirical “Lettres Philosophiques”. Voltaire lived at the castle from 1734 to 1749 with the then owner, the highly intelligent Marquise du Châtelet. He renovated and embellished the chateau in many ways, including a new wing with an imposing stone door adorned with sculptured symbols of the arts and sciences. Visits can be arranged by reservation and include the dining room, the library, the chapel, the living rooms, the kitchen and the small private theater where Voltaire rehearsed his plays.

Another must-see castle is the Château-Fort de Sedan, where visitors can observe historically accurate, staged battles and colorful street festivals depicting life as it was 400 years ago during the annual Medieval Festival, which takes place during the 3rd weekend in May (19-20 May 2007). Dating from the 15th century, the fort is the largest fortified castle in Europe. It enjoys the added distinction of having never been conquered. After every attack, defenses were added to the stronghold to make it more secure, and by the 16th century it had become a masterpiece of a military structure. The château is situated on a rock spur formerly home to an 11th century monastery and covers an area of 41,860 square yards on seven levels. The twin towers and ramparts offer fine views of the town and surrounding valley. A museum within the fortress contains archaeological collections gathered during excavations beneath the castle as well as historical objects and documents from the town’s history.

The beautiful Château of Montmort is another fine example of 16th century architecture and is set in 30 hectares of grounds full of trees and flowers. The castle is something of a curiosity, not only because of its undoubted beauty, but because of the particularly important part that women have had to play in its history. From Jeanne des Noyers, the owner in 1389, a line of daughters and granddaughters were instrumental in bringing forth the castle from the foundations and ruins of an ancient fortress. 

Gastronomy in Champagne-Ardenne

Getting a real taste of this region is easy for any tourist. You can join a tour at one of the famous champagne houses in Reims or Epernay where you will be welcomed into the most hallowed halls of the champagne world.

Winding through the vineyards, the “Champagne Tourist Route” is clearly marked. Along the way, look out for the numerous champagne producers displaying the “point acceuil—Visitors Welcome” sign, guaranteeing quality and high standards for their champagne and tours. These producers will share their passion for champagne-making, explain how champagne is made, show you their grape presses and wine cellars and offer you a tasting of their champagnes (some producers charge a small fee for this).

It is recommended to book your appointment beforehand as this enables wine producers to tailor your tour and give you the best possible reception. Each champagne is a unique blend of the soil, local climate and grape varieties: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. Still wines, both red and white, are also made in the region under the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée “Côteau champenois” of which one of the best known comes from the aptly named village of “Bouzy”.

Local hotels and restaurants also enhance the experience, with excellent menus and superior wine lists that highlight the region's unique culinary specialties like “Andouillette” (a spicy chitterlings sausage from Troyes),”potée champenoise” (a casserole of smoked ham, sausage and cabbage), fresh game and cured ham of the Ardennes followed by incredible desserts and après-dinner cheeses. Various dishes cooked in Champagne should be on the "must-try-list" for every visitor, like the Coq au Champagne (chicken in champagne), a signature regional dish that is usually complimented by fresh vegetables and cheeses.

Wherever you go in Champagne-Ardenne you’ll find robust regional fare, enhanced by a glass…or several glasses...of the region's most popular beverage - Champagne.

Further information on the Champagne - Ardenne Region is available by simply following this link.

Editor's note:  We are grateful to Maison De La France for allowing our use of the information and photographs used in the creation of this article.   For further information from Maison De La France please follow this link.