Further east is Langres, an unmissable fortified town commanding a rocky outcrop. Wrapped in ramparts, and dominated by a tower, Langres was bordered by medieval enemies. Gabled but still secretive, it makes an inviting lunch stop. In Le Café de Foy, on Place Diderot, we tuck into the tasty local cheese salad and mirabelle tart, washed down with a jug of Chablis. Cuisine champenoise tends to come in two forms: earthy or gourmet, with prices to match. The simpler bistrots, like this one, may serve sauerkraut, andouillette sausages, pigs’ trotters, white pudding (boudin blanc), as well as servings of Langres and Chaource cheeses. Playful `bouchons de champagne’, chocolate champagne corks, reflect the biggest regional brand.
Winding gently north leads to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, a place of pilgrimage to the French, particularly for the older generation. In most polls of `the greatest Frenchman of all time’, de Gaulle rubs shoulders with Napoleon and Louis XIV. As General de Gaulle’s home, and sanctuary during the `wilderness years’, Colombey itself has become a symbol of French patriotism. La Boisserie, the family home, and the graveyard where de Gaulle is buried, draw reverent visitors. For outsiders, far more telling is the Memorial Charles de Gaulle, the museum dedicated not just to the General, but to the extraordinary wartime period that has shaped our times. De Gaulle was also part of the postwar reconciliation with his country’s greatest enemy, and a pivotal player in cementing the Franco-German axis that bound a reconstructed Germany to Europe. He did also pay tribute to Winston Churchill: “During the War, we stood tall, but Churchill stood taller.” Whatever his failings as an obdurate leader, or as a dictatorial statesman, de Gaulle’s patriotism was never in doubt, and he paved the way for the current European Union.
We digest many of the unpalatable facts of modern European history in Hostellerie La Montagne, a charming Michelin-starred inn that de Gaulle would have found too creative for his traditional tastes. Nor was the General a fan of the local tipple. Instead, my drinking companion teases me about my Champagne consumption, quoting a sexist line of Chekhov: “When a woman starts on the slippery slope, she always starts with Champagne because it hisses like the serpent that tempted Eve.”
The road north naturally leads to Epernay, considered the epicentre of Champagne country. This wealthy wine citadel is riddled by a hundred kilometres of interlinking tunnels and cellars, all hewn from the chalk. Fine mansions line the Avenue de Champagne, headquarters of the most prestigious Champagne Houses. Nearby is the Royal Champagne Hotel, whose name offers a clue to the Michelin-starred restaurant and copious tastings within. Surrounded by vineyards, the restaurant follows foie gras and similar delicacies with Champagne-infused ice creams and sorbets, and a cellar of almost 300 vintage Champagnes. There really is no escape for the weak-willed or the abstemious.