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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 18 Sep 2007

Location: Epernay, France

MapSaturday 15th September
A walking tour of Mechelen, courtesy of our expert tour guides – pram and all. A beautiful town, with a spectacular old cathedral in the centre. Its huge cavernous interior was dominated by a pulpit made out of wood, so large and intricately carved that it defied belief . Created in the 16th century, it contained relief carvings of men, beasts and plants in such detail that you could spend hours studying it. The cathedral contained other artifacts such as paintings and murals, with amazing history.
Just outside there was a market buzzing, being a Saturday morning. Dozens of stalls, selling everything imaginable. More narrow streets, and interesting places with stories to tell. Lunch in a sidewalk café beside a river, away from traffic – a very pleasant city to explore.

Sunday 16th
We headed south for a planned afternoon with a work colleague Bart and his family, who live near Ruien and Kortrijk. On the way we called into the beautiful city of Gent, with its imposing Belfort in the middle of the city. Unusally not a church at all, but built in the middle ages to the usual gigantic proportions, the Belfort is just one of the many such buildings in Gent, most are churches and cathedrals, and all are magnificent in their own way.

Monday 17th
Before sadly leaving Belgium, we called into Brussells to see the Atomium – a strange structure built in 1958 for the World Exhibition (the first Expo held after WW2). It was only intended to last for the 6 months of the Expo, but proved so popular that it remained, and was recently given a complete renovation. It consists of 9 steel spheres connected by an array of tubes or corridors in the shape of a cube. It is supposed to represent a molecule of iron, magnified 265 billion times, and the view from the top gives a great view of the city.
Saying a sad goodbye to Gaia, Stijn and Lauran, we headed back into France, and found a nice B&B near Epernay for a two day stay.

Tuesday 18 September.
A lovely day, today, in Epernay, in the champagne region. This is the real stuff – not the pretend sparkling wine that we’re used to at home, this is real French champagne. First up – a tour of Moet & Chandon. You enter a large marble-white building, with white gravel car-park, and white stone fence. Across the road is the official Moet & Chandon accommodation building (for clients) and offices – again housed in a large white palatial building. Napoleon had been one of its more famous guests. After a general introduction, you are lead down a flight of stairs, below street level, then another flight, and another, and you enter a dark, cold stone-floored cavern. Turn a corner, and the arched tunnel disappears into the distance before you. There are 28 kilometers of tunnels, or caves, 25 meters below the Epernay streets, where the hundreds of thousands of M&C bottles are matured. The champagne-making process was amazing, with such pain-staking, hands-on, laborious work. For example, they employ a handful of people simply to spend a few weeks turning every bottle, a quarter-turn every day, before disgorging the sediment from the neck. To see kilometers of bottles, lying on their side, bottom out, was sight to behold.
In the afternoon, we did a tour of the Marne valley around Epernay with a wine-maker. Situated in a broad valley, the hillsides are covered in a quilt of vines, to the horizon, all in perfectly straight rows, all at the same height, but in irregular shaped paddocks, not a square or rectangle to be seen. We learn that there are 35,000 hectacres under vines in Champagne, but only 10% of this area is owned by the big corporations, like Moet & Chandon. The rest is owned by 15,000 growers, of which there are 5,000 making their own champagne - the rest sell their grapes to the corporations. But that’s five thousand different champagnes being made in the area, each with a range of four or five labels. They have a quota given by the controlling body – 1,300 kgs per hectacre. Any more than that (in a good harvest) has to be left for the birds. And no new ground can be planted with vines – what’s there now is it. So these wineries are very much family concerns – the only way to increase production is to marry another winemaker.