Five Days in France: Pt. 1 – Metz & Reims

My original summer plans had actually involved finishing the school year in Tabuk and then spending two months wandering Europe before returning to the US. All of this turns out not to be true anymore. As much as I loved my students and appreciated the experience of Saudi, I didn’t even realize how unhealthy I had become. I lost physical tone because there was no place to excersice easily, my lunchtime yoga routine had died when the school slashed our lunch breaks, and my mood (ok depression) made it nearly impossible for me to get up the energy to do any exercise at home. I also became mentally unhealthy, depressed and moody, unable to deal with stressors properly and not at all balanced. Being out for just a week made me feel happier and more balanced. So in addition to the extra stress that happened in my last week in Saudi (like the fact that all the teachers got heat exhaustion and had to go to the nurse or hospital), the restoration of my neurotransmitter levels in these last few weeks has really affirmed my choice to leave early.

Between my new job in Japan and the cancellation of my backpacking buddy, I decided to cut my summer break short and will be heading back to work on June 8th. With only three weeks of holiday and feeling a strong need to get people back in my life, I decided my break would be less about seeing Europe and more about seeing friends. My friend in Prague was happy to have me, but had another guest for a few days so I went to meet up with another friend, Miss Vixen Valentine, who was travelling in France to do some research for her Master’s thesis and to do a performance in Paris. So it was that one day into my holiday, I embarked on a road trip across Germany.

I rented a little mini car for pretty cheap and I had GPS on my phone, so after a light breakfast in my hotel, I hit the open road. Germany is really beautiful to drive through. It’s GREEN. I missed green so much. I think I had actually forgotten there were so many shades of green. I made up poetry in my head about the color green as I drove. And I think I also formed a new appreciation for the canola fields that broke up the green rolling hills with swaths of bright sunny yellow. The farm fields would end abruptly in forests as the vallys turned upward then open back up to farmland in the next valley. The gas stations were also really neat. There were these huge rest areas with gas stations, restaurants, bathrooms, and nature areas. The bathrooms cost .70 Euro, but you got a voucher for .50 that you could use at the next stop or toward your purchase in the shop. The coffee machines actually had whole beans and would and brew your coffee fresh when you pushed the button. There were full delis with actual food and not just gas station junk. It was really nice. I tried to follow one of the brown signs to see a cool site, but I never did find it. I didn’t mind the detour however, since I got to see a tiny little town with windy roads and cool buildings before getting back onto the main highway.

The drivers were really polite and took the whole concept of a passing lane very seriously. I had a couple mishaps early on where I didn’t get out of someone’s way fast enough, but I soon figured it out and then really enjoyed the driving experience.   As I got closer to France, the crops changed from  canola to grapes. The only indication that I had left Germany was a tiny blue sign that said France and the language on the road signs changed. It felt just like driving across states in the US, only I think states make a bigger deal about letting you know you are leaving or entering.

Metz, Lorraine Region

After a long but leisurely drive, I finally arrived in Metz. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even noticed this town, let alone spent two days there if I was travelling just to sight see. My friend however had gone to see the river Moselle because it is her family name, and so I found myslf across from the Cathedral of St. Etienne in a tiny little studio apartment overlooking the Moselle river.

Part of me just wants to tell you how terrible this place is, oh awful, don’t go, just so I can keep this little jewel all to myself. But, really, I think it may have been my favorite place in France and I’m strongly looking at how to get an EU work visa for next year just so I can live close enough to visit Metz more often. After settling in with my “luggage” (a backpack), we set off in search of dinner. Restaurants in France don’t typically open for dinner until 7 or 730, and it was Sunday, so even fewer were open. Eventually we found a little Canadian themed restaurant and decided to eat there.

I have been thinking about how to talk about the food in France. I went through several stages of love, disbelief, infatuation, rapture and awe while eating in France and I’ve decided that I really need to write a separate post to do the food justice. So for the moment, I will just tell you the restaurant was ah-maze-ing and I’ll do the blow by blow (or bite-by-bite) later on for all the fantastic places we ate.

We lingered a really long time over the meal and didn’t get back to the room until after midnight, but the gentleman serving our food never once made us feel rushed. We probably didn’t get enough sleep, but we were both just happy to be in such a pretty little town that we got up fairly early. We got ready slowly though, drinking our coffee and researching things to do in Metz as well as trying to figure out where we would go next and where we would stay in Paris. When we set off for lunch, Vixen suggested we ask the local tourist office where a good place to eat was, which turned out for the best because once again we ended up spending more than two hours over an impossibly good meal. When we finally finished our last cup of post dessert coffee we set off for the cathedral.

I don’t have a lot of experience with cathedrals. There are a couple in the US, but of course they aren’t very old. This one dated back to the 5th century. I had been admiring the exterior architecture every time we walked past it, but somehow I had not really been expecting the inside to be as high. I guess I thought there would be floors? So when we walked in and the ceiling just didn’t quit going up, I was really amazed. The building looked like it might have undergone a fire at some point because the stone walls were blackened in places. The stained glass windows also looked like they might have been replaced at various points in history because there seemed to be medieval, renaissance and post modern styles in the window art. There were very few other people in the massive structure, so it was very easy to feel the scale of the building. We walked all around admiring the art in glass, stone and wood. There was a birdsnest organ as well as the main organ, and for a while I just had to sit down and reflect on the sheer number of centuries that this building had been standing and been used as an active place of worship. Seeing this cathedral made me even more excited at the thought of going to Notre Dame in Paris in a few days.

After that, Vixen needed to go to see the Centre Pompidou-Metz, which turned out to be a sort of gallery space that looked like a large white tent and seemed to have a rotation of 5-6 different gallery displays. We ended up sitting in the little outdoor cafe area because I was starting to feel pretty icky. At first I thought it was just some jet lag and maybe allergies, but it quickly became apparent I was getting very dehydrated and also developing a wicked sore throat from my sinuses. So we left the Centre and set off to find a pharmacie on our way back to the flat. The French speaking pharmacist tried to help me out with my bad French, but eventually had to go get her English speaking co worker. She was able to help me find some rehydration powder as well as some throat lozenges which helped a bit. We stopped in a Carrefour to get some water and ended up with delicious fresh strawberries as well.

We passed by the Rue Taison, which is supposed to be a kind of Taiwan town, but other than the large plaster dragon hanging over the street and a few dragonesque signs around, I wasn’t really sure why. The shops are more French than anything else, and I didn’t see a strong presence of Taiwanese food or goods. It was still nice to walk through the little streets and see all the different architecture. Some buildings as old as the cathedral had been re-purposed into shops or hotels next to “newer” buildings that were a mere 200-300 years old. We stopped at a street vendor selling soft serve ice cream, let me just say that nutella-pistachio swirl is a magical idea.

By this point in the day it was becoming apparent that I did not merely have some desert to temperate climate adjustment issues going on in my sinuses, but actually a full-blown travel flu. The downside to so many flights in a row is the enormous exposure to other people’s germs. So we headed back to the flat so I could get some rest while Vixen went to view the river of her family. Somewhat sadly, I slept firmly until the following morning and missed out on the river island and what I am sure was another amazing dinner. Travelling while sick is really no fun since it takes a lot of your get up and go right out. I was feeling a bit less insanely flu-like after a good shower, so determined to keep on with my adventures through France.

Reims, Champagne Region

After some breakfast pastry detours (which I will explore more fully in the post about the food), we made it back on the road heading to Reims. We weren’t originally planning to do anything between Metz and Paris. We’d stopped in Metz to see my friend’s family river and she had a show in Paris. It’s only about a 3 hour drive, but we looked up what was between them just for fun. It turns out that the Champagne region is between them. I sort of vaguely remember when France threw a giant naming fit and everything that had previously been called “champagne” in the US suddenly became “sparkling wine”. This basically meant that in my life, I had never had true champagne. Even my champagne brunch in Dubai was really served with sparkling wine because I was too cheap to go for the Moet upgrade. We decided that we couldn’t really justify driving through Champagne without drinking any, so I looked up several different options for tours and tastings. There was one particularly helpful BBC article that outlined four houses, so we tried to reach out and contact each of those to make an appointment, but we weren’t doing it far enough in advance, because they didn’t email us back until 2 days after we’d left Reims. So if you’re dead set on a particular house, I suggest planning well in advance.

We decided to drive up to them anyway and see if we could get in. The first one we went to was GH Mumm, and the description was a tour of the process of making champagne plus a tasting. They told us we could join the 4pm tour, so we booked our spot and went off to check into our hotel. Our tiny little hotel, Alhambra, was in an interesting part of town, since we were in sight of a sex shop and a tattoo parlor, and also just around the corner from a school. The rooms were small but clean, there was a bathroom on each floor and a shower on the main floor. We were only staying for one night, so it wasn’t really an issue. The manager there was a Berber from Algeria and was very proud of the languages he spoke (7) and very complimentary of my “beautiful” English. Some of our conversation was in English, some in French, and some in Italian (which Vixen speaks quite well), but eventually he helped us by calling one of the other houses we were interested in, and we found out they had an English speaking tour at 4pm also. Realizing that we were only going to make it to one champagne house, we then had to choose based entirely on online descriptions.

The house we decided on in the end was Tattinger. Tattinger started out as a chalk quarry in the 4th century under Roman occupation. Later, in the 13th century an abbey was built on the chalk pits and the monks used the temperature controled caves to keep their champagne at a constant temperature. The abbey itself was destroyed during the French revolution, but the caves and cellars were used during WWII to house women and children, so there are carvings in the soft chalk walls from the people who lived there during the war. Then shortly after the war, the Tattinger family began to use the site for their own champagne. Wise choice. It was really amazing to see all of that history just piled up on itself underground. There were stone stairs leftover from the abbey that had once lead from the abbey to the cellars and now led from the cellars simply into the ceiling. The carvings from those during WWII were alongside chisel marks from Roman tools. And the whole thing was filled with over 2 million bottles of champagne.

Our guide told us about the champagne process, how they use the natural yeast in the fruit for the first fermentation, but add yeast and sugar later on to create the champagne from the still wine. I learned that most champagnes are actually a mixture of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Since the later two are black grapes, they must be picked gently by hand to make sure that none of the pigment leakes from the skins to change the color of the juice. The process takes a long time and involves several stages of fermentation, resting, turning and rebottling. I think the most fascinating stage to me was the removal of the sediment from the bubbly. The still wine is bottled with extra sugar and yeast, but it is corked to keep the gas that is released during fermentation in the bottle (making it sparkling).

However, as the yeast dies it forms a layer of sediment in the bottle that no one wants to drink. So there are these racks that gradually change the angle of the bottles over a period of 8 weeks. Two guys come in and turn the bottles and slowly change the angle from horizontal to pointing almost straight down. This process sends all of the sediment into the neck of the bottle. Then (this part is really cool) they freeze the neck of the bottle. This causes the sediment to freeze solid, so when they turn the bottle upright it stays in place, then they simply treat it like a cork and pull it out whole! leaving the clear sparkling champagne behind to be properly corked and placed in storage to age.

She showed us all the sizes of bottles that they distribute in, including a really giant one for extra special occasions. She talked about the different types of champagnes that Tattinger makes, and how they measured the quality of each year’s grapes, still wines and champagne blends to see if they deserved to be marked as vintage or not. I really just expected the structure and tasting to be the cool parts of this tour, but it turns out the whole process of champagne making is way more interesting than I thought it would be. Definitely a worthwhile stop over.

After the tour, we headed up to the tasting room. Vixen and I had bought the three glass tasting. Everyone got to try the Brut Reserve which is their most popular. I was pleasantly surprised at how light it was. I am so used to Brut sparkling wines in the US being very dry and kind of aggressive. This was far from sweet, but it was mellow and bright. Very enjoyable with a sort of amber warmth. The second glass was the Grand Crus, mixed from Chardonay and Pinot Noir in equal measure. It was just as mellow as the Brut, but I felt that it had more notes of fresh green. The third glass was extra special, the Blanc de Blancs which was made entirely from chardonnay grapes (unlike the others which are blended). It isn’t produced every year, but only when the grapes are deemed exceptional at the harvest. It’s only from the first press, and 5% of the wine used to make it are aged in oak barrels before they go into the champagne fermentation. The Tattinger website has a really lovely description of its flavor, and since I am not a sommelier, I defer to their adjectives, I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure it was the best champagne I’ve ever put in my mouth and when I am rich and famous, I’ll order it by the case for Christmas gifts.

We lingered a long time over our tastings and eventually the very nice folks there had to remind us that they closed up at 5:30. Half of our goal for the day was well and happily completed, so all that remained was to find a nice meal. I gotta say, in many ways Reims was a serious let down from Metz. I mean, I understand it’s a small town, but I would think with so many tourists coming through on wine tours that it might have been a little nicer. The traffic was prodigious, so once we made it back to our room, we didn’t want to move the car again until we left the next day, so we set out to find a restaurant we could walk to. Unlike Metz where walking seemed to be the main form of locomotion, Reims almost seemed designed for cars.

We walked to a small tapas place, but ended up not liking the diner menu so we kept going. Eventually we found a tiny fondue restaurant and decided to try it. More about all the wonderful food that was that place in the France food post, but it was amazing, keeping up with all our food experiences so far, and our waiter was a really cool guy who totally didn’t freak out at all when Vixen knocked the burner over and set the table on fire. We tried another new after dinner liquor and as I was complimenting our waiter on the amazing chocolate mousse that came with our desert, he decided to share another local wine with us! So it was that we found ourselves sitting in a tiny Swiss themed restaurant after hours finishing off a bottle of something local and delicious while chatting with our waiter as he ate his own dinner, meeting the owner (and his twin brother) and finding out about the local club/show/dj scenes in Reims. I. love. my. life.

The next morning I set out a little early to find us some pastry and coffee for the road. This is how I learned about the school nearby and passed the Reims cathedral. I stopped at a bakery and got chocolate croissants, but they didn’t have any coffee, so the man directed me 100 metres past the school to a shop that would have some. When I got there, I saw some folks enjoying an early morning glass of wine, giving me just one more reason to adore the food culture of France. Suitably armed, we hit the road for our last stop in France: Paris.

to be continued…