Bonjour from France’s Champagne region! The trip started well, with first class seats on the TGV from Marseille to Dijon. The high-speed train moves too fast for photos of the countryside to look like anything but a blur (at least, with my camera), but the scenery included rolling hills of grapevines, fields of sunflowers and vast expanses of golden wheat. (Unfortunately, you’ll have to take my word for it that it was beautiful, since I’ve run into some technical difficulties with the photos and can’t get any more trip pictures uploaded. So these ten of Johann enjoying Champagne and one of his cousin Momo will have to suffice for now.)
We picked up our rental car at the train station in Dijon and proceeded on to our hotel in Essoyes, Renoir’s hometown. The hotel had three stars and all the perks its web site had promised: king-size bed, Italian shower, heated pool, gourmet restaurant, stunning views of the village below. We were thrilled. We had dinner at the restaurant that night, complete with a bottle of Champagne (what else?) from a vineyard just two towns away. Dinner was so good that we decided to have lunch there the next day (again, with Champagne), after which we took a dip in the pool and then got ready for the wedding, which was being held at 4 p.m. A French wedding consists of five parts:
1. Legal ceremony in the village mayor’s office.
2. Religious ceremony at the village church.
3. Vin d’honneur. Can you believe we have already been to two wedding-related events without being offered a drink? Me neither. The vin d’honneur is a pre-reception toast to the happy couple, usually held somewhere within walking distance of the church but usually not the reception hall. Small hors d’oeuvres and drinks are served. Here, naturally, the drinks served were of the bubbly variety and from the groom’s own vineyard.
4. Reception, dinner and dancing.
5. Post-wedding Sunday brunch.
Unfortunately, however, I only made it to the first fifth of these events, finding myself incapacitated by food poisoning and spending the next twelve hours being violently ill back at the hotel room (we did not eat at the hotel restaurant again). Johann had a great time, though, and reported that the dinner was spectacular and the Champagne kept flowing all night long. He danced up a storm and ooh-ed and aah-ed with the rest of the wedding guests at the fireworks display put on in the couple’s honor (I had a pretty good view of that from the hotel room window).
Once I was feeling better again, we had lost time to make up for. We did the Renoir walk in our village, trekking from site to site to see his studio, the various scenes he painted, the house in which his wife was born and his gravestone. The little village of Essoyes is impossibly picturesque, and you can see how the pastoral beauty would have been inspiring to the famous painter.
We also took a tour of the nearby lakes and hiked through the bird sanctuary, stopping to stroll around whichever little village caught our eye or to take pictures of the gorgeous countryside. And lucky for us, Johann’s cousin Mohammed (Momo) works for Devaux, France’s fifth largest producer of Champagne, and he gave us a free tour and tasting. Surprised you’ve never heard of Devaux? Don’t be. They produce only a small number of bottles under their own label, but if you’ve ever had Veuve Cliquot, Mumm, Jacquart or any of the other big-name brands, more likely than not, the bottle you had was produced and bottled at Devaux and our cousin Momo was the one responsible for buying the grapes that went into your bubbly. We learned a lot and there’s a complete tutorial on Champagne to follow after I get the photo problem sorted out.