A Visit to French Champagne Country

A few weekends ago, Willem and I took a weekend trip to the Champagne-Ardenne region of France. We didn’t have a particular reason for going, other than the fact that we had a car, a free weekend, and an itch to go someplace new.  Our only criteria was that we needed to stay within a 5 hour drive from Haarlem so that the trip was manageable as a weekend break.  We had recently been to Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg, so we settled on France.

We stayed in a charming B&B in Reuilly-Sauvigny, a tiny village of only 230 residents about half an hour away from Épernay (the capital of the Champagne region).  The B&B is run by an older American couple who moved to France in the 1980s and have been living there ever since. It was a lovely place to use as a base for our exploration of the region.

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We arrived late on Friday night, having left the Netherlands after Willem got off work.  Saturday morning, we got up early to take advantage of the delicious breakfast at our B&B, and then drove to Épernay.  Without a doubt, the champagne industry is Épernay’s biggest claim to fame.  The entire city revolves around champagne.  The world’s most famous champagne houses are all located in Épernay, lining a road aptly named “Avenue de Champagne”.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Avenue de Champagne

We spent our first few hours in Épernay wandering around the old town center.  It didn’t take us long to find a local Carrefour (cheapskates that we are) where we bought some bread, cheese, and fruit for lunch.  Armed with our purchases (and feeling very French carrying around our baguettes), we settled on a bench in the shade right in front of Épernay Cathedral.  Yum.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Cathedral Epernay, France, Champagne

After lunch we walked to the champagne house of Moët et Chandon, where we were scheduled to go on a tour of the house’s famous champagne cellars.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Avenue de Champagne, Moet et Chandon

It is possible to tour almost all of the large champagne houses in Épernay if you book in advance (and the myriad of smaller champagne houses will often allow you to just walk up and ask for a tour/tasting), but since we only had one day in Épernay we had to choose just one. The Moët et Chandon tour turned out to be a great choice.  It was fascinating, to say the least. I learned more than I could have ever hoped to know about champagne and the champagne industry.  Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits:

  • Legally, a sparkling wine can only be called “champagne” if it is grown and produced in this particular region of France. The French government is fighting hard to maintain the special designation to protect this traditional industry.
  • Moët et Chandon is one of the world’s largest champagne producers, with an output of 26,000,000 bottles of champagne annually.
  • Moët et Chandon is the official supplier of champagne to the British monarchy
  • 30 meters below its headquarters in Épernay, the entire stock of Moët et Chandon champagne is stored in a 28 kilometer network of caves–28km adds up to a mind-boggling amount of bottles!
  • Dom Pérignon, the famously expensive brand of champagne, is actually owned by Moët et Chandon.
  • In order to keep the taste of champagne uniform (despite the variability in the quality of grape harvests each year), most bottles contain a combination of types and years of grapes.  Vintage champagnes, however, only use grapes from that specific year’s harvest.  If the grapes from that year’s harvest do not taste perfect, the company will not produce a vintage champagne that year. This is why vintage champagnes are rare and expensive.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Avenue de Champagne, Moet et Chandon, Cellars

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When the tour of the cellars finished, we came to the best part of the Moët et Chandon experience: the champagne tasting, of course!

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We spent the last part of our day driving around the vineyards that surround Épernay before heading back to the B&B for the evening.  We even found Moët et Chandon’s vines! I was impressed by the fact that, in a time where most companies split up the various sections of their business in order to maximize profits, the major champagne houses in France still stick to the traditional methods of production.  In one day, we were able to see the entire process of champagne-making from vine to bottle.

Epernay, France, Champagne, Vineyards, Moet et Chandon Epernay, France, Champagne, Vineyards, Moet et Chandon Epernay, France, Champagne, Vineyards, Moet et Chandon

On our final morning in the Champagne region before we drove back to the Netherlands, we made a small detour at Reims to see the famous Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims.  The cathedral was built on the site of ancient Roman baths, and replaced an older church that burnt down in 1211.  Notre Dame in Paris is more famous, but having seen both of them, I think that the Reims cathedral is the more beautiful of the two.

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The cathedral is not only a pretty building though.  The cathedral was captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, and stayed in English hands until 1429 when it was liberated by Joan of Arc.

Reims, Cathedral, France, Joan of Arc, Jeanne D'Arc, Statue

Joan of Arc’s success in Reims allowed Charles VII to be crowned king on July 17, 1429, keeping alive the tradition started in 1364 that all kings of France be crowned at the Reims cathedral.  Today, the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and receives over 1 million visitors each year.

Overall, the Champagne region was a lovely place to spend a short weekend trip.  Anyone who likes history, champagne, or a combination of the two will enjoy a few days in this little corner of France.

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A Few Words About Dutch Heatwaves

Even the sun is melting

A mere few weeks ago, I would have given anything to finally get some real summer weather here in Haarlem.  I should have been careful what I wished for.  As I write this I am slowly melting away in my apartment. Coming from a place where temperatures average in the 90s (with disgustingly high levels of humidity) during the summer months, I thought that handling a Dutch heatwave would be a piece of cake.  Unfortunately, I forgot that finding a place with air conditioning here is like finding the Holy Grail. The Dutch have also never heard of ceiling fans or shady front porches, either. I am convinced that the Dutch have superior sweat glands or something like that, because I don’t know how any normal person can operate in these conditions.  I certainly can’t!

These are hot commodities right now

So this week my life has been relegated to pouring buckets of cold water on my head, fighting for the last bag of ice at Albert Heijn, and typing ridiculous search terms like “places with air conditioning in Amsterdam,” “coldest Dutch places in summer,” or “where can you buy a fan in the Netherlands” into Google.  Now, excuse me while I go stick my head in the freezer for the twentieth time today.

Life’s A Beach: Summer Sporting Events at Scheveningen Beach

When I think of the North Sea, the first word that usually comes to mind is COLD! Especially when compared to the beaches I am used to on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the North Sea is downright frigid most times of the year.  But for the three days of the year that it actually gets hot in the Netherlands (okay, I am exaggerating a little here…it gets warm for maybe three weeks), the Dutch invade the beaches on the North Sea coast and the Netherlands feels like a proper beach destination.  And since yesterday was the hottest day of the summer to date, Willem and I joined everyone else in the country in a day at the beach.

We left the apartment around noon, and headed towards the Hague and Scheveningen Beach.  Even though Scheveningen is not the closest beach to Haarlem (Zandvoort and Bloemendaal are both lovely seaside resort areas only a few kilometers to the west of Haarlem), we drove the extra half hour to Scheveningen.  Why would we drive an extra 30 minutes when there are perfectly nice beaches nearer to Haarlem? Well, Scheveningen happens to be a paradise for beach and water sports!

This weekend, The Hague Beach Stadium, which sits right on the beach, was hosting a series of international beach soccer matches.

Hague Beach Stadium, beach soccer, Scheveningen, Netherlands, beach, summer

Amazingly enough, all events at this 2,000 seat stadium are free and open to the public. We walked right up to the venue, found some seats, and settled in to watch the final match of the tournament played between the Netherlands and Italy:

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While beach soccer was the focus of this weekend, the Hague Beach Stadium also hosts other national and international sporting events (beach volleyball, beach hockey, and beach tennis) throughout the summer.  If you are in the area, definitely try to catch an event at this stadium. It truly is a wonderful venue to enjoy some (free!) summer spectator sports.

After the Netherlands-Italy match finished (the Netherlands lost, boo!), we walked down the beach to catch some rays and check out the water.  The beach was PACKED.  I have only once seen a beach more crowded than this one, and that was in Alexandria, Egypt on a day with temperatures pushing 110°.  All of the people in the water made me lose my senses for a while and imagine that the water must be warmer than it was when I last touched it.  Nope. Either the Dutch have some strange evolutionary resistance to cold water that I am missing, or they are all insane (I think it’s the latter).

Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague

I walked in the shallows while Willem jumped in and tried to convince himself that “the temperature’s fine once you get used to it”.  A hundred meters down the shoreline, we found out that Scheveningen beach was also hosting the Nacra 17 Class World Sailing Championships while we were there.  We watched as the boats from 22 countries (including the USA!) came in to land on the beach after performing some practice runs.

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I don’t know very much about sailing, but I looked up some information after we got home and discovered that Nacra 17 is the newest sailing discipline for the Olympics, and will be one of the medal categories in the Rio 2016 Olympics. Pretty awesome, right?  Like the events at The Hague Beach Stadium, the sailing competition is also free and open to anyone to watch.  The organizers also plan to have viewing areas with big screens set up on the beach so people can see all the action on the water as it happens. The competition is running through Saturday July 27th, so I may have to return and cheer on the USA later this week!

If you’re not interested in spectator sports, there are plenty of more adventurous activities on offer at Scheveningen.  We passed multiple surf schools and places to get windsurfing lessons, and there are places to rent stand-up paddle boats, kites, and jetskis.  I wasn’t about to try and get on a surfboard that day. With the number of people in the water, I probably would have run someone over on my first try. But maybe one day I will go for it, and come back to the U.S. with a new skill!

The Hague (Den Haag): International City of Peace and Justice

I was in the Hague this week working for the World Justice Forum IV, a wonderful conference organized by the World Justice Project., so I thought it would be the perfect time to write a small post about this city.

The Hague (Den Haag in Dutch) is only the third largest city by population in the Netherlands, after Amsterdam (the capital) and Rotterdam, but it is the seat of the Dutch government and parliament. The Hague is known for being a truly international city, with more than 50% of the city’s residents coming from another country.  It is also the home to many international institutions and organizations, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

In my time off from working at the conference (which wasn’t much) I got a chance to explore the city. Here are some of my Hague highlights:

The Binnenhof– This complex of buildings has housed the Dutch parliament since 1446, and is one of the most recognizable sights in The Hague.  Visitors are free to walk inside to the inner courtyard. If you’re lucky, you might see a minister or two being chauffeured through the gates in their fancy cars.

Binnenhof, Den Haag, The Hague Binnenhof, Den Haag, The Hague

The Peace Palace– The Peace Palace is often called the seat of international law, because it houses the International Court of Justice (the judicial body of the United Nations), as well as the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Andrew Carnegie provided over $1.5 million for its construction in the early 20th century.  The Peace Palace is coming up on a milestone: August 28, 2013 will be the Centenary of its establishment.

Peace Palace, The Hague, Den Haag

M.C. Escher Museum in Het Paleis– The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam get all the press, but The Hague has some lovely museums of its own. The Escher Museum was a favorite of mine.  Located in the former Royal Palace at Lange Voorhout, the museum features three floors of Escher’s most famous works. The top floor is dedicated to interactive exhibits, where you can try out some of Escher’s most famous optical illusions.

Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague

Gemeente Museum– I am not a fan of modern art, but if you are, then the Gemeente Museum is a must. The museum holds the world’s largest collection of works by Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan.

Gemeente Museum, Den Haag, The Hague

Het Plein– The center of The Hague’s social scene.  Since The Hague does not have a university, most of the nightlife in the city revolves around the sidewalk cafes filled with diplomats and professionals enjoying after-work drinks that line this square.

Het Plein, Den Haag, The Hague

Statenkwartier– The Hague also has some of the nicest neighborhoods (in my opinion) in the Netherlands.  The Statenkwartier is an old suburb of the city packed with architectural gems: beautiful mansions, stately row houses, and gorgeous facades that have housed some of the city’s wealthiest residents throughout history.

Scheveningen– I have discussed this beach resort before, when I wrote about the Dutch herring festival held there each year, but it is worth mentioning again.  Scheveningen is a point of pride in The Hague. Easily accessible by tram from the city center, the beach is packed on any sunny day, no matter the time of year.  It attracts over 10 million visitors per year, making it the most popular beach town in the Netherlands.

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This only represents a short list of some of the things I found most noteworthy about the Hague during my stay there.  I can’t wait to return and explore this international city further!