The capital of champagne is also very proud of its water, as shown by the installation in 2007 of a revolutionary purification station in the nearby village of Mardeuil. Funded in part by the champagne houses, the station is designed to treat rainwater, domestic water but also the water used for the vines. The plant is the first in Europe to adopt a new system to recycle mud called OVH, which turns it into a product called technosable which can be reused. After Epernay, the system has been adopted by towns like Brussels or Milan. The site is often visited by towns willing to enquire about it and is also open frequently for visits by the local schools.
Listed as a “remarkable site of French taste”, Epernay’s avenue de Champagne is also sometimes referred to as the wealthiest avenue in the world. The town’s main street is also home to ten of the biggest champagne houses in the world - De Castellane, Moët et Chandon, Mercier, Perrier-Jouët, Demoiselle, Comtesse Lafond, Boizel, Esterlin, De Venoge et Pol Roger – who all own superb houses in classical or Renaissance style. Their interest is not purely architectural as their cellars contain no less than 200 million bottles of the precious beverage. The champagne is kept in a 110kms network of galleries dug in limestone and going down 40 metres. The value of the treasure buried beneath the avenue is just incalculable. Every year in December, the avenue puts on its “Habits de Lumiere” (Light dressings) which enhance its natural beauty. Avenue de Champagne was recently restored to clam back its original glamour.
The capital of champagne hosted the first stage of the 1963 Tour de France. Eddy Pauwels had two reasons to crack open a bottle of champagne. He won the stage and took the yellow jersey. It was not pure chance. The Belgian also held the yellow jersey for two days in 1959, won four stages in his career and finished four times in the top 20 on the Tour. The race returned to Epernay twice for starts – in 1978 for a stage won by Jan Raas and in 2002 for a team time trial won by team ONCE. It is also the birthplace of French rider John Gadret as well as Marcel Huot, winner of a stage in 1928 and Jean-Pierre Boulard, who won the Tour de l’Avenir in 1968.
|Fifth century||The town is founded and offered by a Clovis officer to St Remi.|
|From 533 to 765||The town is destroyed and plundered repeatedly.|
|1024||Epernay passes under the control of the Counts of Champagne, who will rule it until 1284, when it is handed to the French crown.|
|1422||The town is controlled by the English and, in 1432, by the Duke of Burgundy.|
|15th century to Revolution||The town keeps changing hands and is held by the Dukes of Bouillon until 1789.|
|1730||The Chanoine brothers open the first champagne house in Epernay.|
|1791||Louis XVI, back to Paris after his escape to Varennes, halts in Epernay.|
|1911||Winegrowers revolt is severally crushed by police.|
|1914–1918||The town is almost entirely destroyed during WW1.|
DE CASTELLANE TOWER
Built from an old water tower between 1903 and 1905, the De Castellane tower is 63 metres high and was destined to give more visibility to the De Castellane champagne house, whose headquarters are not located on the Avenue de Champagne.
Inaugurated in 1902 and named in 1987 after the Epernay-born comedian, it is one of the rare proscenium theatres to subsist with all its machinery.
Préfecture : Châlons-en-Champagne
Sous-préfectures : Epernay, Reims, Sainte-Menehould, Vitry-le-François
Population : 566 000 hab
Site web : www.cg51.fr
Montmirail is noted for the battle which took place on February 11, 1814 and saw the victory of Napoleon troops against the Russian forces led by General Osten-Sacken and the Prussians of General Johann Yorck. The town also has a nice 16th century castle.
Prefecture : Melun
Population : 1,250,000
Web site : www.seine-et-marne.fr
Wheatfield and battlefields have marked the history of the department. Long considered Paris food cellar, Seine et Marne has retained its reputation for fine food with products such as the Brie cheese or the Meaux mustard. Its strategic importance and its proximity with Paris have led prominent figures to settle here. The Vaux le Vicomte or Fontainebleau castles bear witness to the department’s prestigious past. The development of the Paris region since the 1950s saw the department’s population double in 40 years to reach 1.2 million today. New towns such as Melun-Senart or Marne la Vallee were created after the War. Marne la vallee is home to Eurodisney, the department’s main employer.
Built on a hill where once stood a Roman fort, Provins is a charming town registered as a World Heritage site since 2001. Its importance was already evident in the 9th century when the town issued its own money and held a major fair under the protection of the Dukes of Champagne. This wealthy period, which made Provins the third biggest town in France behind Paris and Rouen, left a lasting mark on the city. Its famous walls, built between 1226 and 1314, are 1.2 kms long and include 22 towers of various shapes. The most famous is the Cesar Tower, the only known octagonal tower with a square base. It was mostly used as a prison and was held by the English during the 100 years War. Mysterious galleries run beneath the walls and have been used as a setting by novelist Umberto Eco in his book Foucault’s Pendulum. Provins is also the birthplace of David Moncoutie, twice a stage winner on the Tour. He finished 13th overall in 2002.
The town is known for its railway viaduct but also for a huge engine shed, the only one of its kind left from the early 20th century. Made of wood, bricks and glass panes, the semi-circular warehouse was built in 1911. With a 90 metres diameter and a turning bridge in its centre, the rotunda was equipped to serve 20 railways and until its closure in 1962 was solely used for steam engines. It was restored in 2006 and open to the public who can visit the railroad museum inside.
Montereau has been famous since 1419 when the Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless fell in an ambush while he was meeting King Charles VII. He was murdered by knights Tanguy du Chatel et Sir Barbazan. The Notre-Dame et Saint-Loup church holds a sword thought to have belonged to John the Fearless. His son Philippe took the town, which remained under the control of England’s and Burgundy’s allies for eight years. Montereau was also the site of one of Napoleon’s very last victories in 1814, when he beat the Austrian army.
In the 19th century, Montereau became a small industrial centre specialising in earthenware and chemicals. In 1955, a huge basin was built at the confluence of the Seine and Yonne rivers to facilitate the traffic of barges. Montereau held three Tour stages in 1977, 2004 and 2009.
Nearby Moret-sur-Loing was the native town of Rene Pottier, winner of the 1906 Tour de France. He committed suicide in 1907.
The Nemours castle, probably built as early as the 12th century, was restored by Jacques d’Armagnac, Duke of Nemours in the 15th century. It became the town’s property with the French Revolution in 1789 and was used as a warehouse, a theatre and a school. It has been a museum of local history since 1903. It is well worth a visit with paintings by Daumier, Delacroix and Goya as well as drawings made by Victor Hugo when he spent some time in town. Nemours held the start of the last stage of the 1988 Tour de France, won in Paris by Jean-Paul Van Poppel.
The site was always favoured by its location on the outskirts of the Fontainebleau forest and by the Loing river and it developed mostly along the hilly left bank. A church was built in the early 12th century: the St Pierre and Paul church, restored in the 15th century with its square tower and its slate roof.
The La Joie-les Nemours Royal Abbey, depending on the Citeaux order, was founded in 1211. Over the village , the Rochers-Greau forest with its 50 acres of wood is ideal for trekking and climbing. Among the town’s celebrities are writer and French resistant Jean Prevost (1901-1944) killed in action in the Vercors under the name of Captain Goderville. Cartoonist Allan Barte also comes from St Pierre.
In 52 BC, Julius Caesar besieged the town, which still gives his names to several local buildings like a bridge or a path which was possibly used by 60,000 Roman soldiers when they attacked the local Gauls. The town’s military vocation was later confirmed when walls were built. Very prosperous in the Middle Ages, Chateau Landon was the first home of the Plantagenet, who later reigned over England, as it was the birthplace of Foulque IV, the dynasty’s founder. Careers briefly brought a relative wealth but tourism is nowadays the town’s main asset.
Prefecture : Orléans
Population : 647,000
Web site : www.loiret.com
The Loiret department holds a major communication and strategic position in France, making it a much disputed area throughout history. Its economy is mostly rural, forest and cattle providing most of its wealth. Small industries have developed around towns like Orleans and Montargis while gastronomy remains an essential fixture with specialities such as vinegar and poultry in Orleans, pastries in Pithiviers, game in Sologne, honey in Gatinais and Loire Valley wines.
A tour recalls an unexpected episode of Montargis history. Unwittingly, the town played a part in the communist revolution in China. In the 1910s, several young Chinese students came to Montargis to study or work in the Hutchinson factory, which was at the time the town’s main employer. These young people were named Zhou Enlai, Li Fuchun, Li Weihan, Chen Yi or Deng Xiaoping, who later became the head of the Chinese Communist Party. Some 400 Chinese youths came to Montargis between 1912 and 1927 and apparently were introduced to Marxism by French workers in their factories. In August 1920, Cai Hesen, who was the mentor of the small Chinese community, wrote a letter from Montargis to his friend Mao Zedong to suggest the creation of a Chinese communist party. The tour takes visitors to the houses, schools and factories in which the Chinese lived during this period and is especially attractive for a growing number of Chinese tourists.
No one really knows who invented pralines but Montargis plays a central part in the most usually accepted theory. The sweet made of almond and sugar was apparently invented by Montargis-born Clement Lassagne, who worked as a chef for the Duke of Plessis-Praslin. His master asked him to create a sweet he could offer to his many female conquests. Lassagne later retired back to Montargis, bringing to his hometown the recipe which made his fortune and became famous the world over. Nowadays, the Mazet confectionery continues the tradition and sells pralines under the brand the Duke de Praslin, claiming to use Lassagne’s secret recipe.
Montargis featured on the Tour route three times in the past and was always partial to riders with a strong finish. Hermann van Springel was the first to win a stage here in 1969. Seven years later, the town was the start of a ride to Creteil, and another Belgian, Freddy Maertens, was the day’s winner. The last time the peloton was in town, in 2005, victory befell the most Belgian of all Australian sprinters, Robbie McEwen. Montargis also took an active part in the recent history of Paris-Nice as the start of the Race to the Sun was held for three years in the neighbouring town of Amillly.
|1170||Pierre de Courtenay, the fourth son of King Louis VI the Fat receives the town as a wedding present. He grants the population many rights and privileges. He gives it to King Philip II Augustus in 1188.|
|1427||The Montargis people are rewarded by King Charles VII for their heroic struggle against the English in the Hundred Years War.|
|1525||Montargis is ravaged by fire. The beautiful choir in the Sainte Madeline church is built.|
|1528||King Francis 1 entrusts the town to his sister-in-law Renee of France, who is protestant, and then to her daughter Anne d’Este.|
|1612||Marie de Medicis buys the town from Anne d’Este inheritors.|
|1627||Montargis passes to the House of Orelans who keep it until the Revolution.|
|1749||Birth of Mirabeau in the Bignon Castle.|
|1767||Birth of painter Girodet.|
|1870||Debrie sculpts the Montargis Dog statue, which recalls a 15th century legend telling the tale of a dog who identified his master’s murderer and led to his arrest.|
The square tower called “Poterne” built by King Philip II Augustus, a corner tower overlooking the town and a couple of ruins are what remains of the Montargis Castle. Parts of it can be visited on request at the Tourism Office. The walls facing town are in the course of restoration as well as some of the medieval and Renaissance gardens that surrounded the walls. A pedestrian tour gives a nice overview of this royal castle.