Europe

A Day in Champagne


glasses-with-champagne-against-fireworks

For today’s blog I thought I’d start with a few lines of travel poetry:

At Charles de Gaulle Airport one fine sunny day
the Road Warrior read an itinerary in not quite the right way.
His onward flight to Miami had already long gone
and a night in the airport didn’t sound much like fun.
So what’s one to do after missing a plane?
In France the answer’s simple: visit Champagne!

Spending a lot of time on the road, it is inevitable that things will go wrong.

Over the years, I’ve experienced my fair share of travel mishaps. Like flight diversions and cancellations, lost bags, aircraft and taxi breakdowns, leaking ceilings and blocked toilets in hotel rooms, and so on.

Of course, I have also missed more than a few flights. Mostly this is due to delays in connecting flights, traffic on the way to the airport, or bad weather. Although sometimes it is just a case of running late, usually owing to me sleeping through an alarm when totally jet-lagged.

But recently I set a new personal record for “Monumental Travel Stuff-Ups”.

You see, after a week of work and play in The City of Light, we awoke early on a bright Parisienne Sunday and made our way to Charles de Gaulle airport. We were scheduled to catch a mid-morning flight to Miami, from where we would connect to Nassau in The Bahamas.

We arrived at the airport allowing about an hour-and-a-half for check-in formalities, getting through airport security, and grabbing a coffee before the flight.

That would be plenty of time. Or so I thought.

But the check-in queue was massive – more than forty people waiting patiently in line, with only one check-in operator in attendance. This was especially annoying since the check-in queue immediately to the left – same airline, although different destination – was totally empty, and had two check-in operators sitting around doing nothing.

After waiting in the queue for some time, an airline employee walked along the line calling out: “Anyone for the flight to Miami?” I held up my hand, expecting that given the time, she would whisk us off for an expedited check-in. Instead, she called out cheerfully: “You‘re late – you’re going to miss your flight!”, before turning around and walking away. Honestly, this happened, I am not making it up.

We continued to wait, and after a stressful half-hour watching the minutes tick-away, it was eventually our turn. Although it seems we had waited and stressed for nothing. Because on scanning my passport the check-in attendant said: “Sir, I cannot find any record of you for this flight”.

I encouraged her to look again and a few minutes later, after some furious pecking at a keyboard, she smiled. “Ah, OK, I found you…” she said. But before I could do or say anything, she continued: “… you were on yesterday’s flight, not today’s flight – the system has you as a “no-show” for that flight.”

My blood began to boil. “Look, that must be a mistake,” I said. “We are booked to fly on Sunday the 19th from Paris to Miami – I am sure of that.” The airline employee stared at me, her face a look of utter French disdain. “Sir, you were booked to fly on the 19th from Paris to Miami. But today is the 20th. The 19th was Saturday.” She paused. “And that was yesterday,” she added for dramatic effect. I could see she was just itching to finish by saying: “Perhaps you should learn to read a calendar, you Anglo-Saxon moron.”

Oh, shit.

miss_your_flight_feature

Somehow, in between the endless croissants and fois gras baguette of the past week, I had managed to confuse my days so completely I’d for the first time ever missed a flight by a whole 24 hours.

What followed was five minutes of me obsequiously groveling at the feet of the French check-in matron who was now, evidently, in charge of my destiny. But she was stone-faced, and utterly unmoved. My heartfelt pleas achieved nothing, other than to establish that (i) she hated me, (ii) the Sunday flight was completely full, and (iii) it was now well past the check-in time for that flight anyway.

Eventually, tired of my whining the check-in attendant indicated firmly that I should move on. “Sir, I have other passengers to deal with and you are holding up the queue. You should speak to the ticketing desk, or perhaps call your travel agent.” I am sure she smirked.

But she was right, and after reminding her of who exactly had saved France in World War II, I stepped aside to ring my travel agent’s after hours emergency helpline. In Melbourne, Australia, and so the very helpful lady who took my call was doing so at what was, for her, almost midnight on a Sunday.

Shaking off the cobwebs of sleep she logged on and checked what had happened, before explaining that my situation was “kind of problematic”. Apparently, because we were no-shows for the original scheduled flight to Miami, the entire ticket, including all subsequent connecting flights, had been cancelled.

For the second time in as many hours I found myself thinking: “Oh, shit”.

To cut a long story short, it took two hours of frantic phone calls and a few stiff coffees, but the travel agent eventually sorted it all out, God bless her. She managed to have our tickets reinstated. And we were re-booked on the next available flight to Nassau. Only the next morning, and we would first have to catch a super-early flight to London. Meaning I had to reschedule a bunch of meetings, and find a room for the night in the nearest airport hotel. And also meaning we now had to spend an extra day in France.

Which, I’ll be the first to admit, is probably not the worst thing in the world that could happen while on the road.

Street sign

So, what to do next?

We could have spent the extra day sightseeing in Paris. But the thought of schlepping 45 minutes on a train into the center of town (where, recall, we had just come from), to mingle with the tourist masses for an afternoon before schlepping back out to the airport again, was not all that appealing. Then again, neither was the idea of hanging around for a whole day in the stale air of a crappy airport hotel lobby.

It occurred that we should instead rent a car, and go for a Sunday drive in the French countryside. The deal was sealed when I consulted a map and discovered, to my great joy, that Park Asterix was not all that far away – a Disney-style extravaganza devoted entirely to my favorite comic book heroes. However, also within striking distance was the village of Epernay, capital of the Champagne region, where most of the world’s finest bubblies are produced. And I was the schmuck who had misread the itinerary in the first place.

All of which is a rather long way of explaining how I recently came to be in Epernay, France, on a sunny autumn afternoon, standing outside the magnificent façade of the Castellane building, a leading champagne house, about to embark on a tour of their caves.

It was a lot of fun – much more than I ever thought uncorked bottles of champagne could provide. I learned all about the history of this iconic beverage, and how it is produced. I learned that underneath the streets of Epernay there are over 180 kilometers of caves – tunnels in which hundreds of millions of champagne bottles lie, silently maturing for years in the dark. And I even finally learned the difference between a Methuselah and Balthazar. Important life information, I know.

From there, we embarked on a series of champagne tastings, meandering our way down the Avenue de Champagne, one of the more extraordinary grand boulevards I have ever seen. The street is lined on both sides by palatial neo-classical mansions, protected behind massive wrought iron fences. Each is the “office” of a major champagne house: Moet & Chandon, Dom Perrignon, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouet – they are all here.

These mansions were all built after WWI, an attempt at the time by each major champagne brand to “out-big” their rivals. But these magnificent houses are also just the tip of a very large, and very pricey iceberg, so to speak. Because each mansion also serves as the gateway to the warren of tunnels and chalk cellars beneath, in which literally billions of dollars of champagne reside. Not for nothing is the Avenue de Champagne often referred to as the most expensive street in the world.

champagne cave

As we strolled down the avenue, we stopped at a number of champagne houses on the way. All of which offered tasting flights of their finest produce. And fortunately, most were accompanied by paired cheese tastings. I am not much of a drinker, and also was driver for the day, so after the first glass it was strictly sip-n-spit / cheese-please for me.

Eventually, as the light began to fade, thoughts turned to dinner. We hadn’t eaten since the morning, and were hungry. A quick check online, followed by a dozen or so phone calls to various local eating establishments, revealed that not much was open in Epernay on a Sunday. And not much was open in any of the surrounding towns either. This was not good news, because, as mentioned, we were pretty hungry.

Then we came across an internet review that waxed lyrical about a place located in an old Chateau in the nearby town of Reins. The place was Michelin-star-rated and, more importantly, open on Sundays.

So we called. Indeed, they were open. And indeed, they still had a table for two available. “Great, we will be there in forty-five minutes”, we said.

“Bien”, the hostess on the other end of the line replied. But before hanging up she made sure to remind us of the restaurant’s dress-code. Specifically, that as a man I should wear a jacket and tie.

Not a problem at all, apart from the fact that I was kind of unshaven and scruffy looking, not to mention dressed in faded jeans, worn out sneakers, a stretched black t-shirt, and a hoodie. With the nearest jacket and tie located in my suitcase, back at the airport hotel.

Another “oh shit” moment, really.

“How strict is the dress policy?” I asked haltingly. There was a pause – a long pregnant moment while our French hostess tried to weigh up how best to deal with someone who was clearly an imbecile foreigner. “Monsieur”, she eventually said with a slightly haughty sigh, “it is Sunday night, so we are more relaxed. If you are elegant, that will be OK.

Given what I was wearing, had there been an alternative I would have probably immediately cancelled. But there wasn’t. Plus, as I mentioned, we were pretty hungry. Starving, actually. So taking a slightly liberal approach to the word “elegant”, I removed my hoodie, tucked in my t-shirt, and (rather futilely) dusted off my shoes. As the old adage goes, “I say French fries, you say pomme frites,” or something like that.

The look of abject horror on the maître-d’s face when we arrived was quite something to behold. His eyes slowly scanned me up and down, and I could see he was thinking all sorts of terrible things not only about me, but about the English-speaking world in general. Still, it was Sunday night, we had a reservation, and we were standing on his doorstep, ready to eat. Also he was way too professional to make a scene.

So despite my shambolic appearance we were discreetly ushered into the opulently appointed dining hall. As we passed by the other tables of diners – all the men suitably attired in jackets and ties – I felt like their eyes were following us, boring into my back.

We were allocated a table at the back, and I was seated with my back to the wall. “Enjoy your meal”, the maître-d said as he handed us the menu. “And Sir, please, stay seated so that no one sees you,” he added. Actually, I lie: he didn’t say this last bit. But I know he was definitely thinking it.

cloche2

Anyway, it was all well worth it. The restaurant turned out to offer only one thing: an eight-course tasting menu, which was sublimely, ridiculously good. The service was impeccable, and the ambiance deluxe. After the first two truffle and fois gras laden courses I had completely forgotten about all the trials and tribulations of the day. And by the fourth course – baby quail in a wild mushroom and truffle reduction of some sort – I had slipped into a blissful foodie coma. As I savored every mouthful it no longer mattered that I probably looked like a drooling prison escapee.

Because I was happy. We had unwittingly stumbled into an experience of French cuisine at its finest, partnered with a carefully selected glass of bubbly, in the very place where it was made. Somehow fate had conspired, and misfortune had delivered the perfect ending to a week in France, not to mention a memory that will now be with me forever.

Three hours later, waddling out of the restaurant and back to the car, I didn’t even care that my t-shirt was no longer tucked in. Although I could swear the maître-d covered his eyes as we passed, offering up a silent prayer of thanks that I would finally be gone.

So what’s the moral of this story?

Well first, if, like me, you are a traveler likely to experience twists and turns along the way, always use a good travel agent. It may cost you a bit extra, but when you need help you will be grateful for every cent spent. I shudder to think what would have happened if I’d had to sort my mess out direct with the airline, on a rapidly depleting mobile phone, standing in a long queue while attempting to navigate the automated menu of a French customer service “helpline”. I suspect I’d be writing this blog from the inside of a Paris lunatic asylum.

Second, always wear clean underwear (or at least carry a collared shirt and jacket around). You never know when you will need them.

And third, go with the flow. When shit happens whilst on the road, embrace it. See mishaps as an opportunity to do something unexpected, unusual, and spontaneous. Because sometimes the very best travel experiences will happen when you least expect them, in ways you could never plan.

champagne sunset

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