In the space of four years since getting divorced my sense of independence and self-reliance has increased exponentially. With no man to rely on I have no choice but to take the bull by the horns and tackle problems myself. This weekend proved to be yet another exercise in increasing my comfort zone and I have to say sitting here typing this post while crossing the channel back to Dover I’m feeling rather chuffed.
A massive switch in the brain was needed when I drove a left-hand-steering car on the right side of the road for the first time. After two days I nailed it. However, I fretted a lot about the upcoming trip to Reims, knowing I still have to flip the still-to-be-found switch in my brain to drive a right-hand-steering car on the right side of the road. Roundabouts just added to the confusion.
If a friend didn’t mention that I needed to make my car European compliant, I would have blissfully driven around and probably gotten arrested. That is if I didn’t drive my car in the ocean first while attempting to board the ferry. Can you tell how nervous I was about the upcoming trip?
TIP: Buy a Driving in France Kit and watch videos on how to adapt your headlights - over and over again if necessary. If still in doubt, buy a second pair of headlight adaptors and should you get stopped by police for applying them wrongly, ask them to show you how to do it.
The fact that the Queen Elizabeth II bridge was closed from 5am on the day I left, didn’t start the trip off on a positive note as the journey to Dover took me almost four times longer than it should have in the first place. Once there you need to get through customs and then the DFDS ticket booth will provide you with a boarding pass and tell you in which lane you need to wait in. It’s very much like being at an airport but instead of walking, you’re driving everywhere in your car. You also get to keep all your belongings with you and a massive plus point for travelling by ferry is that there is no weight limitation!
I discovered that it is very hard to miss the ramp on the ferry. If a massive lorry can do it with ease, my little car can as well. That was another fear dealt with.
My first experience of a ferry crossing was to Orkney. That was the closest I’ve been to being seasick and I’m not keen to experience it again. My second experience was crossing from [wales] to  Ireland. This ferry was a bit bugger but the Irish sea was wild and the motion messed with me head. Crossing with DFDS was this landlubber’s most positive experience of the seas thus far, probably due to its sheer size. As the old saying goes: size matters.
Inside the ferry it’s spacious and there is even a softly area for kids. There are restaurants, a duty-free shop and seating areas to relax. If you’re feeling brave you can go up to the deck, but in November it proved to be a chilly exercise. The journey takes 90 minutes and don’t forget to adjust your watch because there’s an hour’s difference between UK and France, with the latter being ahead.
Suddenly, I found myself in France. After the day’s nightmare on the roads in UK, I arrived in pitch black darkness. With Mozart almost blasting my ears off to soothe my nerves I hit the road.
TIP: Drive slowly to adjust to road conditions. There are toll roads and if you don’t have a passenger with you, be prepared to jump out with your purse and do a funny little dance around your car to pay for your ticket on the lefthand side of the car. As you do. Then manically run back and drive away before the boom goes down. It never did before I took off.
Surprisingly, I preferred French roads. They are so much quieter than UK’s. If anything, the 2.5 hour journey from Calais to Reims got a bit boring thanks to driving on one straight road for approximately 150 miles. When entering the city you have to become alert again and think a bit harder when making turns and entering roundabouts. In the end, the driving wasn’t as bad as I braced myself for. It really helped that I was driving my own trusty car.
What did I do and see in Reims? Here goes.
the Reims Cathedral
You can definitely see the Roman influence in the city of Reims. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know that this city has some beautiful architecture from the monarchy times. The Cathedral is also knowns as ‘Our Lady of Reims, or in French Notre-Dame de Reims. It’s located in the heart of the city and it resembles the Notre-Dame in Paris. Of course, it’s much smaller. Still, this Cathedral has crowned many French Kings.
The Reims Cathedral replaced a church back in the 13th century, which was destroyed by a fire. The construction of this Cathedral began in 1211 and was roofed only in the year 1299. It took an entire century to complete this cathedral. Today, the tower stands at 267 feet (81m) holding two large bells. Would you believe me if I told you that one the bells weighs about 11 tonnes? This building survived the riots during the French Revolution and it even survived the bombings from the World Wars and got really damaged during the first one. Along the way, the Cathedral was used as a hospital for the military.
Unfortunately, the roof and the north tower caught fire causing the roof to melt. The Rockefeller family provided a lot of financial support and the Cathedral was since then restored. It reopened in 1938.
Palais du Tau
Another sight to see in Reims is the Palais du Tau. The name of this palace is derived from its T-shape structure. The letter T is pronounced Tau in Greek. The palace was originally a Gallo-Roman villa in the 6th and 7th century. However, most of the original building has disappeared. The oldest thing that still remains standing today is the chapel, which dates back to 1207. The Palais du Tau was later rebuilt in a Gothic style between the 15th and 16th century. There should be no surprise that the Palais du Tau has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Similarly, the Palais du Tau was also famous for the coronation of Kings of France. In fact, the Kings used to be crowned in the nearby Cathedral of Reims, and the coronation feasts and banquets were held in the palace. Unfortunately, the Palace too was damaged during World War I, and was only repaired after the Second World War ended. Today, the Palais du Tau still holds some beautiful rooms. For example, the Hall of the Tau is a true site to see. You also can’t miss all the gold reliquaries.
I went for the ‘Champagne Discovery Afternoon’ with Vine Escape, where I spent half a day in the champagne vineyards. Not only did I get to know the secrets of Champagne and the winemaking process, I also got to taste six different champagnes. I had to drive back to Calais later. Luckily, I managed.
what is champagne?
Champagne is a sparkling wine which is only produced from grapes within the region of Champagne. So, if you come across any sparkling wine, make sure you don’t call it champagne unless you know it’s from there. Legally speaking, champagne can only be labelled as a champagne if it follows specific production rules from the Champagne-Ardenne region and uses only the grapes grown there.
The grapes used for producing champagne are Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. How can a champagne be white if they use a black-skinned grape, Pinot Noir? Wines get their colour from the skin of the grapes used, so it doesn’t really make sense, does it? Well, for the production of Champagne, the Pinot Noir grapes are skinned, allowing the champagne to keep its traditional colour while enhancing the taste.
how it is made
Champagne is located in the Northern part of France, about an hour and a half east of Paris. The traditional method of making champagne is called Methode Champenoise.
This involves two levels of fermentation. Firstly, the grapes undergo the primary fermentation process. It is up to the champagne maker to decide when the primary fermentation stops and when the champagne is bottled. This is what makes each bottle of champagne so unique. The second fermentation process happens inside the bottle itself due to the addition of the yeast and rock sugar. Generally, it takes a minimum of a year and a half for the champagne to develop its full flavour. However, a champagne can mature up to three years.
The bottles with then capped and placed in a cold cellar with minimum lighting, hanging upside down. This is done so that the sediment settles in the neck of the bottle. Every now and again, the champagne maker manipulates the bottles manually, shaking them from side to side, which helps the secondary fermentation process. This process is referred to as ‘riddling’. Once the champagne maker decides that the champagne is fully mature, they freeze the neck of the bottle and take it off. By doing so, they eliminate the residual lees. Next, the bottle is sealed again with a cork, so it doesn’t lose any carbon dioxide, or its bubbliness. A lot of dedication and care goes into every bottle of champagne, hence the price tag.
more about champagne
L’avenue de Champagne on Epernay is the main street to visit in the Champagne-Ardenne Region of France. All of the largest houses are located on this street. However, other champagnes not located on this street are equally if not more delicious. There is something romantic about small producers..
When it comes to the historical ties within this region, the Romans were the first to plant vineyards there. It is only around the 10th century when this region started being known for its local winemaking. This was around the time when King Hugh Capet was crowned in the cathedral of Reims as the King of France back in 987. Then, the first champagnes were pinkish in colour, as only the Pinot Noir was used with skin left on. Champagne gained popularity amongst royalty and nobility. In fact, in the Louis VIX era it was the favourite drink of the court. Today, it’s still considered a luxury and a good bottle can cost hundreds of pounds.
There you have it.
It was a jam-packed weekend filled with fond memories. Especially, when after waiting for 15 minutes for the champagne tour to start I realised I was waiting at the wrong tourism office. Unbeknownst to me, Reims has two. A few minutes later I found myself running frantically down Boulevard Foch, the name sounding very much like my favourite expletive to use in situations like this. Life has a way of playing little jokes on you!
TIP: Always type in the precise address of your destination. Otherwise, be prepared to go on little "adventures".
Last, but not least. France has fabulous food to offer. Who fancies some salmon tartare or duck breast with apples?
TIP: Prepare for the trip and make sure you pack everything. Once done, just relax and enjoy the ride.
This was a completely new experience for me and even though I was a nervous wreck beforehand, my confidence grew by the day. It was a comfort to drive in my very own, trusty car and it turned out to be an enjoyable trip. A special thanks to DFDS for making this trip possible. I'll definitely consider holidaying in Europe with my car in the future!
Click here for more information on DFDS ferries to France.
P.S. This is a sponsored post.