There is more to the Champagne region of France than sparkling wine. The area around Reims, Troyes and Aube is steeped in stories and myths about the mysterious Knights Templar, magical abbeys and prisons, saints, sinners and kings! Here you can drink in the beautiful towns with their stunning architecture, gastronomy and shops as well as sampling the champagne itself!
Aube is the birthplace of the Order of the Temple.Hugues de Payns founded the Templars in 1120, influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux who founded Clairvaux Abbey in 1115. It was the Cistercian monk Bernard who provided the rules by which the Templars lived and who gave them the theological justification for monks to kill. They became the first religious and military order responsible for protecting pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land and went on to become powerful and influential land-owners and funders of the action in the East. They are even said to have guarded the Shroud of Turin and other treasures, but no-one really knows the truth behind these Indiana-Jones type legends.
We begin to learn their story at Clairvaux Abbey, an abbey-prison with an extraordinary history. The monks’ refectory was transformed into a chapel in 1813 and although this and other restored, vaulted rooms are breath-taking; the building has a darker side. The site is also home to a high security prison which now stands on the same ground over adjacent high walls. For this reason visitors must hand over their passports for the duration of their visit. France’s number 1 prison once housed, among others, notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal in 2006.
A tour around the old cells is macabre. The ‘hen coops’ are grim metal cages introduced to house prisoners under Napoleon 1st and, disturbingly, were still in use until the 1970s.Sadly, women and children were also prisoners here in the 18th century.
Victor Hugo visited here in 1834 and some of the social injustice he saw inspired one of his most powerful works: Les Misérables.
Back in the sunshine it is refreshing to gulp in the fresh air!
The taste of Champagne
As you would expect, the region is full of champagne houses where you can see where champagne is produced and taste the fine wines. Monial in Colombe le Sec has a history closely tied to the monastic activity around Clairvaux. Stepping into the cellars is an atmospheric and exciting experience and a glass of bubbly after visiting the unspoilt chapel is a must.
A firm favourite of General De Gaulle, champagne Drappier is still produced by the family Drappier who have lived here since 1808. Patriarch Andre Drappier is still involved aged 91 in a business now in the hands of the eight generation. Andre’s son Michel is passionate about the champagne which is grown on 55 hectares. An annex of Clairvaux abbey, the cellars were constructed by St Bernard in 1152 and the champagne is produced in the Cistercian tradition. See the giant bottles filled here with the evocative names of Jeroboam, Methuselah,Balthazarand Melchizadeck – plus all the sizes in-between!
Troyes can be reached by train from Paris.
Judith Baker is a travel writer based in London, UK. She is a member of The British Guild of Travel Writers.