In a narrow side street in Joinville an unmarked red door lay wide open, hanging awkwardly off its hinges. My son glanced at me, then cautiously ventured in, his beaming face reappearing at the entrance a few seconds later.
“You are always looking for off-the-beaten-track travel gems, right Dad?” he said through a grin as wide as a baguette, “Well, I think I’ve just found one!” And he disappeared through the door once again.
We weren’t supposed to be in Champagne at all. A long-planned camping trip to Austria with some family became unstuck at the very last minute when a cousin fell sick and the Austrian weather forecasters inconveniently decided that it would rain heavily for several days.
So there we were, Daisy the bus packed full of camping equipment, four kids clutching their favourite teddy bears… and nowhere to go. Leafing through an old French camping guide, I noticed that I had – at some indeterminate point in the past – circled a campsite in the “Haute-Marne” region of Champagne, about three hours away from our home in Luxembourg: La Forge de Sainte-Marie. It looked nice. I phoned them, they had availability and, instead of driving east, we headed south-west and excitedly pitched our shiny new Outwell tent in an idyllic spot beside the Rongeant river near Thonnance-les-Moulins.
Well, it was lovely. We could quite happily have stayed there all day, every day… but, of course, we didn’t. One upside to the absolute spontaneity about our choice of destination was that we had absolutely no idea what to expect from Haute-Marne (didn’t even know it existed, to be completely frank…), and so we ventured out and savoured our new surroundings slowly, starting with the promisingly-named “Château du Grand Jardin” in nearby Joinville.
Luck was on our side again – we had arrived at this 16th century “Pavilion de plaisance” in the middle of a festival (yet still were able to park free-of-charge right at the entrance – we love rural France!) and there were plenty of activities going on for all ages. Not only that, but the gardens were, indeed, “grand” and full of colourful and imaginative hands-on art installations.
But you don’t need to be grand to be beautiful – in the sleepy (read: deserted) village of Germay we found a gorgeous “Lavoir communal” (community washing place), with wild strawberries and rampant flowers growing outside and a harmonious, almost classical, feeling inside.
The charms of Haute-Marne are subtle and refined. The grapes that once grew here largely fell victim to disease many years ago, and there is consequently little or no sign of the bubbly stuff which makes this region famous around the world. Instead, the landscape of rolling hills, forest and arable land is best explored slowly on foot, or by bicycle. On one early morning 9km hike around our campsite, I was treated to a first-rate exhibition of the local flora and fauna: hares bounded over stony fields of seedling sunflowers, skylarks boomed their weird morse code from a million miles overhead, delicate orchids lined the sidings of a long-disused railway, and a single poppy bloomed defiantly among a field of ripening wheat.
Back in Daisy the bus, we followed quiet country roads to the Château de Lafauche, a romantic crumbling ruin of a fortress sprawling over a hillside. No entrance fee, no audioguide, no gift shop, just some partially-restored outer fortifications and the occasional ivy-clad inner wall to fuel the imaginations of little knights and princesses. It was perfect.
The château is maintained by an enthusiastic and friendly bunch of local residents, some of which we met at the foot of the castle. They patiently showed us round a handful of exhibitions just opposite the castle gates, including a model of (and artefacts from) the castle, a collection of locally-made ceramics and a stick man museum.
A stick man museum???
Er, yes… One local resident (who sadly passed away in 2003) spent his free time collecting weird sticks from the nearby forests. He then performed some rudimentary carving and waxing – but never gluing – to create hundreds of “stick man” sculptures, many of which are permanently on display at this “Musée aux branches“. We have never seen anything quite like it, and I doubt we ever will again.
Quirkiness appears to be a local trait in Haute-Marne: a glance at a map showed that one nearby natural attraction was rather curiously named “Cul du cerf” (“The deer’s ass”). Intrigued, we headed there to find a rather bizarre 65-metre deep ravine created by water eroding the calcium-rich ground. Didn’t really see the resemblance to deer bottom, though…
But what’s that? Ah yes – the red door! Well, it led us into the Église Notre-Dame, a truly magnificent piece of Romanesque-Gothic architecture inhabited by precisely two pigeons and a wealth of remarkable religious treasures.
Inside this astoundingly beautiful church, through its slowly decaying monuments and damp-ridden walls, we could tangibly sense the comings and going of centuries of life in these parts. There was, of course, no-one else in the church with us during our visit and, as my son stated immediately afterwards, he couldn’t even imagine another tourist being in there with us. Our spontaneous camping trip had taken us well and truly off the beaten track, and that – above all else – is what made our visit to Champagne so satisfying and memorable.
Disclosure: We are a test family for Outwell tents. As such, Outwell provided us with our tent and certain camping equipment. All views and opinions are our own.
Daisy the bus visited the Haute-Marne region of Champagne in June 2017
All photos and text (c) Jonathan Orr 2017