Off the beaten track in Champagne

A spontaneous camping trip to a quiet corner of Haute-Marne, Champagne allowed us to discover castles, gardens, a magnificent church… and a ridiculously quirky museum.

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, with that, he disappeared through the door once again.

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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.

Outwell Bear Lake 6É with awning
Outwell Bear Lake 6É with awning

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.

Chateau de Grand Jardin, Joinville, France
Château du Grand Jardin, 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.

Living sculpture, Château du Grand Jardin, Joinville, France
A tree? A sculpture?? The gardens of the Château du Grand Jardin were full of quirky surprises

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.

Single poppy in a wheat field, Champagne, France

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 small (free) exhibitions, 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…

Cul de Cerf, Haute-Marne, Champagne, France


But what’s that? Ah yes – the broken 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.

Off the beaten track in France
Off the beaten track

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

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Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

47 thoughts on “Off the beaten track in Champagne”

  1. I wasn’t expecting half of those things when I saw the title, what interesting places you discovered. You landed on your feet I think. I would love to camp in France. #AllAboutFrance

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this. Although we’ve spent some time in the Champagne region, you found several places we haven’t seen — so now we’ll have to go back! Your family pictures really give a sense of how much your group enjoys these trips and they remind us of our travels in France back when our son was only 8. Thanks!

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  3. I can see a deer bottom. Imagine it in autumn and brown, that streak of trees is the tail and the chalk the rump. One of us is going to have to visit in autumn. Thank you for linking up to #CulturedKids

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  4. We have a thing in our family for coming up with the most random museum theme/name and I have to admit that a musée de branches might be the best yet, not at all sure that we’ll ever beat that! This looks like a perfectly lovely spontaneous camping trip (I’m jealous of that tent…hello Outwell tents can we test one too????!) I’m so pleased you didn’t go to Austria or you wouldn’t have linked up with #AllAboutFrance – great to have you back.

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    1. Ha ha, yes I have read some of your quirky museum stories – I thought you might like this one! And, yes, the tent is simply fantastic. We’ll be testing it out much, much more this summer but – sadly – not in France. Is #AllAboutSweden a thing? 😉 Greetings from Luxembourg

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    1. That’s the great thing about camping: even in peak season in the busiest places I don’t think we have ever had serious difficulty in finding a camping spot. Flexibility is a wonderful thing when travelling with kids. Thanks for reading!

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  5. Another beautifully written post! You drew me in immediately and I wasn’t disappointed by the story that followed. Some people have a nose for a good pub – well, you have a nose for wonderful places to visit. Thanks for sharing. #AllAboutFrance

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    1. Thanks for the really nice comment (again! 😉 ). On one hand, we were perhaps just lucky here; like I said, we pretty much picked this place at random and at the last minute. But on the other hand, perhaps this is merely indicative of France as a tourist destination? There are so many hidden gems and unheralded destinations within France, making it a perfect place for this type of improvised holiday; maybe we could have gone almost anywhere with the same attitude and had an equally memorable experience? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to go back! Greetings from Luxembourg.

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    1. What a brilliant museum it was! Only two rooms, but I could have stayed there for hours!! Thanks for reading; you’ll see this post again soon because it will be my contribution to July’s #CulturedKids (after all, there is nothing more cultured than stick men and deer bottom, right? 🙂 )

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  6. I am really impressed with your massive tent! You could get four posters in there, I’m sure. This sounds like a truly wonderful find, all the better for being last minute and rather randomly chosen. Thanks so much for sharing on #FarawayFiles

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    1. It is brilliant tent. And yes, it is rather large… We were lucky that this campsite had generous pitches – I am slightly dreading the day when we arrive late at a crowded, cramped campsite and have to squeeze our Bear Lake tent between two caravans… Thanks for stopping by, and for hosting #FarawayFiles

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  7. That lone poppy! Beautiful. France’s countryside is so expansive that it’s quite easy to roam like this – that’s one of the things I love about the country. We haven’t visited Champagne with the kids yet, but they would seeing the curiousities in the stick man museum. As ever, you’ve winkled out a real gem there! #FarawayFiles

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    1. I agree. France is probably THE best country in Europe for taking the back roads and discovering unheralded gems. I’ll be linking this one up to your #CulturedKids later this week; correct me if I am wrong, but you haven’t had a Stick Man museum featured there yet, right 😉 Thanks for reading!

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      1. No, no stick man museum (although there was a matchstick museum last month – close!) Thanks ever so much for linking up with #CulturedKids

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  8. Beautiful countryside. l love the picture of the field with a single poppy – just perfect. I’m also a little bit in awe of that fantastic tent! Camping has moved on a bit since the 80s I see ! ;0) Thanks for joining #FarawayFiles

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    1. The poppy was such a nice image; actually, my photo doesn’t do it justice at all (or maybe I am just a perfectionist… 😉 ). And, yes, the tent is simply awesome. This trip was just a short trial run – its real test will be coming later this summer when we take it round Scandinavia. Expect to see it featured in future #FarawayFiles 😉

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  9. Champagne is so gorgeous! that is what I miss the most about living in France – there is always something to do in a little corner somewhere! and it does look like a deer’s bum if you ask me! Also love the castle and the church! just my kind of spot!! #farawayfiles

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    1. I agree – France is probably the best country in Europe for these “off the beaten track” excursions: there is beauty and charm almost everywhere. And I think I mistranslated the deer bottom – without wishing to get too specific and graphic, I initially wasn’t thinking about the tail! 😉 But I see the resemblance now… 😀

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  10. Like when the change of plans end up being so good. I am surprised by all the beautiful places you were able to explore. I love to camp and try to do it as much as possible. Of course, we are not able to camp next chateaux but we do what we can. #farawayfiles

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    1. Isn’t it funny how the absolute spontaneous trips often end up being the best? And France is full of these hidden gems, which is what makes it such a wonderful place for little camping adventures. Greetings from Luxembourg (which is nice for camping too! 😉 )

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  11. How lovely to go off the beaten track and explore places like this. I love the look of the ruined chateau and the stick man museum sounds very quirky although I can imagine my girls would love it! Looks like you had a wonderful time exploring Champagne 🙂 #countrykids

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  12. I love this so much. You found so many wonderful things to do. We recently found ourselves in Champagne too with our RV. We were passing through but amazed by the beauty. It was on my list to return to but now I want to camp there as well and do some of the things your crew did! #CountryKids

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    1. Hi. It’s funny you say that because we had passed through Champagne many times before and were always totally underwhelmed. My wife and I even used to joke that it must be the most boring region in France. How wrong were we?? I guess sometimes you just need to slow down and explore deeper; this part of Champagne was absolutely gorgeous and I promise never ever to make nasty jokes about it ever again! 😀 Thanks for reading, greetings from Luxembourg.

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  13. I knew I was going to love this post the moment I saw you tweet about it! It has exceeded my expectations with all the quirky discoveries and beautiful photos. I am desperately trying to arrange a little trip away this summer for us to France and this has made me even more determined to make it happen. There is something a little sad about the demise of the grapes but the wheat field looks beautiful. I can see the deer’s bottom in that creator, it is just like the bottoms of our fallow deer! I hope you manage to rearrange your Austrian trip, but delighted this quick French substitute was such a success.

    Thank you for sharing with me on #CountryKids

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    1. Hope you make it to France this summer – there really is so much to explore there, and it’s easy to escape the crowds and uncover hidden gems. And I’m glad you can see the resemblance to deer bottom; obviously I haven’t been able to get close enough to one to recognise the similarity! 😀 Greetings from Luxembourg

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  14. Thank you for this exquisite tour of Haute-Marne! I’ve never been there myself and now I’d love to go with the acorns. How they would love the musée aux branches (they are long-time fans of the book Stickman by Julia Donaldson)! And the lavoir (where women used to do laundry), and the chateau de Lafauche – this reminds me of so many historic sights in Ireland which are completely free to access, and usually empty. I absolutely LOVE your shot of the single poppy in the wheat field – it looks like a impressionist painting, utterly beautiful.
    And although I am perfectly happy with our Skandika tent, I admit to a bit of tent envy when I saw that your new one is a large Outwell tent. I bet it’s great!

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    1. Ireland and France : probably the best two countries in Europe for stumbling across deserted and atmospheric historical sights. We love this sort of stress-free tourism with our kids. And, yes, the tent is wonderful. You’ll be seeing it again in future blog posts from me, that’s for sure!! 😉

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