Champagne is justly famous for its fizz and bubbles, but Rupert Parker journeys to the south of the region and discovers a land of castles, exquisite gardens, geological curiosities and excellent food and wine.
Langres is the gateway to Champagne and Burgundy and has always been a strategic fortress. You can walk nearly four km of ramparts, admiring its seven towers and seven gates, with distant views of the Vosges and the Alps on a clear day. Particularly impressive is the Navarre tower, 20 metres high and 30 metres in diameter. Its walls are 7 metres thick and inside is a wide spiral ramp which allowed guns to be moved to the roof.
The town is a maze of narrow streets and covered passageways, dominated by the impressive St Mammès Cathedral. Building began in 1150 and was completed at the end of the century. Its ribbed vaults combine Burgundian Romanesque and early Gothic styles. In 1746, the west side was ready to collapse, so it was rebuilt in the classical style. Denis Diderot, the brains behind the 28 volume Encyclopédie, was born in Langres in 1713 and there’s small museum dedicated to his works in the 16th century Maison des Lumières.
Langres is also famous for its AOC cheese, made from full fat cow’s milk. It’s a mild cheese, with a distinctive orange yellow rind, but it becomes stronger as it ripens. The top has a slight hollow which is said to be reminiscent of the towers of Langres. You can sample it at many restaurants round town, but try Grand Hotel de l’Europe which serves other local dishes.
Château du Pailly
Around 10km south east of the town is the renaissance Chateau du Pailly. It was built in 1563 on the site of an ancient feudal castle by Gaspard de Saulx de Tavannes, one of the Marshals of France. It’s surrounded by a moat with drawbridges and is one of the most intact examples of this sort of building in France. Unfortunately it’s in a bad state of repair but they’ve started the long process of renovation. They’re also replanting the gardens.
Gardens of Cohons
If you’re into gardens then, 6 km west, you can find two in Cohons. The three hectare Jardin de Silière is a classic formal French garden with fountains and statues, similar but smaller than that at Versailles. It was created in the second half of the 17th century and a lime tree alley leads you upwards through the seven stages of man. In the 19th century a wilder English romantic extension was added, with moss and tufa water pools
In the same village are the 18 Hectares of Vergentière, a 19th century romantic park, enclosed by dry stone walls. There’s an English garden containing strange stone spirals, the largest 16m across, and known as the “Great Snail”. You can climb five metres to the top and look across to the “Mastaba”, another stone structure, inspired by ancient Egypt. By the village are nine terraces of a vegetable garden which is presently being restored.
Tufa of Rolampont
Tufa is highly porous limestone, formed by biological and chemical precipitation of lime from ground water. At Rolampont, a few km North of Langres, is one of the largest deposits in eastern France, 200m long and 20m high. The stone has traditionally been used as building material but a remarkable natural staircase has formed here, terraces of water contained by moss covered dams. This is a recent phenomenon, the lime saturated water depositing a thin layer on the moss whilst the plants continue to grow. The result is a tiered series of ponds tumbling down the hillside and there’s a 90 minute guided tour you can take with a member of staff from the Office National des Forêts.
Châteauvillain, on the bend of the river Aujon, was once of such strategic importance that in 1160 a huge defensive castle keep was built. Over the centuries it expanded into a 42 bedroom chateau and the town was surrounded by fortified walls 2.6km long, 5.5m high and 2.5m high with 60 towers. Today there are only 20 left, many converted into houses but you can still visit the Tour de l’Auditoire where justice was dispensed. The town itself is a maze of narrow alleys and some of the walls and a small part of the castle remain.
Le Belvedere des Remparts, Langres. Pleasant bed and breakfast with great views in a refurbished old house in the centre of town. Doubles with breakfast from €90 – 120.
Clos Eugenie, Culmont. Elegant chambres d’hôtes with just a handful of rooms near Le Pailly.
Auberge de la Fontaine, Villiers sur Suize. Comfortable rooms and good value bistro.
Le Vauxoise and Restaurant les 3 Provinces, Vaux Sous Aubigny. 2* rooms with good food.
La Source Bleue, La Papeterie. Luxurious hotel with excellent food, situated by a lake with a blue spring. Doubles from €80 – 130.
Domaine des Rubis, Bugnières. Delicious fruit wines from blackcurrant and white currant.
Domaine de Muid Montsaugeonnais, Vaux Sous Aubigny. Worth a visit to sample their pinot noir and chardonnay.
Tourisme Langres has information about the city.
Champagne has information about the region.
Rendezvous en France has information about the country.
Train is the easiest way to get to Langres: Eurostar to Paris, Gare du Nord (from £72 standard class return), then Gare de l’Est to Langres (from £23 standard class return). Book at Voyages SNCF, the UK’s leading rail ticket agency and European rail expert, or call 0844 848 5848.