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Beyond the Battlefields – l’Aisne, France.
A trip to l’Aisne in Picardie, France, is often triggered by an itinerary to explore the battlefields of the World Wars – but there’s much more on offer in this little-known region just an hour or so from Paris. Here’s a taster of what you can expect if you visit l’Aisne.
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Introducing Champagne in l’Aisne.
While the origins are historic, for a visitor to France the geography of the Champagne appellation can be quite confusing. L’Aisne, for example, is part of the Picardie region, although originally it was part of Champagne. Despite a visit to explore the champagne region with the Comité de Champagne earlier this year, I was surprised to learn that parts of the appellation falls in l’Aisne – a region that is perhaps best known for World War battlefields.
The historic region of Champagne was redefined after the French Revolution and most of the appellation fell into the new region of Champagne-Ardenne; Ardennes, Aube, Marne and Haute Marne. Now merged into a larger region called Grand Est, most of the bigger champagne houses are in what was Champagne-Ardennes and is now Grand Est. L’Aisne remains in Picardie. But, each of the three principle champagne grapes grows best in different terroirs across the appellation. And, to make the perfect champagne, you need the best quality of each type of grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The Vallée de la Marne vineyards straddle two regions and two departments (Aisne and Marne). And while the vineyards in l’Aisne produce all three grapes they are best known for Pinot Meunier.
Champagne Météyer – grower champagne from l’Aisne.
Champagne Météyer is a rather special, charming and authentic family winery run by a fifth-generation winemaker, Franck Météyer, aided and abetted by Anna, his exuberant wife. I went along for a champagne tasting in the vineyards, something Anna runs using a vintage Citroen to transport her visitors across the fields to see where everything starts. Once you’ve tried the champagne, there’s a museum where you can learn more about how champagne was and is made today. The winery has regular art exhibitions, there are champagne and food pairings and masterclasses are on offer for visitors, all with a personal touch!
What makes this place special is the evident passion of both Anna and Franck. The business dates back to the 1860s when Pierre Clément, a winegrower from Trélou-sur-Marne inherited of a hectare of vines from his father-in-law Arthur Narcy. The land passed down through the family and the estate expanded. The winery even has its own UNESCO recognition, they were awarded the ‘Pierre Cheval de l’Emellissment’ prize for authenticity and tradition in 2017 (the prize is named after the man who led Champagne’s successful UNESCO World Heritage Application). So, whether or not you plan on visiting the larger champagne houses around Reims and Epernay, do make sure you take time to explore places like Champagne Météyer where you’ll get a very different insight into the world of Champagne.
Visit l’Aisne – stay at Château de Picheny.
If I was surprised to find champagne in l’Aisne, I was delighted to find châteaux, and even more thrilled to find myself staying in one. Especially when I knew I’d be safe, guarded by Winston, the house puppy. An excellent reason to visit l’Aisne, though I suspect he might be a little larger now!
The Château de Picheny was built in 1869 by Hyppolite Blanche as his summer and hunting residence. Blanche was very active as an architect in Paris during the time of Haussman’s renovation of Paris – if you’ve ever wondered at the light, elegant boulevards of the City, it’s Haussman you have to thank as he was commissioned by Napoleon III, effectively to modernise Paris. Château de Picheny is remarkable for that kind of perfect style and symmetry you find when an architect designs somewhere for themselves rather than making design compromises for the sake of the client.
The background to what is now a charming hotel becomes clearer when you learn that Eric, one of the owners, is an architect, while his partner, Vincent has a background in top-end hospitality management.
The result, three luxury suites with a level of refurbishment that shows a passion beyond commercial value – original solid-oak parquet flooring, immaculate Toile de Jouy fabric, rooms furnished with antiques and styled appropriately to the era when the château was first built. The couple seems to be intent on creating a home from home for others that meets and perhaps exceeds their own personal standards. The result is an unintimidating luxury – especially if, like me, you love heritage and the perfect base for a visit to explore l’Aisne.
If you are lucky, you will be able to enjoy a table d’hôte prepared for you by Vincent and served in the intimate drawing-room with carefully paired wines.
And, once you’ve tumbled into bed and enjoyed the tranquillity of the countryside, you’ll wake the next morning to breakfast on fresh local produce.
Of course, staying at Château de Picheny it’s easy to explore the champagne routes of l’Aisne. But there’s more in the area that you shouldn’t miss.
Jardins de Viels-Maisons – the passion of a lifetime.
I loved visiting the Jardins de Viels-Maisons, the life long work of owner Bertrande de Ladoucette. For thirty years she’s worked to create a series of traditional gardens. There are seven in total, including an analemmatic sundial (a particular kind of horizontal sundial where the vertical shadow-casting is moved depending on the date), an English garden, a romantic garden and a special wood that she’s created in honour of her 23 grandchildren.
Bertrande is now around 80 years old but still works daily to maintain her own personal paradise. The park itself is the land left from a château that was destroyed at the time of the French revolution, leaving little other than the church and a tower. Purchased by the prefect Jean-Charles de Ladoucette, a new manor house was built but the park. He planted sequoia trees and created the ‘English Garden’ which was fashionable at the time. But it is Bertrande herself who has created the current collection of gardens.
The gardens are only open on summer afternoons, from June to September and are closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Treasure Hunts and Magic at Château de Condé.
Nearby, the Château de Condé en Brie is another example of passion. The architect Alain Pasté de Rochefort bought it in 1983, a derelict building which needed extensive restoration.
There are parts of this fairytale-like castle which date back to medieval times, but most of what you see today has been restored from the Château as it was rebuilt by Cardinal Charles de Bourbon in the 16th century. Constructed in the Renaissance style, the building was purchased in 1719 by Jean-François Leriget, Marquis de la Faye – a wealthy man who was councillor to the King of France.
He ‘modernised’ the building further by employing the Italian architect Servandoni who created false walls to give the effect of perfect symmetry and he employed some of the leading artists of the time to help with the interior decorations. What you see today includes a fascinating set of wall paintings by Watteau, a drawing-room decorated by Oudry with a magic mirror and a stunning grand ballroom created by Servadoni.
What makes this château special for me is the personal touch of the current owner, Alain Pasté de Rochefort’s son, Aymeri. When I asked him what made the castle special, he explained that it was a love for the children who visited his family home. He’s set up a special treasure hunt around the gardens for them…and delights in appearing to say hello and to demonstrate a little bit of magic in the mirror room.
His mother still lives in one wing of the château, he and his wife live in a house nearby. And, in a sense, they’ve come home as they are all descendants of the Count Claret de Fleurieu, Minister of Marine under Louis XVI in the 1780s and Captain of the private guard of the first Prince of Condé.
You’ll also find a wonderful collection of miniatures lead soldiers.
A part of France that isn’t on the normal tourist route, what these four experiences in l’Aisne have in common is a level of personal involvement and passion that is quite rare. From the exuberant Anna at Champagne Météyer to the dedicated and committed Bertrande at Jardins de Viels-Maisons. From Eric and Vincent’s dedication to creating an authentic experience for visitors to Château de Picheny to Aymeri’s enthusiasm, passion and joy at the fantastic Château de Condé en Brie. Maybe there’s something in the water in this part of l’Aisne, or perhaps it’s the champagne…
2 Rue du Château
02330 Montlevon (Haut Picheny)
Evening meals need to be booked in advance if you want to dine at the hotel.
Champagne Météyer offers tastings, tours and a museum – for more information check their website.
39 rue de l’Europe
02850 Trélou sur Marne
+33 (0)323 70 26 20
Jardins de Viels-Maisons has limited opening times during the summer – check the website or call Bertrande to make sure the gardens are open.
11, Place du Marché 02540 – Viels-Maisons
+33 (0)3 23 82 62 53 / (0)6 75 96 11 72
Château de Condé en Brie is open daily to the public and also available for private hire for weddings. Check their website for more information.
4, rue du Château 02330 Condé en Brie.
I was a guest of the Aisne Tourist Board. You can find more about this part of Picardy on their website and I will be sharing more of my trip over the next few weeks.
Thinking of visiting yourself? Why not pin this post for later
You may also be interested in reading about St Quentin in l’Aisne – a fascinating city with an ancient Basilica and outstanding Art Deco architecture.
If you want to visit L’Aisne, it’s an easy drive or train journey from Paris or from Lille. Here are some more ideas for short trips from Paris, France