GARY CHAPPELL has a go at the ancient art of sabrage during a visit to the Champagne area of north-eastern France
OUR WEEKEND break to France's Champagne region couldn't have got off to a better start: my girlfriend Laura and I sipping bubbly in the Club Lounge during the 75-minute ferry ride from Dover to Calais.
After an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive to Reims we have dinner at La Table Anna, a restaurant full of character, decorated in vibrant pink and orange with pastel art created by the chef's wife adorning the walls. The sea bass melts in the mouth and the crème brûlée, w ashed down with a glass of ratafia, a fruit liquor, is superb. Click here now for amazing offers to Reims!
Next morning we are collected from our hotel, the comfortable, centrally-located Holiday Inn, by a guide from the specialist tour company Grape Escapes who introduces us to the rest of our small group. A 10-minute drive along country roads takes us to Larnaudie-Hirault, a small, family-run champagne house in the village of Trois-Puits.
We are shown the immaculate lines of vines and given a talk on the three grapes used to make champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot mineur. The harvesting process is explained and we get to sample the fruits of their labour, a deliciously dry blitz of bubbles.
We buy three bottles; at £12 each, they're an absolute bargain.
On the way to our second house w e drive through the centre of Épernay, the capital of Champagne and home to a road that rivals the Champs-Élysées: L'Avenue de Champagne.
Regarded as the world's most expensive street, it is flanked by such champagne houses as Moët and Mercier and is home to more than 25million bottles stored in 200 miles of cellars.
After a champagne and w ine-fuelled four-course lunch in the restaurant of the Henry de Vaugency house in Oger, we descend a spiral staircase and walk along cold, damp tunnels to the cellars. They may look and feel like dungeons but there are no prisoners here, only volunteers. Want incredible deals to Reims? Click here now...
The cool conditions provide a constant, year-round temperature to age the champagne which takes between three and 12 years.
Our host Pascal spots my gladiatorial physique and asks me to demonstrate the Napoleonic art of sabrage: opening a bottle with a 2ft sword. The secret is to lay the blade flat on the bottle where you can see the faint join line. Then, with all the courage you can muster, you swipe the blade towards the bottle top.
It sounds awkward but is simple and looks spectacular. Laura also uncorks her bottle with a sword, drawing applause. We are both given the severed bottle tops as a souvenir, as well as a certificate.
We spend Sunday exploring the historic sights of Reims. Just a five-minute stroll from our hotel looms the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, a Gothic masterpiece slightly smaller than its namesake in Paris.
Free to enter, it is an architectural gem, despite having to be restored after being damaged twice; by fire in 1211, then during the First World War.
The exterior is decorated with statuettes of former bishops, the Virgin Mary, Clovis (the first Catholic king to rule France) and his successors. The interior is just as beautiful. It has stained glass windows from the 13th century, chapels and a restored statue of the head of Ulysses.
Next door to the cathedral is the Palais du Tau, whose name is derived from how the structure was built, in the shape of a T (T being Tau in the Greek alphabet).
Inside are several large tapestries, including one given by former French cardinal Robert de Lenoncourt depicting the life of the Virgin, and royal clothing and jewellery, including the coronation chalice.
Flagging slightly, we head for some refreshment at nearby Place Drouet d'Erlon with its numerous restaurants and cafés. It is an ideal spot to unwind and pick up some gifts from French biscuit maker Fossier, as well as delicious truffles from quaint chocolatiers.
It also proves the perfect spot for one last glass of bubbly. GETTING THERE: Grape Escapes (0845 643 0860/ grapeescapes.net) offers a two-night Prestige Weekend from £299pp (two sharing), B&B. Price includes full day mini-coach tour, visits to three champagne houses with tastings, one four-course gourmet lunch with accompanying champagnes and wines, return P&O Dover to Calais ferry crossing for a car and two people and two nights accommodation in Reims. Champagne-Ardenne Tourist Board: champagne-ardennetourism.co.uk French Government Tourist Office: 0906 824 4123/ franceguide.com