22 July 2020
The region of Eastern France stretches from the outer reaches of Paris to the borders with southern Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany and encompasses five distinct destinations: Alsace, Ardenne, Champagne, Lorraine and the Vosges Massif.
Easy to reach by car from the UK, this area offers beautiful countryside and interesting towns as well as fine wines ranging from champagne in the west to the reds, whites and rosé produced on the banks of the Meuse and Moselle rivers with the Grand Cru wines of the Alsace Wine Route further east. There is also, however, a wonderful range of places to go to that give a real feeling of being back to nature: wide open spaces, luxurious countryside activities to enjoy, and not just for the avid runner or mountain biker either. Here is a selection of open-air places to enjoy in the western parts of the region, Champagne and Ardenne.
Photo credits from left clockwise: CDT Aube / Olivier Gobert, Troyes La Champagne Tourisme / GIP / Ph. Lemoine ColMDT52
There are all sorts of garden areas of many different shapes and sizes. Many come under the brand ‘Jardin Remarquable’. This is a brand recognised by the Ministry of Culture as a park or garden which has a special cultural, aesthetic, historic or botanical interest, and they are signposted on both the motorway and ordinary roads (brown cultural sign) with this logo.
La Presle Botanical Gardens, Nanteuil-la-Forêt – La Presle Botanical Centre between Reims and Epernay has a remarkable garden, nursery and study centre, with specimens collected and introduced over 20 years by Dominique Brochet. Visitors can admire this painstaking work, which includes alpines, vintage roses, a willow grove, a shrubbery and even a Caucasian maze brought back from a 1998 trip to Kyrgyzstan. The centre has been a conservation area since 1995 and was listed a ‘Remarkable Garden’ in 2005.
Photo credit: Jardin botanique de Marnay-sur-Seine
Botanical Garden of Marnay-sur-Seine – Between Epernay and Troyes, these botanical gardens are known as a living plant museum and outstanding conservatory of biodiversity. The gardens are laid out in different themes such as roses, medicinal plants, condiments, the kitchen garden, the garden of shadows, the conservatory and so forth. There are over 3,000 different species. In addition to being labelled a ‘Remarkable Garden’, Marnay-sur-Seine became the 21st garden to attain ‘Botanical Garden of France and the French speaking countries’ label.
Photo credit: Conseil Départemental de la Haute-Marne
The Grand Jardin of the Château of Joinville – The first Duke of Guise, Claude de Lorraine and grandfather of Mary Queen of Scots, built a fine Renaissance château in Joinville for entertaining. The château was surrounded by magnificent gardens, which were restored in the 1980’s to their former glory. The gardens feature more formal, 16th century French-style section, with a grand terrace, boxwood borders, compartments of hardy perennials, patches of medicinal and aromatic herbs and a labyrinth.
Park and garden of the Château of Barberey-Saint-Sulpice Located 5 km from Troyes, the castle of Barberey-Saint-Sulpice and its park form a property of 10 ha. The garden is surrounded by a moat fed by an arm of the Seine.
This French-style garden created in front of the castle is divided into four squares visible on a 17th century plan. Here every detail has been thought and executed with precision. Even the gravel is the same colour as the large Louis XIII brick and stone façade. Harmony, perfection, purity of style: Barberey-Saint-Sulpice Park is even more beautiful when viewed from the reception rooms.
Admirably and patiently restored since 1964, in 1999 it received the prestigious “public utility” label awarded by the Comité des Parcs et Jardins de France.
Photo credit: Coll. MDT52
Jardin de Mon Moulin, Thonnance-lès-Joinville – The Jardin de Mon Moulin is a really peaceful place to stroll. At the foot of an old windmill in Thonnance-les-Joinville, Philippe Lefort invites visitors to explore a creation which cleverly combines different garden styles to form a floral entity of exceptional fragrance and colour: a rose garden, water garden, white garden, hardy perennials, medieval garden and many more. In June, July and September, special days of themed activities are hosted.
The Suspended Gardens of Cohons – Cohons is the only village in the Eastern France region to have two ‘Remarkable Gardens’, the ‘Jardin de Vergentière’ and the ‘Jardin de Silières’.
Photo credit: Coll. MDT52
‘Jardin de Vergentière’ is a fine example of nineteenth century garden design. The terraces are a real tour de force of stonework with rocks as big as six metres supporting fruit trees. There are vines, a vegetable garden, orchards, magnificent Lebanese cedars planted around 1828 that give shade to the billiard Pavilion. Community support and development has been a feature over recent years.
Photo credit: Ph Lemoine – CollMDT52
Jardin de Silière was created in 1661 after the building of the Château de Cohons, a contemporary of Versailles and a project of the famous garden designer André Le Nôtre. Both the building and the gardens are Monuments Historiques. The three hectares of garden are completely surrounded by dry stone walls and was once renowned as a perfect symmetrical example of a ‘French Garden’. In 1846 the son-in-law of the owner, a certain Pierre Jacquinot, became a victim of fashion and changed the style to the popular English one, so, for example, a long romantic promenade was added, as was a little brook feeding a waterfall. The magnificent trees that are now classed as Ensemble Arboré Remarquable were planted at this time.
There are also vast areas of water – rivers, lakes, canals etc….
Photo credit: Nicolas Dohr
The Grands Lacs Green Route in the Aube – The ‘Voie Verte’ or Green Way, links the town of Troyes with the Natural Regional Park of the Orient Forest and the Grands Lacs – about 42 km of secure pathways that offer a marvellous opportunity to explore the surroundings in peace. The landscape changes from leaving town to the depths of the forest and then the lakeside setting. It is worth taking a few minutes to stop and watch the migratory cranes in October, November and February – it is a fabulous sunset display of the birds particularly over Temple Lake.
Photo credit: PNRFO
Kayaking on the Orient Lake … and its submerged forest. This is a super experience to explore the Orient Lake by canoe and appreciate the local flora and fauna such as pike, crested grebe, dragonflies and so forth.
Photo credit: Veronique Montane – Coll. OT Lac du Der
A breath of Nature at the Lac du Der! – A breath of fresh air – the Der Lakeoffers a wealth of activities for young and old to really gain maximum from the great outdoors. There are over 159 kilometres of cycle routes, for example, and plenty of areas to kayak and canoe – the expanse of water is so enormous it is almost like being on the sea. The bird migrations are a phenomenon not to be missed in October – particularly the cranes. In November the Montier Photographic Festival is a must for those fond of the natural world too.
Photo credit: Ph Lemoine – CollMDT52
The plain forms the watershed between the Med and the North Sea and four famous French rivers rise here – the Marne, the Aube, the Meuse and the Seine, albeit these are not the only ones plus there is the Marne – Saône Canal which opened in 1907 to link shipping between the Seine and the Rhône.
Part of the canal runs underneath the church in Balesmes and is the fourth longest river tunnel in France. The lakes, originally reservoirs came about at the time of this construction, these were needed to maintain the water levels. The lakes – de la Mouche, de la Vingeanne, de Charmes and de la Liez are sought after spots for water-based sports, angling, cycling and horse riding …or simply appreciating nature – bird watching etc. All in all, a super choice for a water based holiday in a very pretty unspoilt part of the world.
Photo credit: Eric Giradot
National Park of Forests – Nestled between the south of Champagne and the north of Burgundy is the 11thNational Park of France. The area of the Trois Forêts (Three Forests) and the Langres plateau has been named the newest national park.
It is unique in France as it is the only one to incorporate two regions and is dedicated to the forest itself and its inhabitants. It is the largest National Park in the evolution of metropolitan France with over 3,000 hectares, 50 million trees, 100 marsh areas, 700 kilometres of rivers, 2,000 kilometres of footpaths and therefore a panoply of activities may be undertaken.
Photo credit: David Meier
Forest of the ‘Montagne de Reims’ – The Mountain of Reims is usually associated with being one of the major areas of the champagne vineyards, but the summit of the plateau, stretching between Reims and Epernay, is covered with a thick forest. Behind the village of Verzy, there is something unique to be seen in this part of the forest: incredible, miniature beech trees, whose contorted and twisted branches are covered with a foliage that covers the tree like an umbrella. The effect resembles giant bonsai trees.
Photo credit: Les Faux de Verzy
Known as ‘Faux’, the reason for their distortion is remains unknown, although some sort of genetic mutation is the most likely hypothesis. It is a mystery why these trees, estimated at around 1,000 specimens, are concentrated within the grounds of an ancient abbey built in honour of Saint Basle (d. 620 AD), reputed to have performed miracles in this part of the forest.
Photo credit: David Truillard
Le Parc naturel régional des Ardennes – The Ardennes is renowned as one of the least-explored, greenest and wildest areas of France. It is known for the ‘slow tourism’ it promotes. The Park (PNR) is key to this.
Forests cover 32% of the Ardennes – about 167000 hectares of coniferous and deciduous trees. They support a variety of indigenous animals such as wild boar, beavers, black swans, owls, deer and so forth, and a remarkable collection of plant life such as wild orchids and drosera. Rivers and streams teem with fresh water fish, rivers such as the wooded, meandering Meuse and Sémoy. There are more than 300 kilometres of sign posted walking trails and 400 kilometres of mountain biking tracks, three rock climbing areas, eight places for paragliding and 100 kilometres of ‘Voies Vertes’ or green routes. Naturalists and guides can advise and take tours to celebrate the marvellous diversity of this glorious forest.
This exceptional natural heritage is protected by the PNR status of much of the territory (22%) plus 54 zones that have ecological interest status and seven Natura 2000 sites too.
Photo credit: Jupiter Images
The main gateway to Champagne is Reims, an easy 2.5-hour drive down the A26 motorway from the ferry and Eurotunnel terminals in and around Calais. For rail travel, take the Eurostar from London to Paris Gare du Nord, and then a direct TGV from Paris Gare de l’Est to central Reims (45 minutes). Charles de Gaulle airport has a 30-minute TGV service to Champagne-Ardenne TGV station, just south of Reims.
Note to editors: Part of Eastern France, Champagne is as varied and refined as the famous wine that it produces.A land of kings and counts, of Cistercians and crusaders, of monasteries and masterpieces, artists and philosophers – the history and heritage of Champagne is embedded in that of France and is linked to the present by the inscription of its vineyards, houses and cellars on the UNESCO World Heritage list.