The king of wine and wine of kings, Champagne needs no introduction. But the wine-growing region north-east of Paris from where it comes (la Champagne as opposed to le Champagne the fizz) is comparatively unknown.
Throughout the region wine producers, big and small, extend a warm welcome to visitors - especially to the British who are by far their biggest importers.
There are 15,000 winegrowers and drinking Champagne (often very cheaply) is a way of life.
River cruising along the River Marne
The River Marne is a tributary of the River Seine and flows in the area east and southeast of Paris.
The comfortable river barges, which come complete with open-air jacuzzi, touring bikes and free bar, cruise along the scenic Marne from Épernay to Paris, passing peaceful landscapes of vine-clad slopes, old abbeys and Champagne estates.
Épernay is the capital of Champagne where the likes of Möet & Chandon, Mercier and Pol Roger (Churchill’s favourite tipple) flank the famous Avenue de Champagne.
Most Champagne houses here require reservations and charge a fee which includes a glass or two. Cellars are 10-12 degrees so remember to take an extra layer. There are also scores of small, more personal, family-run wineries in the countryside.
Or if you just fancy some bubbles in a cosy bar try Épernay's C- Comme, whose jovial owner will guide you through tastings and produce platters of foie gras, charcuterie or creamy regional cheeses.
The famous monk, Dom Pérignon, was cellar master of the ancient abbey in the picturesque hilltop village of Hautvillers, south of Épernay.
The monk worked tirelessly to improve the wines and was credited with the invention of Champagne in 1693, but in fact it was not until the 18th century that Champagne in France attained its sparkle.
An excursion to historic Reims
The Notre-Dame de Reims (Our Lady of Reims) is a beautiful gothic building where the kings of France were crowned.
Barge tours include an excursion to historic Reims, whose glorious Gothic cathedral saw the coronation of 26 French kings. The city was laid flat in World War I but the cathedral was restored and the town rebuilt.
Left unscathed were 100km of underground cellars, created from Gallo-Roman quarries, and providing perfect conditions for the region’s sparkling elixir. Veuve Clicquot’s cellars are some of the most spectacular.
At Château-Thierry, where barges anchor, the ruins of a medieval castle crown the hilltop. It was the birthplace of Jean de la Fontaine, the 17th century fabulist whose stories are taught to every French schoolchild.
Fontaine, whose house you can visit, was partial to the local tipple but in those days Champagne was still, pink or grey and slightly vinegary - a far cry from the fizz which became synonymous, world-wide, with celebration.
Discover good food, fabulous wine and amazing history and architecture on a river cruise along the French waterways. Find out more here