The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                                PAGE FOUR
FEATURING:  Champagne-Ardenne - the département of La Marne continued . . .

Steps down to Ployez-Jacquemart's deepest cellars.  Photo ©2009-2010 Cold Spring Press   All Rights ReservedPloyez-Jacquemart's vineyard after the vendange.  Photo ©2009-2010 Cold Spring Press   All Rights Reserved

                                                 Domaine Ployez-Jacquemart:                                                           The vines after vendange
                                      over 75 steps leading down to the cellars 

What would you say to sipping a glass of Champagne in a tree house Champagne bar eighteen feet in the air?  In a forest?  Well, this Spring, visitors to Verzy (the region of 'twisted beeches' we mentioned earlier) will be able to experience just that in Perchingbar, a tree house in the middle of the outdoor adventure park, Arboxygène.  The park offers all sorts of activities including zip lines (a pulley suspended on a cable mounted on an incline), rope courses and classes on the environment.  Perchingbar will be the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the view from above ~ a unique place where the love of ecology and the love of wine can blend harmoniously.  The eco-friendly bar, offering a selection of Champagnes from Grandes Maisons and other top wine makers, will operate from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar panels.  For more information, please visit the park's delightful web site at (French only) or

We hope you will spend some time in the the département of La Marne to partake of tastings at the famous Champagne houses, to see the lovely villages throughout the region, to visit the vineyards for yourself and to learn the complicated process behind the making of fine Champagne.  There's much more to it than just popping the cork!

Up, up and away in a beautiful balloon . . .

The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel (1740-1810) and Jacques-Étienne (1745–1799) from the Rhône-Alpes département of the Ardèches, invented the first hot air balloon. The first flight took place on June 4, 1783, in Annonay, France.

The brothers owned a paper mill, and their first attempt was to float bags made of paper and fabric.  Joseph-Michel was intrigued by sparks rising in his fireplace, so an experiment was about to take place.  With a flame held beneath the opening of the bag (hence the name 'balon') the brothers found that the bag would rise.  To improve on this idea, they made a bag of silk lined with paper, which resulted in that first demonstration on June 4th, now considered the anniversary of the birth of the hot air balloon.  They called their balloon the Montgolfière ~ globe airostatique which, on that historic day, successfully rose to over 6500 feet, and, as the air in the balloon cooled, floated gently to the ground.

People were not aboard that first experimental flight, nor on the next flight in September of 1783 when the brothers launched a balloon in Versailles with a basket suspended below carrying a sheep, rooster, and a duck ~ it remained afloat for about eight minutes to the pleasure of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  The first manned flight took place that October, and the balloon was untethered for the first time.  Its two courageous passengers were Dr Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes.  The following January, a very large Montgolfière took seven people over 3000 feet above the city of Lyons and was a great success.

Fast forward to today.  Anyone visiting France can enjoy a hot air balloon ride over the beautiful countryside.  Granted, hot air balloon rides can be taken in many places in the world, but to enjoy a flight in the country of the hot air balloon's birth is quite special.  To make it even more interesting, why not stay at a château where a balloon ride can be arranged for you? 

Château de la Vigne / Montgolfier balloon - Photo © 2009 - 2010 by Famille de la Tour,  Château de la Vigne

What could be more exciting than a few nights as a guest in a superbly-maintained medieval château in the Cantal from whose gardens one can climb into the basket of a balloon to drift over the spectacular landscape below?  This photo shows how the Château de la Vigne and a Montgolfier Salers balloon in the magnificent Cantal pairs the architectural and building skills of the 1400s to the inventiveness of 18th century Frenchmen.  What a fabulous vacation experience!

We know of several other château accommodations whose owners will arrange for hot air balloon rides for their guests.  These are listed here along with the region of France where they are located.  A click on the name of the château will take you to web pages describing the properties.

        Dordogne              Le Prieuré du Château de Biron
        Loire (Centre)          Château de Reignac
        Lorraine                     Château des Monthairons
        Midi-Pyrénées              Château de Garrevaques
                                          Château de Saint-Martory
        Normandy                       Château de Canisy
                                             Château de la Roque
        Pays de la Loire                 Château de la Barre

We hope you have the opportunity to enjoy a hot air balloon ride on your next visit to France!

Notes from Narbonne . . . the Winter  of 2009

                                                                                                                               by Marlane O'Neill 
Marlane O'Neill in Narbonne - Copyright Marlane O'Neill 2009.  All rights reserved.

One of the advantages of living in the south of France is the proximity to exotic locations that are completely different from home.  So, after all the festivities of summer and the gentle fall, we decide to take a quick road trip before settling in for the winter.  We want to see old friends in Austria and Switzerland as well as visit the French Alpine city of Annecy, located on the Swiss border, and finally the village of Tulette in the valley of the Rhône with all their wonderful wines.  The whole trip is doable in just four days as the border of Switzerland is only a four-hour drive from Narbonne.   A mini-trip puts living here in great perspective as few people realize how short the distances are between countries. 

We take advantage of our last chance to drive abroad without weather delays and thus go about planning the next adventure.  Half a day later we find ourselves in Lausanne, Switzerland, enjoying the view of the beautiful lake from our hotel balcony.  It is also our first experience with the local cuisine and the famous Swiss fondue or melted cheese-with-wine dinner.  The city is still full of tourists, and there is a festival on the lake.  The next day we take a morning drive to Wels, Austria, to meet with friends for a nice dinner of dumplings, schnitzel and strudel at a local guesthouse.  Returning to France the third day we stop in Annecy, a picture postcard traditional French city on a huge lake with mountain backdrop.  We walk around the medieval town center, complete with beautifully decorated shop windows full of crusty breads, jars of delicious jams and charcuterie or delicatessen.  An outdoor fruit and vegetable market is open and the people are milling about in full force. 

Village of Tulette, Photo credit:

During the return trip on the fourth and last day we stop in the foggy Côtes du Rhône village of Tulette, in the valley of the Rhône, and visit the Domaine Mazurd whose wine we discovered in a Salon des Vins in Toulouse in 2002 while living aboard our boat.  For several years we dreamed of visiting this particular domaine; the wine was so special it made jaded French wine lovers open their eyes in surprise as they sipped this magic elixir.  Alas!  Monsieur Mazurd, the original propriétaire, has since passed away.  We met his son at the Toulouse Salon des Vins and had spoken with Mr. Mazurd Sr. on the telephone to tell him how much we loved his 1994 Côtes du Rhône Mazurd.  It has since sold out but we are able to get the 2000 Cuvée Mazurka, Vieilli en fûts de chêne (aged in oak casks), which is very good, just not the magical 1994 vintage we craved.  Certain wines affect us the same as some people ~ such can be their force of character that they indelibly stain us with the encounter. 

And, poof!!  Two hours later we find ourselves back in Narbonne, having made a presto trip through three different countries and cultures in the space of four days.  And most happy we are to be back in southern France and enjoying the warm sunshine after the chilly early winters of the alpine climates.  It is now late October, and we must prepare for our first real Narbonnais winter.  But, Narbonne is still sunny and warm, and we are wearing short sleeves while dining outdoors until mid-November.

However, winter does come.  Our fireplace is huge ~ and so we try to light the driftwood gathered during the summer inside of it.  Quickly the apartment fills with thick, opaque, gray smoke; we open the windows and pray that the neighbors wouldn't call the fire department as it is so voluminous and alarming in appearance.  To make matters worse, the beach wood we burned in the fireplace smells terrible ~ like cigarettes.  Driftwood doesn't make for a fragrant fireplace; the fireplace is too open, and there is no containment of the smoke.  A few hours later we can breathe without coughing and realize that we need a wood-burning stove to contain the fire and warm the people without extinguishing them and the cat (who has taken semi-permanent refuge in the closet).  In the United States, wood burning stoves are not as common as gas 'fires' that are pretty but give little warmth or purpose besides being attractive.  So, off we go, and we get ourselves a nice, heavy iron wood burning stove.  Since we live on the deuxième étage (third floor) we must dismantle the 300-pound cast iron creation outside, at ground level, and carry it up piece by piece.  We reassemble the stove in the apartment.  Finally, it is put together, and we are ready to move it into place. 

The O'Neill's fireplace, Photo by Marlane O'Neill ©2009.  All rights reserved.
A warm and cozy fireplace!

Wood burning stoves to heat the home are typical in France, and most French people install them just outside of their fireplace so that the full benefit of the hot stove can be utilized on all sides.  However, to the American eye, that looks just weird ~ the fireplace is empty and the stove sits just outside of it.  So we plunk it neatly inside the cheminée.  The brick chimney stack is wide and tall so it easily holds the stoves smoke stack that exits out the top with a neat grill to keep out birds and bugs but let out the smoke.  Our first try brings out a nice crackling fire, the pesky smoke is drawn beautifully outside, and the interior temperature comes up appreciably within an hour.  Oo-la-la!!  Life with a real fire is delicious indeed.  We revel in its beauty and function as well.

Children's choo-choo. Photo by Marlane O'Neill ©2009.  All rights reserved.Log Cabin gift shop, Photo by Marlane O'Neill ©2009.  All rights reserved.

                                                                         The children's choo-choo train                              Log cabin gift shop 

Meanwhile, the city of Narbonne has been just as busy as we are, and a small neighborhood of log cabins has assembled itself around the Canal de la Robine and the Place Contemporaire.  Perhaps fifty stocky log houses surrounded a small, colorful train car that transports ecstatic children around and around an oval track.  The cabins are full of magical things:  candies, warm spiced red wine, cakes, sparkly crystal presents of jewelry and decor, warm soft knitwear and so on.  Parents and their children walk about and exclaim at all the extraordinary things.  And this is just the beginning.

                                                                                                                                        continued on page 5

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