Romance bubbles over in Champagne

A series of ironwork sculptures grace the banks of the Marne River near the town of Cumières, in France's Champagne country a short distance from Épernay.



When love is in the air and Valentine’s Day is near, head for Épernay, the heart of French champagne country.

In and around this bustling town, 150 miles west of Kaiserslautern, Germany, you’ll discover all the makings for a dreamy weekend.

There is an array of charming hotels and restaurants, a colorful Saturday market, beautiful vineyard views, a love-and-marriage museum and buckets of

world- class bubbly sure to fan even the most flickering flame of passion.

There is no better way to start than with a visit to one of the many champagne houses in the area. No less than 200 million bottles of champagne are stored in shops and wine cellars in Épernay, and many of the cellars are happy to share some with you at the end of their tour.

For help in choosing which to visit, stop by to chat with the friendly — and English-speaking — staff at the tourist information office, conveniently positioned on the Rue de Champagne. But regardless of which you choose, leave time for a guided tour at one of the prestigious caves, such as Mercier or Möet & Chandon. Neither requires reservations, although if you want to arrange a tour in English, check in advance.

The hourlong Mercier tour begins with an engaging five- minute film, followed by an elevator ride nearly 100 feet down to the caves. As you descend, the opaque elevator walls become transparent, allowing you to see several vignettes portraying different stages of winemaking.

Once in the cellar, you can snuggle up in a small train that winds through a maze of dimly lit champagne-lined corridors. After the elevator ride back up, you’ll be escorted to very spacious and modern tasting areas where your flutes (champagne glasses) await. If a particular vintage strikes your fancy, you can buy whatever you can carry away.

Just down the road is the elegant house of Möet & Chandon. After paying homage to Dom Perignon, the founder — his statue holds court in the courtyard — enjoy the informative tour, which ends with a tasting.

When refueling is needed, head to Cave a Champagne Restaurant for a superb meal that won’t break the bank. It’s a tasteful, cozy establishment, very popular with locals, especially on Saturday when the weekly market takes place. After we were seated, loads of other folks were turned away, so arrive before noon.

A short distance from Épernay is the small village of Cumières, home of a sparkling bed-and- breakfast run by the charming and ebullient Monsieur Pettinari, and a paddleboat that cruises the Marne River. During the winter, the paddleboat only runs on special occasions, but the wide path that hugs the gently curving river is perfect for a romantic stroll. Along the way you’ll be treated to a permanent outdoor art exhibition of graceful ironwork depicting winemaking scenes.

East of Épernay is the village of L’Epine, known primarily for its magnificent cathedral and a fantastic inn, the Aux Armes de Champagne. Here you can dine like a king without paying a king’s ransom. Reservations for both lunch and dinner are required. If you’re planning to spend the night, reserve well in advance.

Antique buffs will want to keep eyes peeled for small signs marked vide grenier. These are village flea markets, where you just might find a treasure for your loved one. The weekend we visited the Champagne region, we stumbled onto a [/BODY]vide grenier in L’Epine, where I discovered

an oversized, beautifully woven basket for 10 euros.

Committed lovebirds will get a kick out of a stopover at Oger, just south of Épernay. This town is famous for its appropriately sentimental Museum of Traditions, Love and Champagne. It contains a variety of marriage accoutrements, life-size marriage-related dioramas and exhibits on French marriage traditions.

The museum’s cellar doubles as a wine museum. Here you are offered a flute of champagne to toast the happy couples of bygone years.

Cupid would approve.

Gayle Smith Padgett lives and works in Heidelberg, Germany.

Here are the addresses you need for a romantic getaway to the Champagne region of France:

n Épernay Tourist Information, 7 avenue de Champagne; telpehone (+33) (0) 3-26-53- 33-00; e-mail tourisme@ ot-epernay.fr. Web site www.ot-epernay.fr.

n Moët & Chandon, 20 Avenue de Champagne, Épernay; (+33) (0) 3-26- 51-20-20; visites@ moet.fr. Web site www.moet.com. The visit with one flute is 8 euros; a tour with two flutes is 15 euros.

n Mercier, 70 Avenue de Champagne, Épernay; (+33) (0) 3-26-51-22-2; www. champagne-mercier.com/ default. asp.

n Castellanne Champagne, 57 rue de Verdun, Épernay; visites@castellane.com. Web site www.castellane.com.

n Cave a Champagne Restaurant, 1 rue Gambetta, Épernay; (+33) (0)3-26- 55- 50-70. Web site www. lecaveau-cumieres.com.

n Le Caveau Restaurant, Cumières; five minutes by car from Épernay; three-course menus from 25 euros. (+33) (0) 3-26-54-83-23. Web site www.lecaveau-cumieres.com.

n La Villa Eugene, 82-84 Avenue de Champagne, Épernay; (+33) (0) 3-26- 32-44-76; e-mail info@villa-eugene. com. Web site www.villa- eugene.com.

n Les Berceaux Hotel, 13 Rue des Berceaux, Épernay; (+33) (0)3-26-55-28-84; les. berceaux.@wanadoo.com. Web site www.lesberceaux. com.

n La Cloche Hotel, 5 Place Mendes France, Épernay; (+33) (0)3-26-55-15-15; hotel-de-la-cloche.C.Prin@ wanadoo.fr.

n Cumières B&B, Ennio Pettinari, 16 Quai de Marne, Cumières; (+33) (0) 3-26-54- 62-16; double with elegant breakfast, 45 euros.

n Museum of Traditions, Love and Champagne, 1 rue d’Avize; Oger; (+33) (0) 3-26- 57-50-89; contact@mariage- et-chamagne.com; www. mariage-et-champagne.com/ english/musee.htm.

— Gayle Smith Padgett

A large wine cask dominates the foyer of the Mercier Champgane house in Épernay, one of many places selling bubbly in the heart of France's Champagne region. It is also one of the places open for tours, tastings and sales.