When most people think of France they think of fine wine and cuisine, beautiful scenery, long hot summers and a laid-back lifestyle which is the envy of the world. Arguably the best way to explore this fine European country is by car, with the freedom of the open road and maybe even with your beloved pooch in tow (as a nation of dog lovers, pet-friendly travel is becoming increasingly popular these days). So embarking on a 10-day journey I took my car, my dog Rosa and my laptop and did just that. The team videographer Gary joined me for the first half of the trip and I also planned to work as I journeyed along, trying out the protective VPN service F-Secure FREEDOME for the first time. Crossing over to Dover to Calais via a ferry, we were transported from a grey Dover port into a vivid fairy-tale land filled with chateaux, endless acres of sun-soaked vineyards, divine food and beautiful scenery that was so dreamy that at times it almost felt unreal.
Our trip started in Champagne-Ardennes which was a leisurely four-hour drive from the French port. Before we immersed ourselves into serious wine country, our first stop was the Champagne city of Troyes. While most visitors to this area head for Reims, Troyes is the smaller but just as beautiful version of the unofficial capital of the region.
Framed by canals and adorned with striking medieval timber-framed buildings, an impressive collection of Michelin star restaurants, boutique stores and, of course, champagne stores, it’s a place to wander and lose yourself in its winding cobbled lanes, gaze in wonderment at its magnificent churches and sip champagne in the intimate shady squares or alfresco cafes. For a city, it somehow manages to have a relaxed and laid-back vibe and probably to be expected in this part of France, it has a welcoming unpretentious air of refinement and elegance.
Staying here with a dog was surprisingly easy. On our first night, we dined out at the popular upscale restaurant Le Valentino which served up delicious inventive French cuisine where my dog Rosa was also (amazingly) allowed to join us. Even the hotel we stayed at, the very central Hotel De la Poste – which had a gorgeous spa and paved courtyard – was so dog-friendly it left out a ‘doggy welcome pack’ which included treats, a bowl, a blanket and even a ball – so cute!
It was in this hotel that I first tried out the F-Secure FREEDOME VPN service. I’m probably a bit late to the party with VPN (or Virtual Private Network to use its full name), as most of my more tech-savvy friends have been using it for years now due to it being essential for protection against cybercrime when logging in overseas (which let’s face it pretty much everyone does these days). When using any public WiFi service the VPN ensures you are completely protected against any nasty hacking attempts keeping your passwords and security details safe. So when the infectious French relaxed way of life started to work its magic, I still felt completely chilled when checking my social media in the hotel lobby, knowing that none of my passwords were about to be stolen!
The next day it was time to escape the city and explore the beautiful countryside which has made this area so famous. The Champagne region is brimming with an endearing old-world quality and I defy anyone to not be completely seduced by its charms! For visitors the area offers hills and forests to hike through, lakes to sail on, impossibly pretty villages to discover and explore and family-run vineyards to visit. It will also leave you wondering just how they keep their countryside and villages so pristine. Even a slightly excitable dog from the UK couldn’t manage to spoil it.
Our second night was spent at Piney a small pretty town which lies deep in the heart of the Champagne countryside made up of a collection of houses, a town hall and a chapel all built in the traditional old Champagne style. Our hotel for the night was Le Tadorne, a charming traditional hotel which was centred around a sunny, tranquil furnished courtyard and garden which felt a zillion miles away from the hassles of modern London life.
The third and last day of our tour of this region was a visit to Essoyes. Essoyes is an impossibly picturesque suspended-in-time village where Pierre August Renoir painted every summer for 25 years. Centred around a gently flowing river spanned by colourful wrought iron bridges and with a collection of pastel shutter board houses all enveloped by miles of pristine countryside, the legendary painter loved the place so much he made it his final resting place. Today the village is home to several restaurants and cafes, an excellent Renoir Museum, clearly marked out ‘Renoir trails,’ his perfectly preserved house (pictured above), several wall-sized mural reminders of just how striking his art was and a smattering of cultured tourists who make the pilgrimage to visit the place which inspired their artistic hero.
Of course, you cannot travel to this region without a visit to a champagne vineyard and here the sparkly stuff is mostly made by families long-steeped in the traditional Champagne making method. Our visit was to Champagne Thierry Mercuzot, a place where they had perfected the technique of fermenting and bottling champagne on a smaller scale and we spent an afternoon watching the process, ogling their Champagne-filled cellars and then, of course, indulging in a tasting at their village tasting shop Les Demoiselles la petite boutique.
The day and our whirlwind tour of this region ended with a stay at the Hôtel-Restaurant Le Demoiselles which sat high atop a hill just on the edge of Essoyes. We dined on fine French cuisine and sipped on more champagne on the hotel terrace as we watched the warm glow of the sun slowly descend behind the vineyard embellished landscapes.
For further information on the F-Secure FREEDOME VPN service I used on this trip follow this link.