It often seems that North Eastern France is just a series of blurred images that slip past on the auto route as you head south as fast as possible. Non-stop, sunseeking and sleepless till Provence.
We recently took advantage of a more leisurely itinerary to stop off for a few days in the Champagne region in a little village called Guignicourt. You almost certainly won’t have heard of it but it was a great location for a quick look around an often by-passed region.
We stayed on a typically French campsite called Au Bord de L’Aisne which was in the centre of the village alongside the river. It was perfect. Relaxed, friendly, good value and with a proper campsite atmosphere – by which I mean a comforting but not intrusive background buzz that fell quiet at a reasonable time. It also had a covered pool and a little restaurant serving simple food like pizzas and salads, as well as decent wine by the glass.
All very French. A 5 minute walk into the village gets you to an excellent boulangerie for the essential French bread and pastries and another 5 minutes to a big enough Carrefour supermarket for anything else you might need.
The village itself is quiet and reasonably quaint. Unlike a lot of villages in this area it clearly didn’t suffer too much in either world war by having the character bombed out of it!
Even the spectacular church seems to have survived intact and is worth a quick look as part of a lazy day checking out the immediate area and riverside walk. In fact, you don’t really need to move the car at all if you are happy to limit your exploring to the locality and use bikes, but it is well worth going a little further afield.
There is an enormous variety of things to do and places to explore. The nearest big towns are Laon and Reims. The latter is the home of the famous Champagne producers (paid tasting tours available of course…) and an equally famous cathedral. There are lots of museums and tours to be done and tourist passes that include multiple locations are available from 22 euros a day.
If you don’t fancy the big city experience or are on a budget, the old town of Laon is also worth a day out and can be done for the cost of bribing the kids with a couple of ice creams or a cafe stop to watch the world go by. It’s a lot quieter and more compact than Reims but with an equally spectacular Cathedral for the architecturally inclined.
Given the nature of Northern France as the world’s battlefield of choice in the last century there are also loads of sites and museums connected with the First and Second World Wars. If you are a military history buff you are completely spoilt. The nearest site to Guignicourt is La Caverne du Dragon – essentially a First World War Base. Fascinating and not too expensive to visit. You can also bike along the famous Chemins des Dames which was another significant battle front.
So there is plenty to do in this part of France. You just need to be a little bit selective to avoid some of the characterless towns and villages that were flattened in the wars and sometimes less than sympathetically rebuilt afterwards. You could easily spend a week visiting historic towns, mitary museums and sites, or just biking along the easy well marked tracks.
Or you can stay local to just soak up the genuine rural French atmosphere and watch the sleepless travellers speed down the road with barely a pause. After all, part of the fun of being on holiday is watching other people dash about isn’t it?