It was probably one of the best days we have had throughout our entire trip. We were camped in a little village called Chouilly, about 5 kms away from Epernay, the starting point of the 7th stage of the Tour de France. We met up again with our great buddies, the Baileys, another travelling family from England. Our two vans were parked on the side of the road and in pole position for a great view of the bikes. We had a lovely evening catching up and also met a Belgian family, Chris and his wife and daughter who brought with them a big tub of chalk with which we all decorated the road. Then there was John the Dutchman, a veteran of 15 tours who filled us in on what to expect the next day. Roy and Lois from Ballarat, invited Dave and Bailey in for an apero. Predictably, the night kicked on for longer than it should have done.
We awoke to the sounds of horns quite early as vans had started to pass by, gearing everybody up for the tour to pass in a few hours time. By now the street was filling up with more vans, cars and people had started to come out of their houses or from nearby towns. Then the caravan procession began. 12 kilometres of promotional cars, vans and bikes started to drive past, each blaring with music and throwing out free merchandise and treats for anybody who was quick enough to catch! It has to be said here that greed was definitely apparent as people scrounged and scratched their way to grab that keyring or free bag of sweets. The local bakery lead from the front with greatly decorated floats and loads of treats.
We all ended up with piles of stuff, including caps, hats, tshirts, bags, sweets, crisps, drinks, yoghurts, blow up things and even an umbrella! And this caravane was going to do this for the next 240 odd kms to Nancy, the end stop for this stage.
Off the caravane went with only the occasional promo car passing through for the next couple of hours. Everyone was out and about though and it was a great atmosphere. Just as we were about to crack a bottle of champagne as it would be rude not to in Champagne, the French family who lived across the road from us crossed over, offering us a bottle of their local champagne. An incredibly kind gesture, which was a sign of more of their generosity and welcoming nature to come over the next 12 hours.
Then the bikes came. Such anticipation as we saw the peloton in the distance approaching us. Then a flash of colour and noise and then … they were gone! But wow, we were briefly so close to them -you could reach your arm out for a high five. although of course you wouldnt! And then came the 100s of support vehicles behind them; more cars, trucks, police, buses, bike trailers, medical teams etc, which took way longer to pass than the actual race!
And so they were gone, but the party certainly wasn’t over! Starting with an interview with the French national news. They asked a load of questions about Australia and our interest as a nation in the Tour de France and I even had the opportunity to talk about the unit of work that I teach to the Rosie College girls on French geography, the tour and their design a jersey competition! Dave said some stuff too, even throwing in some very impressive French expressions for good measure. Jimbob wandered about wearing his Aussie tshirt and they took some footage of van, the kids and even Cadiz! They told us that it would be on the 8pm national news tonight on France 2!!! Typical that I hadn’t properly done my hair but it was very exciting, neverthless.
We then walked into town where the party was in full swing with a food stall, a bar selling bottles of champagne for 20Euro a bottle (and the real thing, locally produced), long tables, musicians and all the local townspeople. Additionally there was a selection of weird and wonderful bikes. There were pennyfarthings, trikes, tamdems, mini bikes in all shapes and sizes. Of course we all had a go or two on them and it was hilarious. The kids also enjoyed a bouncy castle.
It was here that we befriended the local brass band, the Fanfare. This included the people from across the road who had so kindly given us a bottle of champagne. And then there was more champagne and more champagne flowing freely at the locals insistence. We also met the town mayor (an unlikely chap) as well as the head champagne honcho, who seemed to own quite a number of the large champagne houses in the area( of which there are many, including Moët et Chandon, Mercier, Dom Perrignon) he was even more unlikely looking and was wearing an elasticated headband! Cadiz was with us at the party and was well liked by all. He was renamed ‘Chouilly’ and baptised with a madeleine sponge cake, soaked in champagne, much like the baptism of their babies, with a dummy soaked in champagne!
The 8 of us returned for a snoozette after all of that champagne, bike riding and bouncy castles. But not for long before there was a knock at the door and our brass band mates, Sebastien, David, Jean-Luc, Brigitte, Emilie, Cassandre and Valéry had come to us for apero, which of course they had brought !
We set up our outdoor picnic, with chairs and tables, grabbed some crisps and cheese and we were treated by them to more of their music and their local drop, called Ratafia.
Ratafia is an alcoholic grape juice containing 18% alcohol and it is only made and sold in the Champagne region. Of course there was a red and a white version and not just jn bottles, but in huge vats! Never once were our glasses empty and we had the most hysterically fabulous evening, swapping French, English and Aussie cultures and languages.
It has to be said that these lovely people, met us and welcomed us wholeheartedly into their charming world of Chouilly. At times their extreme generosity was rather embarrassing, as we had nothing to give in return. They assured that they were delighted that we chanced upon their tiny village . And of course they left us with a freshly picked lettuce from their garden and their huge 20litre vat of Ratafia which may just last us the rest of our European tour!
The tour is due to pass through Epernay again in 2 years time, and the Baileys and the Lyes plan to be there again to visit our new friends from Chouilly. Can’t wait!