On the Champagne trail in the glorious countryside of the Aube Department, Janine Marsh digs deep into the culture and history of France and visits the private home of President de Gaulle, the memorial centre created in his honour and tries the President’s favourite Champagne at the house of Champagne Drappier…
In the pretty town of the lovely sounding Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises there are several truly interesting places to visit where you can immerse yourself in the culture of modern and ancient France. A tour that sheds light on a man whom the French call “The General” or “Grand Charles”, a legendary figure. The latter name is a play on words, “grand” meaning great or tall, de Gaulle was over 6 feet tall and in the far north of France where he was born this was just one of the characteristics that made him stand out.
La Boisserie, the home of Charles de Gaulle in Champagne
De Gaulle bought a home in Champagne because of its location between the garrisons based in the east on the German border and Paris, the seat of power. His beloved daughter Anne had Down Syndrome and de Gaulle thought that a country home would do her good. The building is charming, not at all imposing and in fact rather modest for a man of his means and stature. He bought the house known as La Boisserie before World War II broke out and ironically it was commandeered by the Germans and left a wreck when they departed. De Gaulle restored it when the war ended and this house was his escape from the confinement and demands of life at the Elysée Palace where he served as President from 1959 to 1969. The town of Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises is very pretty and has an air of sleepiness and tranquility, perfect for a President who needed a bolt hole from the pressure of daily life.
I discovered that de Gaulle hated the telephone, in fact, though he had to have one, after all he was President, he hid it in a cupboard under the stairs and refused to answer it or hold any important conversations on it. His wife answered the phone and only called him to speak on it if she considered it was an emergency. Only one important conversation ever took place, the news that de Gaulle had lost an important referendum was given to him and he said he knew then that he had lost the Presidency. After that he moved permanently to La Boisserie.
The house is crammed full of knick knacks, gifts from all around the world. It has a homely feel to it. There is nothing extravagant, it is all quite ordinary for such an extraordinary character. The de Gaulle family continue to own and indeed live in the house so you can only visit downstairs. In the sitting room outside de Gaulle’s office with its old radio set and TV set is a chair at a small table where he died from a heart attack playing cards alone on November 9th, 1970. There is an air of stillness, a heaviness to this room, a frisson caused perhaps by the importance of the man who lived and died here and of his footprint on the history of France.
From the bottom of the charming garden you can see the almost 45m tall memorial erected in his memory on the highest hill in the area in 1972, the double Cross of Lorraine. I headed into the town to see it and to visit the Memorial Centre.
Charles de Gaulle Memorial Centre
It may sound like this is a rather dry exhibition, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is an interesting and innovative museum that makes full use of modern technology to make it zing. A fascinating exhibition about Charles de Gaulle – the man, the soldier, General and President; it gives an insightful view of this almost legendary figure in France, whether you know anything about him or not.
From the car in which he was travelling when an assasination attempt was made on his life to personal mementoes, its a colourful, vivid presentation. The Citroen DS 19, known as “La Deesse” (The Goddess), sits sleekly in the entrance to the centre. On August 22, 1972 an attempt to assassinate the President failed, though two of his bodyguards were killed. Later the event would become the subject of a best-selling book by Frederick Forsyth called “The Day of the Jackal”. Years later a Venezuelan terrorist, captured in France was nicknamed “Carlos the Jackal” allegedly after a journalist spotted a copy of Forsyth’s book near the terrorist’s belongings. The Jackal was later imprisoned at the Abbaye de Clairvaux (one of the strangest places I’ve visited in France) not far from Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises.
What this exposition also does in an informative but fun and scintillating way, is put the history of the 5th Republic, of which de Gaulle was the first leader, into context. There is a dynamic collection of artefacts which showcase the history, the fashion and trends of the day and make this a lively place to visit and gives visitors a great insight into French culture.
In the centre of Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises is the cemetery where lies de Gaulle’s tomb, watched 24 hours a day by a guard. De Gaulle specifically requested to be buried in the town where he felt at home.
On the trail of the Champagne of Presidents
Although de Gaulle came across as a quite unemotional man, somewhat aloof and detached, I was pleased to find out that he liked to drink Champagne, though of course not excessively, that certainly wasn’t his style. After touring the memorial we stopped off for a fabulous lunch at the Michelin star restaurant in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises at the appropriately named A la Table du General, the food is fantastic). It’s a pretty little town, there are some great quirky little shops and places to stop at for a break and a browse.
After this we set off to find the Champagne Drappier domaine, the producers of de Gaulle’s favourite Champagne.
I’d already tried the pink wine of Louis XIV, Rosé des Riceys in Champagne, now I was to try the favourite tipple of a President.
More on Champagne: