Updated: Mar 17, 2021
The joy of summer cruising is not knowing what you will find around the next bend. If you worry too much about sticking to your original itinerary, you may rush right past the most interesting little village or an opportunity to make new friends.
Studying our charts told us that we should save our plans to travel on the Canal de l'Est to Nancy for another season and that instead, we should take the Canal de la Marne à la Saône. That would get us to where we wanted to be mid-summer without having to hurry.
Since we were also in need of time to regroup after all of the events and dinners with friends in St. Jean, this rural canal fit right into our new plans. The weather was lovely, and for a week or two, we were out in the middle of nowhere enjoying the quiet of nature. Cruising past farmland, seeing more hay rolls and cows than people, we slowly made our way north from the Saône River to the Marne River.
After leaving the canal, we entered the Marne River, arriving in Epernay the day before la Fête Nationale (Bastille Day). We learned that the parade on the 14th of July would begin at 10 in the morning at Place de la Republique. We went there early with our friends who were visiting from San Francisco, found a table at a café and watched, over coffee and croissants, as the parade started forming.
Band members sat at the next table, and we relaxed until we saw them leave; then we followed them out. We had time to say hello to some of the firemen before we settled in to enjoy the parade.
From two blocks away, we could hear the soldiers singing as the Army marched in, signaling the beginning of the ceremonies.
The Veterans took their places in front of the war memorial, each carrying their unit's flag, and the band began to play. Men in uniform received medals, the band played La Marseillaise, and everyone paraded off down the Avenue de Champagne.
Not only did we have front row seats, but after the ceremony ended, one of the firemen we met earlier was kind enough to find us in the crowd and invite us back to the firehouse for champagne.
We dashed back to the port, hopped into our friends' rental car, and, checking our map, found the Caserne de Pompiers on the outskirts of town.
As we walked into their social hall, they announced us as visiting San Francisco firefighters. All of the pompiers applauded and offered us glasses of champagne. We toasted both fire departments, and everyone made us feel incredibly welcome. They gave us a tour, some T-shirts and other trinkets, and we left with big smiles on our faces.
The Epernay fire department is a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters. Daniel Legrand, a volunteer for over 30 years who is also a local champagne producer, took us under his wing. Because of the fire department brotherhood, we quickly formed a friendship.
That night he came by the port, bringing two bottles of his champagne. We sampled a bottle and placed an order for a case. We explained that we needed a special Champagne to serve our Roanne friends at our next Thanksgiving party. When we went to Daniel's house to pick up our order, we met his wife, Michelle, and they invited us in and opened a bottle of their best champagne. We visited for a while, and they invited us back the next day for their family barbecue.
Sunday lunch is one of our favorite French traditions, but usually, we have to enjoy our lunch in a restaurant. Being invited to the home of new friends made the day very special for us. Arriving at noon, they introduced us to their family, and everyone went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. Daniel mixed up a Champagne punch, fired up the barbecue, and Michelle started bringing out the food.
The pace of the day was slow and relaxing. With liberal amounts of delicious food, wine, and lively conversation, the day progressed. Time moved slowly, and we felt as though we were in the middle of a French film. We returned home at 8 pm, full of appreciation for the Legrand family and their hospitality.
To the Epernay Fire Department, "Merci et soyez prudents".