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  • Bill and Nancy

September 2002

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Damery, a little Champagne village on the Marne River, is so pretty that we almost forgot to leave.

While we were there, the days were sunny and warm with big puffy clouds in the sky, and the nights were peaceful and moonlit. Or maybe it was just the overwhelming beauty of the river and the rolling vine-covered hills that made it seem that every day was perfect. Swans gliding gracefully by our barge, and the fact that small Champagne houses dot the village did nothing to dispel the illusion that we had caught a bollard in paradise.

Days drifted by as quietly as the swans. We waved at boats passing on the river, and pontoon neighbors came and went, but we just stayed because it was too beautiful to leave. We worked a bit on the boat, took walks, and rode our bikes through the vineyards. We became regulars in all of the shops in town and the friendly café just a few steps from our mooring.

Friends rode their bikes over from where their barge was moored on the canal above Reims. They left in the morning, and they arrived looking pretty peppy after a five-hour bike trip. They came to spend the weekend visiting and to watch the end of the Tour de France with us.

When life is this pleasant, time passes very quickly, and we were surprised to look at a calendar one day and realized that we had already been in Damery for a month. For the second time this summer, we found that we had fallen into a time warp. It was time to move along.

A couple of days before we left Damery, we went on one final champagne tour with our pontoon neighbors, an American couple on a sailboat who were making their way to Tunisia for the winter. We didn't need to buy any more champagne, but it is always fun to taste with friends.

As we were walking into Damery to start our tour, we passed a small champagne house that caught our eye because there was an old American flag hanging on the courtyard's back wall. We peeked in, but no one was around. We lacked the nerve to tap on the door because it looked more like the door to a house than a business. We continued into town and found tasting rooms that were a little more formal, and we spent a pleasant afternoon sampling and buying Champagne.

On the way home, we again passed the courtyard with the American flag, but this time we were braver. We walked in and found the family busy putting labels on bottles. We didn't want to disturb their work, but the owner and father of the family, Maurice Gonel, stepped forward and said he would be delighted to open a bottle for us, which he did. He poured very generously and took a glass for himself. He then said we must try a different blend and again poured full glasses for everyone, including himself. A friend of his stopped by and joined our tasting, which was taking place in the courtyard. A delivery truck pulled in; Maurice signed for the delivery and invited the two guys from the truck to join our tasting. He brought out more glasses, another bottle and refilled everyone's glass. Then he asked if we wanted a tour of his cave. "Of course!" we all said, and the tour began. Caves ran under many of the homes in this village. During the war, the houses were destroyed, but not the caves. When he was young, Maurice helped his father expand the caves by doing the digging himself. Maurice is a small guy, but his personality is huge. His jokes are funny, and he is a firm believer in never leaving an empty glass empty. He explained the whole process of Champagne making in a small family business. They don't freeze the bottle's neck to disgorge the sediment as the large champagne houses do. Maurice demonstrated his technique which was all skill. He lifted one of the bottles from the rack, gave it a gentle shake, and popped the cap expelling the sediment without losing a drop of Champagne.

We enjoyed the demonstration, and we all had a drink from that bottle to toast his skill. When his Champagne tour was over, he mentioned his pinot noir, a private supply, not for sale. Did everyone want to try some of that? That brought out a big "bien sûr!" from the two French guys. Hopefully, they didn't have any more deliveries to make that day. Off we went to the back of the cave. Along the way, Maurice pointed out private cellars for himself and each of his two sons. He told us that it is a French tradition to purchase wine from the year a son is born and then present the collection to him upon his marriage. One son was born in a good vintage year, and Maurice had laid down a full range of the very best French wine labels from that year. The other son, born in a bad vintage year, had bottles from the year before and the year after. The collections were fabulous. We asked Maurice if he would adopt us.

When we reached an area lined with barrels, Maurice used a glass siphon to pull the wine from an oak barrel and pour it into our glasses. First, we tasted the 1999 vintage. It was as good as he had promised. Next, we sampled the 2000 vintage, which was different but equally good.

Suddenly, standing there in the cool air of the cave with our glasses full of pinot noir, we realized that this was one of those special moments, the kind that happens when you have the time to relax and let the day go in any direction it wants to take. Looking over at Maurice and his friend and the two delivery guys standing behind them, everyone smiling and enjoying themselves as much as we were, we knew that this was one champagne tour we would never forget.

After we finally pried ourselves off the dock at Damery, we cruised along the Marne to Château Thierry to meet our niece and her boyfriend, who had come to visit us. It was great to see them again. We began a leisurely cruise toward Paris, stopping at rural moorings along the way. The summer weather cooled off, the skies turned gray, and we brought out our jackets and umbrellas. On our last stop on the Marne River, before moved onto the Seine and entered Paris, we spent a rainy but pleasant day in Meaux.

We had called ahead and received permission to enter the Arsenal, the pleasure boat port near the Bastille. After settling in and spending a few days taking care of business, we could once again enjoy Paris..

Last year we discovered that Paris had improved the bike lanes throughout the city, and we couldn't wait to hop on our bikes and go sightseeing.

Last year we discovered that Paris had improved the bike lanes throughout the city, and we couldn't wait to hop on our bikes and go sightseeing.

The bike lanes are marked, some have barriers to protect you from the traffic, and they have traffic signals. We were amazed to see how much ground we could cover by breezing along with the Paris traffic. We flew around Paris, enjoying the sights and stopping whenever we saw something of interest. After making a circuit along both sides of the Seine, we found that by merely following whatever bike lane was in front of us, we saw neighborhoods that we had never seen before without caring where we were going. And this year, just like when we were kids in San Francisco, most of our bike trips ended up at the beach.

Someone in charge in Paris was very daring this year. They closed off more than three kilometers of a busy Paris roadway along the Seine with the sole purpose of creating a beach. Paris Plage was open from mid-July to mid-August along the right bank, starting near the Bastille. The typically busy street became a long promenade filled with happy pedestrians, bike riders, and rollerbladers. They brought in sand on either side of the roadway and created a beach complete with palm trees, beach chairs, and sunbathers.

It was well done. There were snack bars with tables and chairs under the shade of the trees next to the river. The cool air and the excellent acoustics under bridges drew street musicians, and an ever-changing audience as the crowds strolled by. At the beach, you could rent a bike, take rollerblade lessons, or play boules on the courts they had created..

The beach and the bike lanes are just two more reasons why we love returning to the city known throughout the world for its savoir-faire.

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