Like so many places in France, Bar-sur-Aube is a repository of the past. But it’s also a hub for biking, hiking, cultural, and wine tours of the surrounding region.
by Karen Schur-Narula, from Bar-sur-Aube.
Two hours and four minutes from Paris’s Gare de l’Est, the town of Bar-sur-Aube is nestled along the banks of a magical river of Champagne. The Aube, lagoon green and gray, shot through with turquoise, flecked with gold, is the dreamlike waterway that eventually flows into the Seine; the word “aube” itself means dawn. Long ago, the verdant valleys around Bar-sur-Aube were a resting place for many of the great tribes that crisscrossed ancient lands. Centuries later, when commerce between far-off territories was the norm, Bar-sur-Aube, at the crossroads, would celebrate international renown as a premier market town of the Middle Ages—one of only four sites of the famous Foires de Champagne. Indeed, in some circles there is still ongoing debate about Paris vs. Bar-sur-Aube and the fickleness of history.
While most visitors stick to Reims and Epernay, those who enjoy exploration further afield are rewarded by the landscapes around Bar-sur-Aube. Here in the département of Aube are not dull horizons but gently rolling hills and hidden valleys, and fields filled with crops that grow green and golden and poppy red. Here too are myriad small champagne houses, less famous than their cousins up north, yet many of whose vineyards have always quietly provided perfect grapes to those same illustrious houses. Now the vignerons of the Aube are increasingly receiving overt recognition for the terroir-specific distinction and style of their marvelous champagnes. True lovers and connoisseurs are taking note.
Wine has been in Champagne since Roman times; the frothy variety began by chance nearly 1,000 years ago. In winter the fermentation process was sometimes prematurely halted, leaving some sugar and dormant yeast in the bottles. In spring the fermentation process would start again, and carbon dioxide begin to build up pressure. When some of the bottles were opened, les voilà—bubbles!
This effervescent aspect was generally considered faulty, and sparkling wine didn’t become a hit until after Louis XIV, when his nephew the Duke of Orléans became Regent and, it is said, featured champagne at his dinner parties. Champagne houses began to open up to cash in on the craze, although the Revolution did put a damper on it for some time. By the first half of the 19th century, the how-to of the sparkling characteristic was fully understood. New techniques for thicker bottles to hold in pressurized bubbles appeared at this time, and it was then that corks began to be heard popping around the globe.
The province of Champagne is of course the only territory in the world legally able to label its sparkling wines as champagne. And when in the early 20th century the French government, under pressure from the big houses of the north, tried to pass legislation excluding the Aube from being classified as part of the champagne grape-growing region, Bar-sur-Aube was at the forefront of the 1911 revolts that helped put a stop to that idea.
Ever since, the Aube has rightfully played its part in the creation of the world’s favorite celebratory drink. Champagne’s overall production in 1800 was 300,000 bottles; 2010 saw an impressive 319 million, the direct share of the Aube’s vineyards being around 60 million.
Now enough of this talk about bubbly, as if that were all that matters in Bar-sur-Aube, where you can find champagne in the humblest café, restaurant and grocery store. No, champagne is just one aspect of this thousand-year-old settlement whose charm is of the type that you don’t realize is pulling at you until you find yourself firmly in its embrace.
It might begin with a leisurely stroll along the Aube. From the stone bridge are views of an ivy-covered mill, period houses, a little bay with glistening mallards. Touched by weeping willows, the river flows below the promenade to disappear into the woods, an island park. Or perhaps Bar-sur-Aube calls to you while on a walk through its canal-encircled heart, along cobblestoned streets or across a chalky square, past half-timbered medieval homes with salmon-pink geraniums on the window sills, a sloe-eyed cat sunning itself on a stoop. From somewhere behind the creamy facade of an 18th-century house comes a faint splash within a courtyard fountain. So many buildings with so many lives.
The post office with its automatic glass door was once a house of Comtesse de la Motte, aka Jeanne de Valois-Saint Rémy, who would be jailed for her role in the theft of the diamond necklace meant for Marie-Antoinette following a trial that helped to destroy the queen’s reputation. The great market hall of Bar-sur-Aube, arguably the region’s best Saturday market, spilling over into the surrounding streets with music and socializing and colorful stalls, was for some time the largest grain depository between Paris, Switzerland, and the south of France. The emerging Maison des Arts, where many forms of the arts will be featured freely when renovation is completed in 2014, was for centuries the imposing Palais de Justice.
The simple charm of today’s Bar-sur-Aube draws you closer as you stop at a boulangerie to choose from the array of breads, or at a traiteur for freshly-cooked take-home meals, and you find yourself in easy conversation with those around you. It lures you in as you enjoy long evenings with engaging folk who make music and read and care about others. And suddenly everything shifts and there you have it, or it has you: it’s a sweet little town, and you are happy to be there.
The population of Bar-sur-Aube hovers around the 5,000 mark. Called Baralbin(e)s, its citizens are not strangers to both good and not-so-good times. Yet like the vines in the surrounding countryside, they are resilient, and find strength in their roots. Hard work, good humor, and a philosophy of faith in the future are just part of what inspires them.
Perhaps it is due to this blend of nurturing that one citizen impressed not only his fellow Baralbins but several philosophers, including Sartre, Foucault and Derrida. Once postmaster in Bar-sur-Aube, Gaston Bachelard studied physics and authored over two dozen works. He became the inaugural chair in History and Philosophy of the Sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris. Like a white-bearded benevolent spirit of the town, his image looks down upon passersby in the rue Nationale. His “Poetics of Space” could be required reading for all aspiring architects.
Another son of Bar-sur-Aube, born on rue Saint Maclou, was the composer Maurice Emmanuel. This man with an air of intensity, student of Cesar Franck, classmate of Claude Debussy, would become a professor at his alma mater, the Paris Conservatoire. His creations were eclectic: symphonies, Aeschylean operas, sonatas inspired by the folk music of Burgundy and India and the song of birds. A man with a mind open to the world around him. A composer who could be heard more often today.
Pre-dating these creative souls is Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube who, in the 12th and 13th centuries, wrote chansons de geste, those epic poems of heroism sung at the dawn of French literature. Bar-sur-Aube was on the Via Romea Francigena when 10th-century Archbishop Segeric of Canterbury stopped by on his Roman journey. (Louis XIV too paid Bar-sur-Aube a visit, staying at the Chateau Gaillard, while Tsar Alexander I and Kaiser Wilhelm I chose the Chateau du Jard.) Even earlier was Sainte Germaine, a girl martyred by the Vandals in the 5th century and ever since the patron saint of Bar-sur-Aube. Last on this much abbreviated list of personages from around Bar-sur-Aube is a contemporary of Caesar’s, Togirix, chief of the Lingons, whose image can be seen on coins dating back to several decades BCE.
Like so many places in France, Bar-sur-Aube is a repository of the past, from old washing stalls set alongside the river to landmark doors and streets, to details of history that reveal themselves only to those who seek them out. Some points are more visible than others, like the spires of the remaining churches, both dating back a thousand years. Active Saint Pierre offers a fascinating pageant of the ages to those passing through its vast wooden doors. Poor Saint Maclou has been boarded up since 1954, with only limited access around its edges as serious renovations are required before visitors can gaze upon its exquisite statuary, rich colors, and soaring ribbed vault ceilings from inside. Crowdfunding needed!
But of course Bar-sur-Aube looks not only to the past for inspiration. It is a hub for biking, hiking, cultural, and wine tours of the surrounding region, with several unique races and parades throughout the year. Other events are centered around music. Whether the Fête de la Musique in June, the three-day September jazz festival, commercial and artisans’ fairs, a Christmas market, concerts from local and regional orchestras and choruses, or simply a night of live music when the expanse in front of the town hall is astir with dancing, the squares and streets of Bar-sur-Aube often resound with music. Sometimes, late at night, you might even hear the faint sound of a troubadour’s drum, imagined or real.
It is greatly due to the efforts of Bar-sur-Aube’s own Jean-Francois Le Roux-Dhuys, Knight of the Legion of Honor and more, that every September since 2003 the three-day Festival de Clairvaux brings renowned international musicians and composers for stunning concerts in one of the most famous Cistercian abbeys in all France, a 12th-century monastery complex cum contemporary maximum security prison housing Carlos the Jackal.
And who knows: perhaps the Knights Templar, whose origins lie in the Aube, might, after the Order’s arrests by King Philip IV, have hidden their mysterious treasures somewhere closer to home than Rennes le Chateau, Spain, Scotland, or Canada. After all, the Templars had a powerful tie to Bernard de Clairvaux, co-creator of the Latin Rule, code of behavior for the Order—and Saint Bernard’s Abbaye de Clairvaux is just up the road from Bar-sur-Aube …
A Champagne toast to Bar-sur-Aube as it continues to sparkle quietly in the center of an endless list of noteworthy and intriguing places and events spanning the ages!
Train tickets at counters or dispensers in the Gare de l’Est.
Hotel Le Saint Nicholas
1-bedroom apartment overlooking the main square
Hotel La Pomme d’Or
There is talk of a 4-star hotel, but it’s not yet on the map.
Follow bronze arrows that mark the circuit of the mysterious palm. Wander the Saturday market. Picnic in the nearby hills, or lakeside in Orient Forest Regional Natural Park, which has been linked to the Knights Templar. Tasting tours in Bar-sur-Aube champagne houses, for example, Beerens, Brisson-Jonchère, Dominique Gauthier, Gilles Leseurre, Patricia Huguet. Drappier in nearby Urville.
Crystal blowing at Cristallerie Royale de Champagne in Bayel.
France’s 4th largest amusement park in Dolancourt (●www.nigloland.fr)
Espace Renoir in Essoyes with interactive information about Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Memorial of Charles de Gaulle with documentation center in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. Napoleon Museum in Brienne-le-Chateau. Abbaye de Clairvaux, 12th-century monastery converted into a prison by Napoleon. Museums in Troyes and Payns devoted to the Templars and their origins in the Aube.
And much more!