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Blown apart by France; Sam Ryall wets his whistle with a glass of the good stuff - but still finds time to sample a bit of French history!

Byline: Sam Ryall

I DON'T know whether it was the glitzy video montage or the glass of Champagne but I was feeling a bit light-headed.

Around me stood six other tourists, all transfixed at a TV screen that was showing a publicity video, promoting Pannier Champagne.

Images of beautiful people with perfect teeth flashed before us while the seductive voice of a woman tempted us with phrases like "tumultuous quivering". It was difficult to stifle our childish embarrassment but the intoxication was inescapable.

It's easy to get carried away while you're on holiday, especially in France, and it's never been easier to get there.

At a time when the popularity of air travel is at an all time low, Eurotunnel Motoring Holidays are offering an ideal alternative.

They have teamed up with tour operator Cresta to provide a tempting range of selfdrive breaks to France, Belgium and Holland.

Between now and August 2002, you can discover the continent in your own car. All the holidays are within easy driving distance of the Eurotunnel Terminal in Calais and with a journey time of only 35 minutes platform to platform, you can go where you want, when you want.

My destination was the picturesque Aisne departement, two hours south east of Calais.

The nearest city is Reims, a name wellknown to Champagne drinkers, but the jewel in Aisne's crown is the medieval town of Laon.

Here you can wander for hours, walking around the town walls, seeing ancient Egyptian treasures at the museum of archaeology or resting your feet at one of many cafes and bars.

For the more energetic, there's the opportunity to climb the imposing Notre Dame church, which offers sweeping views across the town and vineyards beyond. But beware, the climb to the top is via a perilous spiral staircase, which seems to go on forever.

From the top, on a good day and with a fair wind, you can probably see the Parc Nautique de l'Ailette near Chamouille, which is about 15 minutes' drive south east of Laon.

This 450-hectare park offers a range of watersports and other outdoor activities, including swimming, sailing, canoeing, pedalos, walking and a children's play area. You can hire a range of accommodation from a Louisiana-style mobile home to a waterfront apartment, or rough it in a tent or caravan.

But if it's a hotel you're after then book a room at the three-star Mercure Laon across the other side of the water. There are 58 ensuite rooms, offering satellite TV, tea and coffee making facilities, minibar and balcony with lake view. Downstairs there is a restaurant, bar, pool (open May to September), small gym and sun terrace. From now until December 31 it costs pounds 113 per person, per night - based on two sharing - but if you stay for three nights or more you'll get one night free.

You'll also get a discount off a round of golf if you visit the nearby 18-hole course, billed as "ze moste presteeguz" in Aisne.

To the south, rising to a height of 200 metres, is a ridge in which German soldiers built a remarkable underground barracks with special command and firing posts during World War I. Nicknamed Dragon Lair, this former quarry became a formidable stronghold for Kaiser Wilhelm's forces in this part of France.

During their three-year occupation of the cavern, the Germans created a unique community, which survives today as a museum of remembrance. Their story and that of the French, who struggled to eject them, is told through the use of modern production techniques, exhibits, sound effects, videos and archive images.

Particularly moving are the war graves of fallen soldiers - friends and foes - on top of the ridge, which borders the Chemin des Dames, so-called because the daughters of King Louis XV followed this route from Paris to visit their governess in Vauclair Abbey to the east.

Aisne is famed for another, less sobering reason - champers. The hillsides around the Chemin yield 10 per cent of France's bubbly, making Aisne the third largest Champagneproducing department in the country.

A tour of one of the Champagne cellars is worthwhile even if you don't drink. One such 'cave' is at Chateau Thierry, home of Champagne Pannier.

This immense system of underground galleries began life as a medieval quarry but in the early years of last century Monsieur Pannier founded the cellar. A constant temperature of 11C ensures Pannier's most exclusive brands can mature according to age-old traditions, aided by modern methods.

You can wet your whistle with a glass of the good stuff and buy a bottle or two afterwards, saving yourself several pounds.

To find out more about Aisne contact the Comite Departemental Du Tourisme de l'Aisne on 0033 323 277 676, e-mail cdt@aisne. com or visit www. aisne. com.

For bookings and more information about Eurotunnel Motoring Holidays phone 0870 333 2001 or e-mail ethols@crestaholidays. co. uk THE Echo has got together with Living France to offer an exclusive six-issue subscription for only pounds 18.50. To take advantage of this offer, call 01283 742971, quoting 'South Wales Echo'.

Living France is available from all good newsagents, priced pounds 3.25. Click on www. livingfrance. com for further information.


Vineyards at Vendanges. PLACE IN HISTORY: The Chemin des Dames, above - which is home to this statue of Napoleon - has seen much military activity. Below right, the Notre Dame church in Laon, Aisne. Above left, A tower at Tortoir priory. PICTURES: Trevor Yorke, Living France Magazine
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 20, 2001
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