Thursday, July 26

Vive La.....France?

Belgium continues to astound.

Some may remember that there was an election back in early June. Well there is still no sign of a government being formed. In fact the man charged with leading the negotiations - Christian Democrat Yves Leterme - managed to considerably complicate his task by confusing the French and Belgian national anthemswhen asked for a verse of the latter on Belgian National Day (21 July)!

Imagine the future Canadian prime minister belting out a verse of The Star Spangled Banner on July 1, or Ireland’s Bertie Ahern treating his public to a rendition of God Save the Queen on St Patrick’s Day.

Ironically, the country that Yves thinks he is on the verge of running might have come to his rescue. The doping shenanigans at the Tour de France have relegated his gaffe to second spot on the evening news bulletins. As if the Vinokourov revelations weren't enough, yesterday evening came the news that the Yellow Jersey, Michael Rasmussen, has been kicked out. And good riddance. Tour de Farce indeed.

Thursday, July 19

A Champagne Lifestyle

The two policemen were already laughing when they saw our license plate bearing down upon their roadblock. Only two Belgians could be attempting to drive onto Reims’ Place de la Republique on the eve of Bastille Day. “Impossible ca”, chuckled one as we explained that we were staying in a hotel that now lurked in the shadow of a gigantic stage with two speakers on either side of it that could quite easily be sitting proudly in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ever of their kind.

An auspicious start to our visit to Champagne.

Champagne is an entire industry developed just to relieve Belgians of their disposable income. Almost every car we saw parked outside a champagne house had the unmistakable red license plate, three numbers, three letters.

At least they show you a good time while liberating your wallet of its contents. Leaving our hotel in Reims at 11am the following morning, we were at the celebrated headquarters of Piper Heidseck by 11.10, imbibing our first glass of bubbly of the day by 11.30. It seemed the appropriate way to start the Bastille Day celebrations. A little better than Marie Antoinette’s suggestion of cake.

The majority of the most famous champagne producers have their main cellars in Reims. Ruinart, Pommery, Piper-Heidseck, Taitinger, to name but a few, all have premises a short stroll from each other. Others such as Moet et Chandon, the world’s largest producer have their HQ’s in Epernay. It was to here we headed from Reims.

The area between Reims and Epernay is dominated by the Parc Naturel Regional de la Montagne de Reims. It is probably the most touristy of the Routes de Champagne but no less charming for it. The antique villages, each cluttered with tempting signs for the local brew, come thick and fast. There is one called Bouzy. We didn’t visit it but it amply describes our jaunt through both the petite and grande montagne.

Our first stop for, ahem, refreshments came at Champagne Louis Casters in Damery. If the outsized sign at the corner of the building hadn’t made us wise to Mr Casters’ potion, the six Belgian cars surrounding the entrance probably would have. Casters, who it turned out is Belgian himself, quickly made us feel at home, treating us to healthy pourings of his Brut Sélection, Grande Reserve, Cuvée Supérieure and his Brut Rosé. We liked them all, particularly for the average price of €13.

It turns out that ink for home printers – in Britain a typical replacement cartridge costs about £1.70 per millilitre compared to 23p per millilitre for a bottle of 1985 Dom Perignon - is now seven times more expensive than vintage champagne. We bought several bottles of everything Casters served us.

A few miles up the road, in Mareuil-sur-Ay we pulled in at Champagne Guy Charbaut. Again we were greeted by a Belgian, again we departed with less room in the boot of our car than we arrived. Guy Charbaut has chambres d’hotes should you not feel like reaching for your car keys at this point. Assured that the police had better things to do on 14 July, we pressed on south to Troyes.

Troyes, the German influence of whose architecture is reminiscent of some of the towns in Alsace, contains a spectacular cathedral and a very worthwhile museum of modern art. However, by far its biggest attraction for me was a Coupe de Champagne costing a mere €4.80. I ordered five.

The great thing about Champagne is that, like Guinness, it is good for you. The many benefits of a few glasses of sparkling are outlined in a very informative and comforting book called The Healing Powers of Champagne. Obesity and Cellulite, Appetite Loss, Arterial Stenosis – apparently the narrowing or blockage of the artery that supplies blood to the kidney -, Migraine, Insomnia and Lazy Bowel, to name but a few, have all met their match in a bottle of bubbly.

Unfortunately champagne does not appear to have any effect on heatstroke and with temperatures well north of 30 degrees my northern pigmentation was beginning to prove a drawback. Thankfully, only a few miles outside of Troyes, Francois Bradier welcomes you to his convivial Domaine des Lacs. With only five rooms and one self catering college crowded is not a word that is often used to describe the loungers by the swimming pool. Francois also kindly provides a fridge for you to chill your Premier Cru.

Now that’s what I call a champagne lifestyle.

Wednesday, July 11

Tour de Farce

High times for the Flemish at the moment. Today is their national day, an opportunity to take a day off work and to wave their rather scary looking flag.

The day commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of the Golden Spurs at the Groeningekouter, outside Kortrijk, in 1302 at which the Flemish defeated the knights of the King of France.

Almost 705 years later to the day and along comes another almost as momentous. On Monday the Tour de France came through Flanders, the stage concluding in Gent. It ended in a Flemish one-two, Geert Steegmans stealing in ahead of his more celebrated compatriot, Tom Boonen, to spark wild celebrations and much waving of the intimidating lion.

They were predicting that about 250,000 people would deluge the city, although in the end the rain deluged it more and about 100,000-150,000 turned up. The Witloof, wary of not being able to see a damned thing in a crowd of that size, headed instead for a smaller town - Deinze - just outside Gent. The town website - - looked pretty. I had a good look around but I still have no idea where they took the photographs. Possibly Gent.

Although the peleton was due to pass by at 16.45 I arrived at about 13.15. Being three and a half hours early, I quickly found a vantage point beside a roundabout that I thought offered a decent combination of a view of the peleton arriving and also the likelihood of it slowing down as it passed by. There were about three of us at this point. I took out my book – the excellent Pornographer of Vienna by fellow Brussels resident Lewis Crofts - and started to read.

Engrossed in Egon Schiele’s artistic, and other, endeavours in Vienna, I failed to notice that I was gradually being pushed to the back of a considerable throng. By about 15.00 there were hundreds - perhaps even thousands - lined up along the sides of the road in either direction. Not the ideal position to be in as, at 15.15, the first vehicles from the 'caravane' began to pass. The 'caravane' is, I think, what everybody actually comes for. It is a procession of promotional vehicles from which employees of the firms sponsoring the tour throw sample products and other souvenirs out into the crowd. Never in my life have I seen such a clamour for miniature bottles of shower gel. Fifteen bodies in a writhing heap before one triumphant soul would emerge with a key ring. If anything was thrown in my direction I leapt out of the way. It all seemed a little bit commercial, a tad unfrench, until a car stormed past promoting a trade union.

The final cars in the 'caravane' were the official merchandisers. ‘Allez, allez’ they would cry, ‘c’est le tour de france, c’est la folie’, before proudly displaying all of the English they had learnt in England the two days before by continuing ‘don’t furget to buy yeur remembers for le children’. For twenty euros you could get your hands on a yellow bag ‘remembers’ containing a like-coloured tour de france t-shirt and cap. For about the same outlay you could also purchase a gaudy yellow umbrella with tour de france imaginatively emblazoned along it. I felt like shouting that the tour had left Britain so they could put their umbrellas away. Twenty minutes later the skies opened and I stood with about four other paraplu-less people under the nearest tree.

My despair was almost complete when not long afterwards, and before I could negotiate my cameras exit from my sodden pocket, a flock of 8 riders stormed past. Merde, I roared, to much amusement, possibly because of my accent or possibly because the cyclists were actually only a bunch of lucky cadets chosen to ride the stage well in advance of the pros. Ten minutes later another five cyclists whooshed past, stooped over their handlebars, panting for breath. I kept my cool this time, confident that the peleton could not contain people so clearly from four different generations.

Eventually, and not a minute to soon given that ducks might at this point have been considering package holidays to the sun, three helicopters reared onto the horizon. A frisson of excitement rose through the crowd. I abandoned my tree and knocked a few children out of the way - well they had taken most of the free stuff so I felt entitled - to get close to the road's edge. With half an eye out for irate parents bearing down on me with their shiny new umbrellas I managed to more or less miss the first three riders, who had amassed about a minute's lead on the rest of the pack. Zut alors, I wailed, regardless of my accent. Not to be denied again, I crouched down into professional photographer position, camera at the ready, for the arrival of the peleton. Four clicks of my digital camera later - and that is being generous as the final picture contains but a few shiny spokes of the back wheel of the bike that was bringing up the rear – they were gone again. The whole thing was over in about five seconds. I stood there, insistent that there had to be more, until there were only the original three of us left. Myself and two traffic cops.

Tuesday, July 3

Naughty EU

this seems to have gotten pulses racing in poland

Monday, July 2

Separated at birth

A slightly windswept Neelie Kroes

Judy Geller (Ross & Monica's mom in Friends) talking nonsense in Brussels

To see which Commissioner most resembles the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz please click here