Located less than an hour from Paris, Aisne is an ideal weekend getaway spot where you can experience centuries of history, eat tasty food and sip Champagne away from the maddening crowds. Sound too good to be true? Read on to discover how to turn this French fantasy into a reality.
Aisne wasn’t on our radar but it should have been.
Its Northern France location in the Hauts-de-France region is the stuff of fables. Literally. Jean de La Fontaine was born in Château-Thierry in 1621 and wrote many of his beloved fables in Aisne.
If you’re not familiar with La Fontaine’s fables, think of Aesop’s fables but written with an eye toward reason – something highly en vogue during the French enlightenment.
A great way to learn about the fabulist is to read his fables. However, the better approach is to visit his home town. Château-Thierry, with a unique blend of medieval ruins, enlightenment landmarks and more recent World War I history, is less than 100 kilometers (approximately 60 miles) from Paris but feels like a different world.
It also sparkles. Again, literally. Aisne is located in Vallée de la Marne – one of the five districts in France’s famed Champagne wine region. It’s also located on a Champagne wine route that spans three French departments.
Champagne production and geography are highly regulated. Approximately 500 winegrowers in Aisne meet strict standards and collectively produce 10% of France’s (and the world’s) Champagne bubbly.
During our weekend in Aisne, we learned about the production process at two different Champagne houses where we toured cellars and tasted recent vintages. We also bought Champagne to enjoy later.
Yes, it’s not just possible to to learn about Champagne in Aisne. It’s also possible to drink Champagne in Aisne. We recommend doing both.
Then, away from the Champagne vineyards, you can explore Aisne’s quaint capital, Laon, a fortified medieval city with a 12th century gothic cathedral and a 21st century craft brewery. While it would be easy to confuse Laon with Lyon based on the similarity of the two names, these notable French cities stand on their own merits. Plus, Laon is microscopic compared to Lyon.
Food In Aisne
The best way to describe the cuisine we ate in Aisne is French comfort food. And, while there wasn’t one dish that stood out as a ‘must eat dish’ during our visit, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience of eating local food prepared by local cooks at local restaurants.
Ironically, some of our best food finds weren’t at restaurants. We found a range of fresh produce, locally produced cheese, charcuterie, various beverages and preserved items at local shops and markets.
A highlight was the saucisson. We even brought one of Ferme Angus à Trélon‘s award-winning links home with us to enjoy later. Our only regret? Not buying two.
Other Aisne food highlights were less familiar but no less satisfying. We especially liked three of them starting with Bêtises de Cambrai, boiled candies manufactured by Confiserie Despinoy in Cambrai. While we bought a bag of candy to enjoy later, we didn’t wait to taste a cheesy Tarte au Maroilles and delectable ‘Pavé’ chocolates while exploring Laon.
Things To Do In Aisne
French luminaries beyond Jean de la Fontaine have lived in Aisne over the centuries – Alexandre Dumas, Henri Matisse and Jean Racine to name a few. But, whether you’re a Champagne drinker or a history buff, we’re happy to bring Aisne to your attention now.
Assuming that you fit into one or both of these categories, these are some of the best things to do in Aisne:
Take a Ride On Aisne’s Champagne Route
There’s nothing like driving through Aisne’s rolling hillsides with its ancient stone villages and vineyards where grapes grow with abandon on rocky soil. Those grapes, which include Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, line the countryside on vines as far as the eyes can see. So many vines and so many grapes!
These vines aren’t everywhere in Aisne. Instead, they’re just located in the department’s southernmost corner just south of Château-Thierry. This is where Aisne’s Champagne route commences before winding through numerous villages. Stopping at a Champagne house in one of these villages is a must. But which one?
We stopped at Champagne Météyer in the village called Trelou-sur-Marne. This independent wine house, dating back six-generations to 1860, exclusively produces Champagne. Its customers include Emmanuel Macron as well as regular folks in France and beyond
Though we enjoyed checking out its museum, rotating art exhibition and cellar during our visit, the highlight was tasting Météyer’s Champagne. It didn’t hurt that we drove through the vineyard in Anna Météyer’s vintage Citroën and did our tasting amid grape vines and apple trees.
In case you’re wondering, we tasted a fruity Cuvée that was produced with a blend of the region’s three grape varietals and poured from a cobalt blue bottle. As we sipped the golden bubbly while gazing at dreamy rolling hills, Anna shared that the “best Champagne is the one you like.”
Tour And Taste Bubbly At Champagne Pannier
A tour at Champagne Pannier is a fully immersive experience that starts in a 12th-century underground stone cellar that’s way older than the Champagne house. Not only is the cellar old, but it’s also big – 2.5 kilometers long and 30 meters wide.
Pannier may be familiar if you live in USA, Japan or Scandinavia since the producer exports 60% of its Champagne. The rest stays in France. Either way, you’ll want to tour Aisne’s largest Champagne house during your visit.
Pannier’s tours currently range in price from 15€ to 27€ and are presented in both English and French every day of the week except Sunday. As always, prices are subject to change.
Louis-Eugène Pannier first produced Champagne in Dizy in 1899 before moving to Château-Thierry in 1937. While he likely made the move to take advantage of the cellar’s vast space and prime location, the move came with a surprise bonus – a medieval stone carving of an archer. That archer makes an appearance during the tour as well as on Pannier Champagne bottles.
While some things have changed over time, much remains the same at Pannier including the three grapes used to make Champagne. Those grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, are all locally sourced.
Bring a jacket or sweater. Pannier’s cellar is 10°c / 50°f regardless of the weather or time of year.
You’ll want to stay to the end of your Pannier tour since that’s when the tasting occurs. During our tour, we tasted Champagne that had aged for four years and featured a blend of Chardonnay (40%), Pinot Meunier (30%) and Pinot Noir (30%) grapes.
We engaged our all of our senses, first observing the Champagne’s golden color and watching tiny bubbles rise from the bottom of flutes to the top. Then the fruity aroma hit our noses. But tasting is when the magic happened. If you’ve tasted Champagne at the source, then you understand. If not, add this experience to your French bucket list.
Since Pannier Champagne isn’t available at stores, you should buy a bottle or two after your tour unless you’d rather sip Pannier Champagne at a Château-Thierry restaurant like L’Adresse Rive Droite, Il Calcio or La Capitainerie.
Step Back In Time In The Medieval City of Laon
Laon doesn’t hide its charms. Instead, the medieval town decorates its streets with balloons and lampshades as well as the occasional umbrella. It also has more than 80 historic monuments, none more impressive than the majestic Notre-Dame de Laon which dates back to the 12th century.
Laon’s gothic cathedral is perched atop the city as if on a royal throne and welcomes all who walk through its massive entrance. Constructed with limestone and decorated with ornate statures, it rivals gothic cathedrals in larger cities like Rouen, Dijon and Paris. And, in a fun twist, it may have inspired the design of one or all of those cities’ more famous structures.
A wander through Laon reveals other centuries-old treasures including an ancient Templars’ chapel, ramparts and underground passages. It also reveals a food scene that befits this former capital of France.
You won’t have to look hard to find artisan food shops selling bread, pastries and cheese. The challenge is choosing which local foods to sample and where.
Stopping in Amandine Confiserie to try Pavés de Laon is an absolute must. While the candy shop has been open since 1977, its Pavés were designed in 2003 to resemble the city’s cobblestone streets. The square candies are filled with Gianduja chocolate and coated with grey meringue.
Continue your Aisne history lesson in Soissons, France’s first capital and the home of the Soissons Bean. That regional white bean is used in a number of dishes including a northern version of cassoulet.
Explore Château-Thierry, France’s City Of Fables
Visiting Château-Thierry is a must whether your focus is Champagne or history. Aisne’s fourth largest city is well-positioned for exploring both the Champagne route and World War I sites. It’s also a delightful town to explore in its own right.
Dating back to medieval times and situated on France’s longest river (the Marne), Château-Thierry has 15,000 residents, a bustling market, an ancient castle and bucolic trails. It’s also a city with two major claims to historic fame.
Château-Thierry greatest claim to fame is being the home of Jean de La Fontaine. Born in Château-Thierry in 1621, La Fontaine periodically lived in the city before dying in Paris in 1695. He’s buried at Père Lachaise, Paris’ most important cemetery, along with French luminaries that include Marcel Marceau, Molière and Edith Pilaf.
La Fontaine’s presence remains strong in Château-Thierry three centuries after his death. The city has a statue of its most prominent citizen and his former home now houses the Musée Jean de La Fontaine, a dedicated museum that’s under renovation until 2024.
You can buy chocolate bars decorated with Jean de La Fontaine’s characters at Pâtissier Chocolatier Sylvain Chevillotte. Crafted by master chocolate maker Sylvain Chevillote, these chocolate creations are as fun to eat as they are to view.
History buffs may be aware that Joan of Arc helped liberate Château-Thierry in 1429. However, they’re more likely focused on the two Battles of Château-Thierry – one during the Napoleonic Wars and one during WWI. These battles are Château-Thierry’s other historic claim to fame.
Those buffs don’t have to look hard to find remnants of the Great War in Château-Thierry. The medieval Balhan Tower, located in the center of town, was the only structure left standing after its street was leveled. Then there’s the impressive Château-Thierry American Monument on top of Hill 204 which honors American troops who died while fighting with the allies.
Dig Deeper Into The Great War
World War I occurred over a century ago but its legacy lingers in Aisne. We had this realization during our first morning in Château-Thierry when we learned that a recently discovered unknown American soldier would be buried during a special ceremony that same day.
American students of the Great War will have much to explore starting with the Aisne-Marne Cemetery and the Château-Thierry American Monument. Aisne also has a museum at the Blérancourt Castle that celebrates the Franco-American friendship which solidified during the war.
Get A Social Education At The Familstère De Guise
How is it that we never heard about the Familistère de Guise before our weekend in Aisne? Now a popular tourist destination, this ‘social palace’ was home to one of the world’s greatest and longest social experiments of all time.
The Familistère de Guise wasn’t Jean-Baptiste Godin’s first or most famous invention. That honor goes to his Godin Stove, an iconic flat top cast iron stove that’s now produced by Cheminees Philippe. But it’s the Familistère that justifies a special trip to Guise for those who want to view a real-life version of Utopia.
Godin founded the Familistère in 1859 as a fully developed community where his employees could live in an egalitarian way. Each employee was assigned an apartment based on the size of his or her family as opposed to his or her position within the company. The employee residents shared communal facilities that included a laundromat, pool, theater and shops.
At its peak, the Familistère housed more than 1,200 people with many living in its central pavilion. The workers who lived here had a sense of community while their children had the opportunity to attend school (not a given in the 19th century).
And, if you’re wondering if Godin lived here with his family, the answer is yes. However, his assigned living quarter was substantially larger than those of his employees. Godin’s larger quarters may have revealed the imperfections with his social living experiment. But, for all the Familistere’s failures, the complex introduced concepts like child labor rules and public education that are now the standard.
Although the Familistère’s Cooperative Association of Capital and Labor dissolved in 1968, people continue to live at the Familistère to this day.
Talk To Locals
As is often the case in France, talking to Aisne locals is one of the best ways to connect with the region. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a friend or family member in the area, we recommend talking with friendly vendors you meet at local shops and restaurants.
For us, these encounters were as memorable as the famous sites that we visited. Plus, they typically ended with food tips and occasionally samples.
Say Cheers At BMC Brewery
Brasserie de la Montagne Couronnée (i.e. BMC) is a modern craft brewery located in the shadow of the centuries-old Notre-Dame de Laon. Stéphane Lobois opened the brewery after earning a craft brewing diploma in 2020. His beers reflect the global influences he encountered while working for the International Medical Corps before returning home to France.
Lobois prefers American-style IPAs over Belgian triples. In fact, he only started brewing triples due to to popular demand. Considering how much we love Belgian triples, we’re glad he did. But these aren’t the only brews brewed at BMC. During our visit, blonde beer, dark beer, white beer, Christmas beer and a seasonal cassis beer were also on the menu.
We sampled a few different beers including the La Grimpette (a blonde beer), the B.M.C. (a triple) and the Dame Eve (a seasonal cassis beer). Brewed with local fruit and without added sugar, the Dame Eve was the standout.
You won’t find BMC beer outside of France. You won’t even find the beer in most French cities. This progressive craft brewery minimizes its carbon footprint by sourcing ingredients locally and exclusively sells its excellent beers locally.
Be Regal At The Château De Condé
Not everybody can live in a castle. However, we can all pretend for an hour or two while visiting the Château de Condé (i.e. Condé Castle) before, after or between Champagne tastings.
Be warned that you may be overwhelmed by the château’s abundance of decorative art. Its walls are covered with paintings, some featuring frescoes painted by Jean-Antoine Watteau and other French artists.
Currently a private estate owned by Alain Pasté de Rochefort, the Château de Condé has a rich regal history involving lords, ladies, princes and princesses. According to its website, the historic monument is the ‘castle of the princes of Condé, Bourbon and Savoy’.
Fans of Jean de La Fontaine will be pleased to see paintings honoring his fables. Others will appreciate the castle’s surprise. We’d tell you what it is but then it would no longer be a surprise.
Wander Around La Ferté Milon
Located on the Ourcq River, La Ferté Milon is a charming little town with more than one badge of honor. For starters, Jean Racine Museum spent his childhood here and Jean de La Fontaine got married here.
Jean de La Fontaine didn’t just marry anybody in La Ferté Milon. He married Jean Racine’s cousin.
It’s also the home of one of Aisne’s most unique castle structures.
La Ferté-Milon’s castle was built in the 14th century for the Duke of Orleans. Never fully completed after the Duke was assassinated in 1407, the castle was later dismantled at the command of Henri IV.
All that’s left of the castle today is its decaying facade. It’s still interesting to visit for those who like history or architecture as well as those who just enjoy taking a scenic walk.
Don’t Skip Dessert
We mentioned that we ate well in Aisne but we neglected to mention that the best things we ate were desserts. And not just at one meal. We ate great desserts at every meal.
Some of these desserts involved chocolate and others involved puff pastry. The best ones were garnished with fresh fruit.
Now that we’ve piqued your interest about spending a weekend in Aisne, it’s time to discover how to get there as well as where to stay, shop and eat once your arrive.
How To Get To Aisne
Cutting to the chase, the best way to get to Aisne is by car. We recommend driving directly to Château-Thierry which is approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Paris and approximately 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Reims.
Another option is to take a train to either Château-Thierry or Laon. These trains lines are both comfortable and cost-effective. However, you’ll need to sort out renting a car once you arrive if you want to properly explore Aisne’s best attractions.
Where To Stay In Aisne
We stayed at the following two hotels during our weekend in Aisne:
Where To Shop In Aisne
With a little planning, you can shop at an outdoor market in Aisne during your visit. Château-Thierry has one every Tuesday and Friday while Laon’s market days are Thursday and Saturday.
Don’t fret if you miss these outdoor markets. Aisne has covered markets where you can shop for local products. However, the best food shopping may be at a specialty market like Les Copains d’Thiérache in Guise.
Le Copains d’Thiérache offers one-stop shopping for those seeking artisan food products in a boutique setting. You can buy fresh produce to enjoy on the spot as well as a variety of foods that double as edible souvenirs.
Options include candy, cheese, honey, jams and pies as well as locally crafted beer and cider. We bought a few these items and wish we’d bought more.
Where To Eat In Aisne
Although dining at restaurants may not be your primary goal in Aisne, you’ll still want to eat well during your visit. Accordingly, consider eating at one or more of the following restaurants during your visit:
Aisne France FAQs
Château-Thierry is less than 60 kilometers from Paris, Laon is less than 150 kilometers from Paris and Soissons is less than 110 kilometers from Paris.
Aisne biggest claims to fames include its Champagne route and its role in World War I. Aisne is also famous for being the birthplace of the beloved fabulist Jean de La Fontaine.
Champagne Pannier is Aisne’s largest and most prominent Champagne house.
About The Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on their website 2foodtrippers. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers a unique taste of the world.
We update our articles regularly. Some updates are major while others are minor link changes and spelling corrections. Let us know if you see anything that needs to be updated in this article.
We thank L’Agence Aisne Tourisme for sponsoring our visit to Aisne.
Original Publication Date: August 5, 2023