Champagne, Anyone?

You can drive just outside Paris and lay down some serious francs to visit Sleeping Beauty's ersatz Euro Disney castle. Or you can drive for a little over an hour northeast of Paris and pay about the same money to spend the night in an honest-to-goodness, 300-year-old chateau formerly visited by Louis XIV and Napoleon. The French know about the bargains available in this region, but they haven't told many Americans. Champagne, the area famous for making bubbly, is also home to dozens of spectacular manors, castles and chateaus that are open for business and surprisingly affordable.

The Chateau d'Etoges is a glorious melange of crenelated towers, tapestry-hung walls and swans swimming in a moat. Legend says the estate gave Louis XIV the idea for his voluptuous gardens at Versailles. A night there costs just $90 per person, which includes dinner and breakfast. And outside, among the vineyards of Champagne, visitors can stop every so often to sample the local liquid gold.

For years, Americans wanting to stay in a chateau have been directed to the Loire Valley south of Paris, a region famous for its lordly living. But an endless stream of foreign tourists helps to maintain high prices in the valley. Champagne-Ardenne, as the more northern area is officially known, has done relatively little to promote itself to foreigners, many of whom are surprised to learn of its proximity to Paris and its low cost. "The chateaus are bargains, the wines and champagnes are cheap, and the food is unreal," says Barbara Selig, a recent visitor from Falls Church, Va. "Champagne is the place to go."

The region is full of history, including the 13th-century Cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims, where most of France's kings were crowned. The neighboring city of Epernay is headquarters for Moet & Chandon, France's largest champagne house, and scores of others (Hitler's Army looted more than 1.6 billion bottles of the wine to help pay for his war effort). Two nearby villages, Langres and Troyes, offer glimpses of French living hundreds of years ago, with medieval walls, cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses. There's scarcely a T shirt shop to be found. And perhaps because they see so few foreign visitors, local inhabitants are cheerful and friendly. In a place like Champagne, who wouldn't be? Dream Houses Information on travel in Champagne is on an English-language Web site: easternfrance.com/champagne/ champagne. htm. Some places to stay:

Chateau d'Etoges: Stately but comfortable, with 23 bedrooms. etoges.com

Abbaye de Sept Fontaines: Romantic and historic (Kaiser Wilhelm stayed there during World War I; later on, Charles de Gaulle often visited). There's a nine-hole golf course out back; $90 a night per person or $65 without meals. abbayeseptfontaines.fr

Chateau de Villers: A former hunting lodge, exquisitely restored to a very high level of luxury; $136 a room, meals extra. chateau-de-villers.com

Chateau Bazeilles: Stay in a carriage house, eat in the chateau, occupied by the same family since 1750; $62 a night per person with meals.

Champagne, Anyone? | News