Alex Rennie joins the 17million Brits who travel across, or under, the channel each year seeking all variety of holidays in France 

Many of us, me included, would barely give a moment’s thought to a trip into the French “green desert” — as it was dubbed to me.

That sparsely populated rural heartland in the area to the east and south of Paris, which only appeals to English visitors as a stop-off on the long drive to the glamorous Mediterranean coast.

Indeed, on an episode of Pointless it would be interesting to see how many people could name Champagne as a region of France and not just a sparkling wine.

But that was where I headed for a short break viewing the heritage of the old French border, with its many historic chateaus and fortified towns, trying to debunk the theory that this region has nothing but vinyard tours, farmers fields and motorways.

This is an authentic slice of France, not the rolled-up, packaged and commercial side of the country. A place where time has almost stood still, without the growing globalisation that has crept into most of world and, rather refreshingly, a part of France where that dusty pocket translation book could come in handy.

Our trip started in the charming town of Saint-Dizier, in the north of the Haute-Marne, and around 65-miles south of Reims — the capital of the wider Champagne-Ardenne region.

The large town of around 25,000 people is the largest in the Haute-Marne and traces its roots back to the 12th century. Its wealth comes from the iron industry, with much of its metal work is on display throughout the town.

However, its centrepiece is much more delicate, a renovated early 20th century Italian style theatre. The wonderfully intimate venue, of only 350 seats, was painstakingly restored in 2007, and is now the jewel in the crown of Saint Dizier.

The town itself rather felt like Salisbury minus the cathedral, with its medieval architecture, paved central plaza and plethora of cafes. The town provided a good stopping point on the road south towards the numerous castles which dot eastern France and were the main focal point of our trip.

The journey itself from London had been rather leisurely, hop onto the Eurostar, short relaxing lunch in Paris, before an onward high speed train to Reims. French strikes had kept everyone of their toes, but once we got into the car at Reims it was around an hour to Saint Dizier, more than manageable for a short French getaway that doesn’t involve flying.

Our abode for the evening was out in the deepest of countryside, near to the small village of Vecqueville, around 20 miles south of Saint Dizier.

Ferme de Sossa is a partially converted working farm, with a number of the outbuildings beautifully converted into hotel rooms. The food comes as an optional extra but it would be a crime not to enjoy this perfect sanctuary of home cooking.

Everything served has come from the farm and it was just simple high quality food. The main course of duck in a little gravy, served just with potatoes, was outstanding.

All the guests ate at the same time, meaning we had the chance to try out some more rusty French — fortunately I had a translator or else I would have been eating in silence.

Indeed it was lucky I did, as the gentleman who sat opposite me was trekking from Switzerland to Belgium whilst carrying a painting and a copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, acting as a show of defiance against terrorists from so called Islamic State who attacked Brussels.

But the man likened to Forrest Gump by one French journalist couldn’t even carry on his adventure after visiting Ferme de Sossa, staying an extra unplanned day as was its comfort.

Alas, I could not be so lucky, and we, rather reluctantly, headed south towards Chaumont via Joinville and Vignory.

As many pass through France going south towards the Mediterranean coast they might miss Joinville and the nearby Chateau de Cirey. In fact either would be a short diversion off the beaten track, making excellent stopping points.

Joinville is the birthplace of Marie de Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, and the hunting lodge of Chateau du Grand Jardin, or rather aptly translated as castle of the big garden, makes a wonderful place to stretch the legs with its acres of stunning gardens.

Alternatively, Chateau de Cirey, the former home of the philosopher Voltaire, gives a glimpse into the age of enlightenment. The writer of Lettres Anglais spent much of his life being persecuted by the king and his works helped influence the French Revolution of 1789.

The chateau can only be viewed by appointment but it’s worth the trip just to see Voltaire’s private theatre. Hidden away up a small wooden staircase, Voltaire would direct his own plays on the tiny stage — famously descending to shout at the actors if the performance was not up to scratch.

Chaumont itself is only really of note for its spectacular 600metre viaduct which stretches out across the valley linking the town by train to the rest of France. But Langres, in the southern tip of the region, is a superbly preserved myriad of ramparts and medieval walls.

The old town is a maze of narrow streets, and the hilltop views from the walls give a perfect view of the surrounding region. Inside the city walls there is even a caravan site, which allows an inexpensive chance to visit Langres.

For those looking for a different French experience, this trail down the old border is an under-visited gem. With medieval architecture, rustic food and stunning chateaux, the Champagne region offers far more than just vinyard tours. Its many castles and forts make for excellent stopping points on the route south and Langres, with its 3km of ramparts, is worth a day to explore.

It is also a good value for money region, as it is not saturated with tourists. In addition, high speed trains run to both Langres and Reims.

So dust off that pocket phrasebook and drink in an authentic slice of rural France.

Factfile for the Champagne Regional Tourist Board and more information on the region. You can find downloadable maps, brochures,circuits, trails and shortbreak suggestions on the website. for more information on the department. for rail travel. It’s easy to get to the heart of the region by train via Paris. Eurostar fares start from £29 one way to Paris and fares Paris to Langres are from £26 per person standard class one way