Love was in the air, or perhaps it was just the constant scent of the blooming linden trees, seemingly following me everywhere in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region. It was June, and to me, the aroma reminiscent of lilacs seemed to soften the play of life, death, rebirth and hope that is visible wherever you travel in the Ardennes today.
"Every time you dig, history gets in the way," says my remarkable guide, Christiane, while gazing down at the newly opened grave at the very door of the glorious Reims Cathedral. Ten feet away, two scholars were carefully digging up a couple of 12th-century skeletons, using toothbrush and dental picks, having already brought to light the top half of their recumbent forms. "They were probably put here after dying in the prison hospital on the site, even before the present cathedral was built," said one of the pair. History, even death, is never far away in Reims, or in nearby spots where countless battles were fought, towns burned and lives lost over the centuries.
But we visit today to see the capital of Champagne as it is now. The most important events in Reims are:
- June: the Johan Festival & Folkloric Coronations. About 2,000 marchers re-enact the Great Coronation Procession, led by Joan of Arc and Charles VII, leading up to northern France's largest folklore festival.
- June through August: Flâneries Musicales d'Eté de Reims, a series of close to 100 concerts -- classical and jazz -- that take place at prestigious or unusual sites, such as at the Saint Remi Basilica or in the city parks.
2007 is the 1,000th anniversary of the Saint Remi Basilica, with many events scheduled there.
The Fastest Train on Earth
You now get to Reims from Paris in just 45 minutes, thanks to the magnificent new TGV East trains that run at an average of 199 mph, faster than any other train in Europe. (And in a test run in April, the train topped out at 357 mph, making it the fastest on earth.) The Paris-Reims trains run several times a day. I have always said seeing Europe by train is the best way to go, and Rail Europe, in business for 75 years, can help you do so with their reservation service. One way first class Paris to Reims is $75, second-class only $43. A France Railpass, covering three days of unlimited travel throughout France within a one-month period, starts at $227. More details at 888/382-7245 and www.raileurope.com or in Canada 800/361-7245 and www.raileurope.ca.
You can eat on the TGV East trains, too, a hot dog costing 4.90€ ($6.60), a cup of pasta 6.50€ ($8.76). A glass of Pinot Noir (10 cl.) runs 2.60€ ($3.50), a beer (25 cl.) 3.50€ ($4.71). A light meal of sandwich, dessert and drink runs 9.70€ ($13.07). Be sure your rolling suitcase fits the aisles. On TGV East trains, the first class aisles measure 23 inches, second-class only 19 inches wide. The toilets have hot air driers and both 110- and 220-volt outlets for electrical appliances. Everything is spic and span-new.
American Ties to Reims
In 2008, the city of Reims and the Champagne district will honor the Americans who fought here 90 years before, as well as celebrate the large US donations that helped rebuild the city after Word War I. Much of Reims (80%) was destroyed then, but was rebuilt in the 1920s according to the urban development plans of a New Yorker (George Ford), with large contributions from such luminaries as John D Rockefeller and the head of the Andrew Carnegie Foundation. Rockefeller's money allowed the restoration of the framing and the roofing of the Notre-Dame cathedral, a 13th-century edifice listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 90th anniversary will also take note of the surrender of the German forces in World War II here, at General Eisenhower's headquarters in a school building in the city, on May 7, 1945. Check out the Musee de la Reddition, as it is called, at www.tourisme.fr/reims.
The Gothic style Cathedral of Notre-Dame was the site for the crowning of 33 French kings (from 816 to 1825) and dates back to 1211, replacing two earlier structures on the same site. One of the most famous coronations was that of Charles VII in1429, when Joan of Arc brought him here during the Hundred Years' War. There are some 2,300 statues in the church, one a "smiling angel," which has become the symbol of the city. Marc Chagall designed three stained glass windows in 1974 for the central chapel, and since 2006, the place is lit up at night, usually once a week in October and November. You can climb up 249 steps of the right-hand tower and then skirt the base of the roof along a narrow walkway for some remarkable views.
Equally imposing, with fine 12th- to 19th-century windows, is the Basilica of Saint Remi, dating back to 1007, with later additions. Remi, whose tomb is the centerpiece here, baptized Clovis, King of the Franks, back in 498, thus ensuring France of its Christian heritage. The Saint-Remi Abbey Museum, adjacent, is also the city's Museum of History and Archeology, with good collections from prehistory to the Renaissance and a lot of military stuff. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are Sound and Light shows each Saturday at 9:30 PM here July through September.
The Palais du Tau is the cathedral museum, and was built in 1690 as a residence for the archbishops. Coronation banquets took place here, and it is jam-packed with regalia, sculpture, tapestries and the like. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For only 3€ ($4.04), you can buy the Pass Decouverte, good for six museums and one month, including the Surrender Room, the Musee des Beaux-Arts, the Musee Saint Remi, the Planetarium, the Ancien College des Jesuites, and the Chapelle Foujita. The latter structure is filled with paintings by the Japanese artist, Leonard Foujita, who lived in France most of his life and who converted to Catholicism late, in 1964. Beautiful in itself, it is often compared to chapels decorated by Chagall and Matisse in other parts of France.
The Fine Arts Museum is best known for its collection of 26 landscapes by Camille Corot and 13 portraits by Lucas Cranach, Elder and Younger.
Champagne for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
One of the nicest places to eat in Reims is Le Café du Palais, a gastronomic temple but one also dedicated to Art Nouveau (don't miss the ceiling in the back room). I had pasta with fois gras and morel mushrooms, delicious at 22€ ($29.64), followed by raspberries and fresh cream at 7€ ($9.43). My colleague had the smoked salmon plate (20€, $26.95) and we each had a glass of white Burgundy (6€, $8.08). The restaurant, open since 1930, is on a street named for the American ambassador who helped so much to reconstruct Reims after World War I. Le Café du Palais, 14 Rue Place Myron-Herrick, tel. 011-33-3 2647 5254, www.cafedupalais.fr.
For innovative cuisine, try La Vigneraie, also in the center of the city. I had a cold egg soufflé, followed by a fish mousse, both scented with nutmeg, I thought. After a main course of chicken, I tried a chocolate mousse with citron sorbet. Another house specialty is beef filet Rossini with fried fois gras. Set dinners such as mine range in cost from 31€ to 62€ (about $41 to $84). La Vigneraie, 14 Rue de Thillois, tel. 011 33 3 2688 6727, website www.vigneraie.com.
A typical café such as the Brasserie Les Colonnes opposite the Hotel de la Paix charges 1.80€ ($2.43) for coffee, 2.50€ ($3.37) for a small beer (25 cl.). A plat du jour lunch of three courses (entrée, salad, dessert) runs about 8€ ($10.78), a small glass of wine (25 cl.) 5€ ($6.74). For relaxation in the evening, in the same street (Rue Buirette), consider the Glue Pot Pub, which puts leather sofas and chairs outside under the umbrellas. A nearby fast food shop offers crepes for 2€ ($2.69) and up.
The Champagne Houses
Nine houses here are best known, including Mumm, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger, Pommery, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Canard-Duchene, Mattel, Ruinart and Lanson. Together, they contribute to making Champagne the leading French export wine, with about 300 million bottles a year being produced.
Although not well known in the US, the Ruinart house has perhaps the most amazing underground cellars, a network of caves and tunnels 90 feet down, carved from the chalk (the same chalk as in the White Cliffs of Dover to the west) as early as Gallo-Roman times (they were mining limestone), and also a Historical Monument. They have been used to store Champagne since 1729, making Ruinart the oldest of all the champagne houses.
A tip from a local grower: Champagne matures best in magnum bottles, not in larger or smaller bottles, as the magnum has the right amount of air to interact with the wine in the bottle.
Staying in Reims
I liked the Hotel de la Paix, located neatly in the city center. There's a fine café of the same name on the side street off the lobby, where you can sit and watch the pedestrians float or flounce by all day or night. Four generations of the Renardias family have owned and managed this hotel since 1911. 169 rooms, heated covered pool, fitness facilities, restaurant and bar. There's a 13th-century chapel incorporated into the hotel (partly used for meeting rooms), as well. Part of the Best Western reservation system, with doubles starting at 115€ ($154.95), breakfast 12€ ($16.17). Hotel de la Paix, 9 Rue Buirette, tel. 011 33 3 2640 0408, website www.bestwestern-lapaix-reims.com.
If you want a splendid guide in Reims, you can contact Christiane Corgie-Vergnaud, who will lead you around (and use her own car) while commenting in English, French or Italian. Email ChristianeCorgie@aol.com.
American Airlines has perhaps the biggest connection network in the entire USA for its twice-daily JFK departures to France. Check it out at www.aa.com.
Euros in this article were converted into dollars at the rate of one Euro = $1.35, or one dollar = 74 Euro cents.
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