170km (105 miles) NW of Reims
Is it worth the drive from Reims Cathedral to see yet another one? If that cathedral is in Amiens, the answer is absolutely. Amiens, the capital of Picardy, has been a textile center since medieval days. Its old town is a warren of jumbled streets and canals, branching off from the south bank of the Somme River. The main draw is the boldly Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dam’ d’Amiens, pl. Notre-Dame (www.cathedrale-amiens.fr; tel. 03-22-80-03-41), France’s largest cathedral. The dazzling, UNESCO-protected cathedral was started in 1220 to house the head of St. John the Baptist (still visible today), brought back from the Crusades in 1206. One of the biggest Gothic cathedrals ever constructed, it’s 113m (370 ft.) tall with a girth of 200,000 cubic meters (more than 7 million cubic feet). On its south side, hip bistro Big Ben, 12 rue Cormont (www.restaurant-bigben.fr; tel. 03-74-11-66-04; Tues noon–2:30pm, Wed–Sat noon–2:30pm and 7–10pm) is a good spot for lunch.
From the cathedral, head to the city’s Quartier St-Leu. Just below the cathedral, across the water, the quarter used to be a thriving medieval craft center, bustling with water mills. Today its narrow streets contain art galleries, bookshops, and antiques boutiques, making the area a wonderful place to wander. During the Saturday morning market on the quayside, farmers from the nearby Hortillonnages—the 300 hectares (741 acres) of floating gardens in the town center—hawk their products.
While in Amiens, be sure to also visit the Maison de Jules Verne, 2 rue Charles Dubois (tel. 03-22-45-45-75; 7.50€ adults, 4€ children ages 6–17, free for EU residents age 25 and under; mid-April to mid-Oct Mon and Wed–Fri 10am–12:30pm and 2–6:30pm, Sat and Sun 11am–6:30pm, Tues 2–6:30pm; mid-Oct to mid-April same as above, except closures are at 6pm and closed Tues), a stately townhouse where the author plunged himself into his imaginary worlds. Period rooms convey how the house would have looked in Verne’s day, and a collection of more than 700 objects reveals the author’s inspiration.
To get to Amiens, the quickest and easiest option is by car. Take the A26 north to St. Quentin, and then head west on the A29 to Amiens (total about 1 hr., 45 min.). By train, you have to change in Paris and the journey takes around 2 hr., 30 min. The tourist office (www.visit-amiens.com; tel. 03-22-71-60-50) is on the north side of the square in front of the cathedral.
106km (65 miles) NE of Reims
In the French Ardennes, the 16th-century Château Fort de Sedan (www.chateau-fort-sedan.fr; tel. 03-24-29-98-80; daily) is said to be the largest castle in Europe. Set over seven floors and with an area of 35,000 sq. meters (376,736 sq. ft.), the castle took over 150 years to build and in its heyday housed more than 4,000 men. You can take a tour and even stay here in the onsite four-star hotel, which has a very nice restaurant. The castle also hosts a medieval festival on the last weekend in May.
Several trains a day leave from Reims (trip time: 1 hr., 20 min.) or you can drive there in about 1 hr., 10 min. via the A34.
The Champagne Trail
The Routes Touristiques du Champagne are five itineraries developed by tourist offices to show motorists the best their region has to offer. From 70km up to 220km (45–136 miles), they wind their way through vineyards, villages, and sites of interest, clearly marked by black and white road signs. One of the shortest, and prettiest, is the route dedicated to the Montagne de Reims, which is not really a mountain at all but a forested plateau between Reims and Epernay.
Along this route, as with the others, you’ll pass dozens of small champagne producers, sometimes as small as in a residence or garage. Tourist offices can give you a list of those open to tastings or where English is spoken; sometimes you’ll happen along one with a drop-in policy. Champagne being the livelihood of most of these producers, it’s polite to buy at least one bottle in exchange for their time, but you’ll likely pay less than you would for two flutes in a restaurant.
For more information, visit any tourist office or see www.tourisme-en-champagne.co.uk/content/champagne-trail.
Battles of the Marne
World War I history buffs automatically think of Verdun and its trenches but the Marne Valley saw more than its share of bloody conflict. The German offensive got no further west than Château-Thierry (87km/54 miles NE of Paris, 51km/32 miles SW of Reims via A4) thanks to a ferocious standoff with U.S. forces in early June 1918. Today an imposing hilltop monument commemorates the battle. Two days later, fighting began at the Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood). Control of the area switched sides six times before the Americans triumphed, having suffered more than 9,000 casualties. The American cemetery, also known as Le Cimetière de Belleau, contains 2,288 graves and a chapel damaged in World War II. You can learn more at the Musée de la Mémoire de Belleau (www.american-remembrance.com; tel. 03-23-82-03-63), in place du Général Pershing, which also offers guided tours. In a peaceful park in Dormans, the Mémorial des Batailles de la Marne, Parc du Château (www.memorialdormans14-18.com; tel. 03-26-53-35-86) honors all soldiers killed in the summers of 1914 and 1918. The site houses a chapel and ossuary containing the bones of a thousand soldiers from the U.S. and Europe.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.