Reims, France –More Than Just a Cathedral!
Picture a defensive Jack Russell.
‘Where?’ all my friends asked as I snapped and snarled at them. (Quite professionally, I thought!)
‘Reims,’ I said, lamely resorting to the British pronunciation.
‘Oh, Reims, where the Cathedral is,’ they all replied.
Reims is very French. The only foreign place I saw was an Irish Bar!
Twinned with Canterbury, the city of Reims has been destroyed and rebuilt several times.
Named after the Remi tribe who allied with the Romans, it must have been a huge Roman city. There are traces of it scattered around the town.
The Vandals captured the city in 406 and in 451 Atilla the Hun burnt it down, and killed a lot of the residents.
Towering over the city centre, the impressive Cathedral was built on the site where King Clovis, the King of the Franks, was converted to Christianity. (The local mustard is named after him.) Apparently a dove appeared from God, carrying the Holy Ampulla, filled with holy oil, which was used to baptise him.
The small vial, which was used in all future Coronation ceremonies, was smashed during the French Revolution, but luckily some of the oil had already been preserved.
Next to the Cathedral is the Palace of Tau where the French Kings went to pray before their Coronation, and then for the dinner afterwards. It’s a museum now, where you can see their robes and some tapestries, plus massive statues from the Cathedral.
A statue of Joan of Arc on horseback stands outside the Cathedral. In 1429 she had Charles VII consecrated in the Cathedral.
Sorry, but I just don’t ‘get’ Joan of Arc. I fail to understand how she can be a saint when her right-hand-man was Guy de Rais, one of the world’s most notorious paedophile serial killers. He and his friends raped and murdered at least 200 peasant boys before he was executed.
Almost flattened during the 1st World War, it took around 10 years to rebuild Reims. They built it in Art Deco mode, and all the rows of terraced buildings are different levels and styles. Very attractive!
The roads are cobbled and level with the pavements. We often found that we were strolling in the road without realising it, but nobody hooted at us, so they must be used to it.
During World War II Reims suffered more terrible damage. But at 2.41am on 7th May 1945, the Germans unconditionally surrendered to General Eisenhower and the Allies in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. It’s a museum, preserved exactly as it was on that day.
Now of course, Reims is famous for its Champagne Houses. Their tunnels form a maze under the city. Many of the tunnels were Roman quarries.
We visited the Maison Cordon Rouge. First we watched a film about the history, founded by the Mumm family, then the screen went upwards, revealing two huge doors. It reminded me of Willy Wonka as we descended into the Champagne tunnels!
All the grapes are hand-picked, then gently squeezed, not crushed.
I asked what happens to the waste and was pleased to be told that it’s used to make a fortified wine called Ratafia, which is similar to Sherry. Some of the grapes are used to make vinegar. Even the water used to rinse the machines is sprayed on the farmland.
All the bottles are turned regularly by a Riddler. I had a quick riddle! It’s an ancient craft. In the Cathedral there’s a stained-glass window showing a Riddler just below the monk Dom Perignon.
We were treated to dinner in the Mumm mansion opposite the Champagne House. It was something that money can’t buy! We drank bottles of champagne that retail at 140 euros, and ate delicious, delicate food, including a truffle mousse, all prepared by a lady chef.
Back at the Hotel de la Paix, we decided to have a nightcap. Seven of us ordered different cocktails and the barman remembered who had ordered what. Then he did it again with seven different drinks!
Breakfast was lovely and fresh; it included orange juice, croissants that melted in the mouth, and bacon full of flavour.
I also had a quick dip in the indoor swimming-pool.
We took a walk around the town and stopped for lunch in the Café du Palais. It’s worth visiting just for the décor! It’s been in the same family for several generations. The roof is stained-glass and the restaurant is crammed full of a mish-mash of paintings, sculptures, ornaments, etc. that they’ve accumulated through the years. Tres French!
One seat was taken up with a full-sized statue of a nude woman with huge bull’s horns. Goodness knows why! Someone had adorned a lady’s painting with a real necklace and rubber gloves. And so on.
I’m sure they could double the seating if they held a Car boot sale!
We ate fois gras to start with. Controversial for us, although the French don’t understand what the fuss is about. It’s ok, but I won’t bother again. Then we had a selection of local ham and cheeses with salad. How can lettuce leaves be so tasty?
Afterwards we had a chocolate gateau, and rose biscuit and Champagne ice-cream which I’ll tell you about later.
After our meal, we were driven to the Pommery Champagne House. The cellars are 30 mts underground, 116 steps down.
Modern art exhibitions are held in the tunnels. Visitors travel from all over the world to see it, but I’m afraid that we didn’t like it at all. There was a baby elephant, skinned, filled with resin and hung upside-down, a working carousel perfectly constructed, with stuffed donkeys dangling over the seats, a massive wooden scaffold that filled a whole quarry, and strange films with weird sounds emerging out of dark tunnels.
Even worse, the echoing sound of one of their small Champagne-carrying trains would roar past somewhere in the distance.
I wanted to see the history, not surreal pictures. And I got the creeps. There were deep Roman quarries dug out by hand. You could clearly see the chisel marks. Hundreds of slaves must have died there. I strongly sensed a horrible atmosphere in certain areas. If you look at my photos you’ll see loads of orbs. The light was dim and they’re not reflections. One photo has a very bright orb at the front. Whether you’re believers or not, the evidence is only where I picked up the vibes!
We were all glad to get out of there.
Dinner was in the Brasserie Flo Reims, one of the few buildings not flattened in the wars. The waiters wear suits and jackets. Again they quietly remembered everyone’s orders. I had an avocado mousse with large prawns, a steak with pepper sauce that melted in the mouth, then more Champagne ice-cream. Some of the others had oysters to start with.
Early the next morning we were whisked away to the Fossier Biscuit Factory. More Willy Wonka comparisons. At over 250 years old, it’s the oldest biscuit factory in the world. Everything’s made and packed by hand.
We walked along corridors and we could clearly observe everything below us through windows.
Champagne is used in their rose biscuits, and the biscuits are powdered into ice-cream and sorbets. Very co-operative!
We had our final meal at the Restaurant au Conti, in the Grand Hotel Continental, another of the few old surviving buildings. The Germans used it during the war. It’s very stately but the manager has kept the star rating down so that more people can afford to stay there.
Again the food and the service were faultless. They have a choice of different-priced menus.
I had a smoked duck salad to start, followed by another wonderful steak on a bed of parsnip and potato mash, then three sorbets; one of them Champagne flavour, of course!
After that, we collected our luggage and took the 10 minutes’ walk to Reims Central Station.
Eating in Reims was an absolute treat for me as all the food was fresh and locally produced. Even after eating three large meals a day I didn’t feel bloated or lethargic
I could have travelled from Lewes, Sussex, to join Eurostar at Ashford, but I went to St Pancras in London.
Travelling by train was easy and relaxing. If you’ve booked your seats you can turn up just before the train leaves. But allow at least half an hour to get through Security, Passport Control, and along the train to your carriage. You may want to allow time to inspect all the shops there too.
Queues moved fast and all the staff were pleasant and polite.
There’s no maximum baggage weight, but storage on the trains is limited, of course.
The seats are comfortable, legroom is generous, and the views out of the window are interesting.
All the stations are in the town centres. In Paris we had to change from Eurostar to the Gare de L’Est, a 10 minute walk.
Apparently within 600 kms there’s no difference timewise between plane and train.
I shall definitely be travelling that way again!
Office de Tourism de Reims, 12, Bld de Leclerc, 51100 Reims
Best Western Hotel de la Paix, 9 Rue Buirette, 5100, Reims. +33 3 26400408.
Restaurant au Conti firstname.lastname@example.org
Café de Palais www.cafedupalais.fr
Maison Cordon Rouge www.mumm.com
Brasserie Flo Reims www.flobrasseries.com/en/