REIMS

France

A Champagne bucket for us

When we step out of the railway station in Reims, a frosty breeze is sweeping over the Champagne plains et the City of Kings, blowing through the town as if it was in hurry to reach Alsace. But Reims showcases its charming architecture around us, the day is young, our mood fixedly swell. We walk down the Place Drouet-d'Erlon, which in fact is not a place but a long street the locals call proudly their "Champs-Élysées". The bakeries we pass let extremely appetizing smells invade the street, smells of fresh bread and "Viennese pastries". Hard to keep up any resistance, all the more so as it's still quite early. Our goodwill crumbles after a few minutes, and we allow us a sweet snack to keep us going. We also purchase our first souvenirs, that is several sachets of "biscuits roses de Reims", typical local, pink biscuits.

The Reims Opera, the Regional Court, all very impressive buildings. But nothing compared to our next discovery: the amazing cathedral Notre-Dame of Reims. Even if the building lacks the spires one finds in the original plans, it is awe-inspiring, rising towards the sky in a graceful movement. Its size and massiveness let you guess its weight, but it looks almost aerial with its slender architecture, its stone lace and its statues. The western façade welcomes us with its three richly ornamented gates. It goes without saying that we stand for quite a while in front of the emblem all at once of the cathedral and the town: the famous Smiling Angel, whose good mood has been fascinating generations of visitors.

Once inside, we're reduced to a stunned and respectful silence by the sheer size. The vaults of the nave, supported by almost frail columns, seems to be floating some 33 metres above our heads; the huge windows give off the impression that any border between inside and outside has vanished, and their longish form re-enforces the general movement one feels, the movement of humanity trying to lift itself up towards heaven. We stroll through the cathedral until we find the famous stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall in a side-chapel; their colours invade the space and create a dreamlike atmosphere.

Our second visit takes us to the Saint Remi Basilica. This church is rather impressive, too, but we'd almost be tempted to say: it is more "intimate", more "accessible" for the average human person than the huge cathedral. On the inside, we're immediately surprised by the enormous Wreath of Light hanging in the middle of the nave. It has a diameter of 6 metres, if you please, and carries 12 little towers as well as 96 candles. Every year those candles are ceremoniously lit during the feast days of Saint Remi (first Sunday in October, we are told).

Third visit of the day: the cellars of the Vranken-Pommery vineyard. Grey-white-red buildings in Elizabethan style with round turrets loom in front of us. It's rather charming even if Didi finds them a trifle kitsch. After having purchased our tickets, we wait for our guide to arrive under the watchful eyes of Madame Pommery (or rather: her painting). And gosh, is she one hell of an unsmiling lady! Our guide explains later that this austere lady took over the business of the vineyard after her husband died in 1858 and that it was she who brought about its success. She died in 1890, which may explain her mirthless expression. If it's no piece of cake to be a successful business woman, today, just imagine what it must have been in the 19th century, which stood out for its misogyny, after all…

Then, we climb down the stairs to discover the chalky innards. The young guide explains how Champagne wine is produced, talks about the history of Champagne-Making and the history of Vranken-Pommery and shows us cellar compartments full of very fine vintage wines, some of them almost a hundred years old. It's exceedingly cold down here in these cellars (luckily we had foreseen this and brought jackets), but what with all these mysterious compartments full of spiderwebbed and dust-covered bottles as well as all those immense empty halls, we barely notice the temperature.

As a crowning highlight of this visit, we have a glass of excellent vintage Champagne (included in the entrance fee) after having climbed back up the stairs. For us, it's a glass of Cuvée Luise each (named after Madame Pommery's daughter). We toast each other, we sip. Well, tastes and opinions differ, let's just say that we rather prefer medium-dry Champagne (which is a complete no-go for most locals), so we are not overtly fond of this wine. It's really personal, of course; some like it extra-dry, others don't, which doesn't mean it's bad quality. Vranken-Pommery is a prestigious Champagne brand, by the way, a fact you cannot oversee when you pass through the shop at the exit. We are somewhat stunned when we see the prices of the bottles. All we can purchase under these circumstances is a nice Champagne bucket with the Pommery-logo. Alright, when we turn it around, we discover it's been "Made in Taiwan", but we think it looks neat, and we already know it will come in handy more than once…

GOOD TO KNOW

  • Reims is situated a mere 40 minutes from Paris if you take the TGV; and if you book your tickets in advance, a two-way ticket costs approx. 30 euros per person – FR, EN, DE, IT, ES, NL, RU
  • Anecdotally, the cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims has… 2,303 statues all in all! If you're looking for the famous Smiling Angel, you'll find it beside the left-hand gate of the main façade.
  • The Saint Remi Basicila, hesitating between Roman and Gothic style, is thus named because of one bishop Remi, who is said to have lived at the same time as the legendary King Clovis. No other than he christened this king, too, creating Clovis' myth for ever after—Clovis is now considered the first Christian king of France (somewhat anachronistically as France didn't exist back then, but myths don't care for that kind of precision). Funny enough, historians know little of King Clovis' life, not even when this christening took place (somewhere between 496 and 506, they say). Yet they claim to know the exact date: the 25th of December. Anyway, good ole Bishop Remi worked in this basilica and was sainted afterwards. His tomb and his relics can be found in the church today.
  • The Vranken-Pommery website allows you to book online your tickets for a visit – FR, EN.

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