In Reims (rhymes with In France*)

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*First, how to pronounce Reims! We’ve watched quite a few YouTube videos with American presenters getting it wrong. They say REEMZ. Nope, not right. Even if that is exactly how it’s spelled. Try saying FRANCE in your best American accent (not the soft British way). Then say it again but without the F: RANCE. There, you’ve got it!

Among Reims’ claims to fame are its central place in the world of champagne, and its impressive gothic cathedral. The food’s not bad either.

Champagne tasting and history

There are many many champagne producers in Reims and in the villages around the city. Producers small and large, including all the well-exported brands, such as Moët & Chandon, Pommery, Taittinger, Dom Pérignon, G.H. Mumm, and Krug. That means plenty of opportunities to learn about making and tasting champagne. We chose Veuve Clicquot for our champagne experience.

The tour takes place entirely under ground, in the crayères beneath the city. Crayères are in general limestone mines. The ones we find in Reims were created in Gallo-Roman times and in the Middle Ages as sources for chalk and for limestone for construction and sculpture. During World War I, residents of Reims sheltered in these chambers while the Germans bombed their city to ruin. 20 – 40 meters / 65 – 130 feet below the city’s surface, there are some 200 km / 120 mi of vaulted chambers and passages. Today, these crayères are the perfect champagne cellars — both for production and storage of the sparkling wine — thanks to their constant 10 degrees C / 50 degrees F and stable humidity.

Here’s a link to a great article in Smithsonian Magazine about the Veuve (Widow) Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot and how she built a champagne empire. 

Our experience in the crayères of Veuve Clicquot was a fun one, of course. It’s always a pleasure to learn about and, in particular, to taste wines. And famous champagne brands grab our attention. But our years in the Aude in southern France have influenced us — because of the nearby town of Limoux. Limoux is home to quite a few producers of very nice sparkling wines, including Antech, Oustal Anne de Joyeuse, and Sieur d’Arques. The Limoux AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) limits the source grapes to chardonnay, chenin and mauzac. There are three methods of production, yielding blanquette de Limoux, crémant de Limoux — which have the same production method but different grape proportions –, and méthode traditionelle. The traditional method began its development in 1531 at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, close to modern Limoux. This was 140 years before Dom Pérignon’s famous exploits in northern France. In fact, Dom Pérignon visited the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, and brought his knowledge back to Champagne. The method for producing the crémants and blanquettes is the same as is required for Champagne. Champagne can be called Champagne only if it is produced in the prescribed manner and in the Champagne region.

We mention all this because we have enjoyed many very nice crémants and blanquettes de Limoux over the years. The prices of the bubbly from Limoux are significantly less than what you need to spend for Champagnes. We’ve had lovely sparkling Limoux wines for as little as 8€ a bottle, but usually in the 10 – 20€ range. Many Champagnes cost much more than this range — although we have had very nice Champagnes, thanks for friends who know where to shop, in the 20 – 30€ range. There’s always pleasure in celebrating something with some nice Champagne. But the price paid includes not just the costs of production and expertise, but also reputation and marketing.

Admittedly we are spoiled! Hopefully, not too bratty, though. During our tasting at Veuve Clicquot, we concentrated as we’ve been taught on aromas and flavors and textures of the Champagne, and enjoyed it immensely. But we were not tempted to buy any bottles. When we got back home, we pulled out a nice affordable crémant de Limoux and toasted our very good fortune!

Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Reims

From long-ago university gothic architectural history classes, I remember the names of the homes of some of the stars of this period’s church rivalries: Amiens, Chartres, Paris, Bourges, Rouen — and Reims. Famous for being the coronation site for 29 Kings of France. Undeniably impressive and rich, both inside and out.

What gives this building its particular character? Its central role played in the history of France for 800 years. Reims Cathedral is where the kings of France were crowned. The cathedral hosted thirty-three sovereign coronations in just over 1000 years! The cathedral also hosted the baptism of Clovis around the year 498, and so kingdom of the Franks was born. This made Reims the chosen city to crown kings….

From an architectural perspective, the cathedral of Reims is exquisite because it demonstrates the mastery of the most innovative of thirteenth century techniques. Admire the harmony of its proportions and the purity of its lines, giving a unique character to this masterpiece of religious architecture, 150 meters long, with towers rising 80 meters above the roof.

The buttresses in Reims are also beautiful decorative features symbolising the cathedral’s elegance. Thanks to these arches supporting the structure of the building, wider openings have been built, allowing the light to pass through the beautiful stained glass windows. The illuminated cathedral became a true light showcase, as was intended by its builders in the early thirteenth century.

There are also 2 300 statues which also contribute to the beauty of the cathedral: statue-columns, arches (cut stone), decorative figures, tabernacles, indoor and outdoor figures and the famous smiling angel… Notre-Dame de Reims truly deserves its title of having the most beautiful gothic cathedral sculptures. (source)

During World War One, German bombing and shelling destroyed almost all of the cathedral. What we see today comes from a thorough reconstruction between 1919 and 1938. Among the most obvious evidence is the absence of medieval stained-glass windows. We find plain translucent windows, as well as vibrant modern windows. I’ll talk about this destruction in an upcoming post.

La Porte de Mars: The Romans were everywhere!

Quietly standing between a grand esplanade and one of the restaurants we enjoyed are the remains of a tripartite Roman arch.

The monumental [Porte de Mars] dates from the first part of the 3rd century and is the only remaining of four gates that gave access to the Gallo-Roman town known as Durocortorum. The arch stands 32 metres long and 13 metres high, with three wide arched openings. It was named after a nearby temple to Mars. The arch has many highly detailed carvings on its exterior and on the ceilings of its three passageways, including Romulus and Remus, farm workers, and Leda and the swan.

Local folklore says that the inhabitants of Reims built the arch in gratitude when the Romans brought major roads through their city. It became part of the castle of the archbishops in 1228, which was destroyed in 1595, leaving the arch, with the openings blocked, part of the city walls. Rediscovered in 1667, it was not fully revealed until the dismantling of the city walls in 1844-54. (source)

When we discovered La Porte de Mars, on our way to dinner, we paused to take some photos and to google a bit of history. But our stomachs were driving the bus to:

Brasserie le Boulingrin

Our first night in Reims followed about 6 hours of driving. We selected some classic French comfort food. La Brasserie le Boulingrin has been serving classics since 1925 in an Art Deco interior.

Restaurant Le Foch

For our second evening, we selected a fine-dining restaurant. A culinary couple started the restaurant in 1997. Everything from the welcome to the ambiance to the look, and importantly, the taste of these elegant dishes was superb.

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