'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Reims (pronounced Rance not Reems), the City of Kings – and champagne – in the northeast of France does not always get the attention it deserves, with people preferring the buzz of Paris, or the charm of Strasbourg to the east, but this beautiful city has a lot more to offer than just its famous cathedral. Trust me, I’ve been living there for the past 10 months.
It is known as the City of Kings because the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims was the place where France’s kings have been coronated since 816. 33 kings were crowned there in total – the last one was Charles X in 1825.
Legend has it that Reims was founded by Remus, Romulus’s brother who founded ancient Rome. There are still traces of the Romans on the city; Mars Gate is the only remaining monumental gate built in the first part of the 3rd century.
During World War I, the cathedral and the Abbey of Saint-Remi was badly bombed by the Germans – receiving around 300 shells. Almost 80% of the city was destroyed – the most damaged out of all the large towns in France. If you visit the cathedral and the abbey (which contains Saint Remi’s tomb) there are photographs showing how they rebuilt both of these historical monuments.
At the end of World War II, Reims was the place where the German commander-in-chief signed the full German Surrender, which led to the end of the conflict. It was ratified in Berlin the next day on 8th May 1945, which is now known as Victory in Europe Day. Reims has therefore come to symbolise peace between France and Germany.
Of course one has to visit the famous cathedral – thrown into the spotlight recently following a large protest outside it when Marine Le Pen visited on the last day of the election campaign. Frequently referred to in architecture classes across Europe – it is one of the pinnacles of gothic architecture and in 1991 was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The stained glass windows are each a unique work of art, one of which was designed by the famous Russian-French artist, Marc Chagall. Make sure you catch the spectacular light show or Rêve de Couleurs, where colours, patterns and images are projected onto the cathedral’s façade to music.
Next door to the cathedral is the Palais du Tau, which is an impressive feat of architecture too. It used to be the palace of the Archbishop of Reims, but is now a museum which tells the story of the city. The most remarkable objects are Charlemagne’s talisman, from the 9th century, and Saint Remi’s chalice, from the 12th century, as well as the “holy flask”, which contains the holy oil that was used to anoint new kings during the coronation ceremony.
Also around the city you will find numerous art deco flourishes, as the city was so heavily damaged during World War I, the 1920’s was a time of intense reconstruction.
Reims hosts many cultural events throughout the year – suited to both young and old. One particularly popular event with students is Les Noces Félines, an electronic music festival held in the Palais du Tau, where previous acts such as Polo & Pan, Famonty and Another Pixel took to the stage.
Other festivities include; Reims Scène d’Europe, a program which showcases theatre, dance, art, and music; Reims Jazz Festival; and Les Fêtes Johanniques, a medieval festival which celebrates the coronation of Charles VII, when he was led to the cathedral by Joan of Arc in 1429.
The Musée des Beaux-arts houses a collection of objects seized during the French Revolution, as well as paintings from the 16th to 20th centuries, furniture and objets d’art. If you’re looking for something more modern, try FRAC Champagne-Ardenne which displays contemporary art from artists around the world.
From Taittinger to Mumm, Veuve Clicquot to Ruinart (the oldest champagne house in the world), this is the beating heart of the champagne industry. You can take a tour of the cellars, learn all about the history of the champagne house and the champagne-making process, and finish with a glass of bubbly.
Don’t forget to make a trip out of the city to see where the grapes are grown – the patchwork of vineyards that surround Reims is a beautiful sight. Epernay is a short drive away, and is also a key place in the champagne world – visit the Avenue de Champagne and gawp at the beautiful champagne houses, including Moët et Chandon, Mercier, and De Castellane.
Stroll through the maze of little wooden ‘chalet’ stalls in front of the cathedral with a warming cup of vin chaud. You will find stalls selling everything from regional delicacies, crafts, sweets, wine, jewellery and much more. If you’re lucky you can also catch the light show at the same time, which makes for a magical festive experience.
You may not have the diversity of choice found in Paris, but Reims certainly delivers on the food and drink front. One particularly special place is Le Cabasson – Estaminet, a café/pub with a rustic charm, friendly bar-tenders and great wine. Think old-school tunes playing, impromptu musical performances, and homemade tarts to die for, it’s no wonder that it’s usually packed with locals and students – also a good place for Sunday brunch.
For lunch, try En Apart Thé, where they have delicious quiches and a never-ending selection of teas, while Oma Coffee is the perfect place for a coffee and a muffin – and a friendly chat with Vera, the owner. For dinner, Duprat et Duprat is an intimate restaurant specialising in the creamiest cheese fondues. Like most French cities, there is a boulangerie around almost every corner, but La Cave à Pain makes the best buttery croissants.
Originally published on The Local France.