We spent three days last week with Mary and Gilles on a ramble that centered on the town of Reims. The reason for the funny title is that the French pronounce Reims as “Rance.” I don’t know why; an example of the crazy French language. I should point out that I live in the Northwest part of the U.S., where Sequim is pronounced “skwim” and Yachats is pronounced “ya-hots” and Puyallup is pronounced a dozen different ways, so I don’t think the French have anything on us in the pronunciation arena.
Anyway, Reims was a fascinating place. It is the biggest city by far in the Champagne region, and has become a rich city on champagne. During World War I (“the Great War” or “The War to End All Wars” but more accurately “The War That Made World War II Inevitable”), Reims was just a few miles from the German/Allied front lines. The German army bombarded Reims every day for four years, leaving over 80% of the city’s buildings uninhabitable when the armistice was signed. This means that there are few really old buildings in Reims, though the Cathedral survived with major damage and has been restored to its original appearance.
For us, Reims falls into a category we’ve assigned many places to: “Cities We Want to See Again.”
World War I Museum
This area of France was the front of World War I for almost four years. Most towns and cities were devastated by the war. In Meaux (pronounced “Mo,” as you expected), France has created a beautiful museum dedicated to WW I. It’s pretty powerful.
We bought a package at the Office of Tourisme that included an audio guide with two walking tours and a visit to one of the champagne houses situated in Reims. First tour: the Reims Cathedral.
All French kings, starting with Clovis in 496, were crowned at the site of the Reims Cathedral. The cathedral itself was built in the 1200s, when Gothic was the style and so this cathedral is pure Gothic. It is really known for its stained-glass windows.
The cathedral was less than five miles from the German front during World War I; saying that its towers could be used by French troops for observing German activity, the Germans shelled the Cathedral nearly every day for four years. The structure remained (a testimony to the strength of Gothic architecture), but the roof was gone, much of the stained-glass destroyed (some had been removed for safe-keeping) and both the interior and exterior were badly damaged. Restoration started immediately after the war and today the Cathedral is much as it was pre-war, with the exception of some new stained-glass windows.
Art Deco in Reims
World War I devastated Reims. Like the cathedral, German guns shelled and German planes bombed the city nearly every day for four years. At war’s end, 83% of the city’s buildings were uninhabitable. The city was rebuilt almost completely, and quickly.
Now this rebuilding had a benefit for those of us who like and appreciate Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings. Because these styles were still popular post-WW I, many of the new and rebuilt buildings in Reims have touches of these styles. Our second walking tour was to see some of these buildings.
An Art Deco Library (Laurie loved it)
Other Art Deco
Our audio guide purchase included a visit at a Champagne house. We chose Taittinger, a premium producer. The tour included a walk-through of the cellars and a taste of their champagne, which was very nice indeed.
Many champagne producers chose Reims as their headquarters for production because, before champagne came along, the city had provided tons and tons of sandstone for buildings throughout France. That meant miles of caves, all at a constant temperature (53F/12C) and humidity. The tour went 120 feet below ground into the caves. This particular cave, about a third the size of Taittinger’s main cave a mile away, holds about 3 million bottles of champagne. The region produces some 350 million bottles per year. That’s a lot of bubbly.
A picture of our friends Mary & Gilles Germain. The best traveling companions.
That’s it for Reims. As I said at the beginning, it’s another city we want to re-visit; I think we saw about one-quarter of the interesting sights here.
And, by the way, we had fabulous meals here. At an Italian restaurant, canneloni stuffed with shredded duck. A lamb dish that was among the best ever. We’d come back for the restaurants.