Reims, France: Home of Champagne bubbles with history, architecture and scenery
By PEGGY SIJSWERDA | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: February 19, 2015
In a forest near France’s Champagne region, my husband and I biked underneath tall trees past meadows and streams. It’s hard to believe a hundred years ago these trees were broken and burned, scarred by the relentless bombing of World War I.
Our visit to Reims and the Champagne region of France, about 90 minutes east of Paris, coincided with the start of WWI’s centennial. We had come here to learn about Champagne and experience the region’s beauty, yet we found ourselves being pulled backward into the past — easy to do in Europe, where past and present dance like bubbles in a bottle of fine sparkling wine.
Reims is known for its magnificent cathedral, Notre Dame de Reims (Our Lady of Reims), but Peter and I decided to explore the surrounding countryside first. South of the city, a regional park — Reims Mountain Nature Reserve — spreads out like a picnic blanket across sloping hillsides. Encompassing 68 villages amid forests, meadows and vineyards, the park was created to educate visitors about the region’s natural and cultural heritage.
In prehistoric times, wild grapes grew on the hillsides, providing fruit to hunters and gatherers. The Celts, who invaded the region about 450 BC, introduced the art of fermentation, but Dom Perignon, an 18th-century monk, is credited with creating the sparkling spirit that’s synonymous with the region. Today the Champagne region includes 115 square miles of vineyards that must meet strict conditions before receiving the coveted Champagne designation.
After stopping at the park’s visitor center, we drove east to the city of Verzenay, where a landlocked lighthouse, Le Phare de Verzenay, has been transformed into a Champagne museum. At the top of the lighthouse — a 99-step climb — we enjoyed 360-degree views of the surrounding vineyards.
The region’s chalky soil, which produces the dry, mineral flavor characteristic of Champagne, also has a curious effect on a type of dwarf beech tree that grows nearby. A sign pointed us to a national forest, where these twisty, gnarly trees — les Faux de Verzy — grow. According to local legend, fairies and trolls caused the trunks and branches of these trees to grow in such an odd fashion.
We stayed about an hour from Reims at a bungalow park called Lac d’Ailette, part of the Center Parcs chain. We love these furnished bungalows, nestled in parklike surroundings.
The next morning we headed into Reims and joined a tour of one of the largest Champagne houses, Vranken-Pommery, managed in its early years by Madame Pommery, widow of the founder. She took huge risks after her husband’s death, purchasing 12 ancient chalk pits connected by 12 miles of tunnels. Her gamble paid off. Today the cellars, decorated with amazing sculptures and art installations, contain 20 million bottles of Champagne.
Pommery, our guide tells us, considered the process of making Champagne an art, a belief that dovetailed perfectly with her commitment to patronizing the arts. At the end of the tour, Peter and I tasted two of Pommery’s seasonally branded Champagnes: Autumn and Winter, the former a bit sweeter and the latter more robust.
Having sampled the region’s famous beverage, we moved on to its other famous attraction, Notre Dame de Reims. The cathedral was built in the 13th century on the spot where France’s first king, Clovis, was baptized in 498. His conversion to Christianity marked France’s beginning as a Christian kingdom.
“It’s the birthplace of France,” said our guide, André La Coz.
At the entrance to the cathedral, La Coz pointed out a statue of a smiling angel, which became a symbol of the city when the cathedral was rebuilt after it was nearly destroyed during WWI. Today, Notre Dame is a magnificent monument; its gorgeous stained glass windows have many stories to tell. La Coz showed us one commissioned by the large Champagne houses, which reveals the steps involved in making Champagne. My favorite was a trio of windows by Marc Chagall depicting Christ’s crucifixion in haunting shades of blue.
Other highlights of the city include its art deco architecture. Since much of the city was destroyed in WWI, the rebuilding coincided with the period of art deco’s popularity. For example, the Carnegie Library of Reims, named after Andrew Carnegie, features classic art deco details — geometric shapes, wavy lines and zigzag patterns — both inside and out. The U.S. gave generously toward the rebuilding of Reims, and the city remains grateful to this day, La Coz said.
That evening we dined at Brasserie Flo, situated at the end of Reims’ pedestrian shopping street. It’s a celebration of French gastronomy from start to finish.
We began with French oysters on the half shell, followed by foie gras and toast points served with peach chutney. We ate slowly, watching the ballet of servers tend to nearby tables. For our main courses, I chose duck breast and Peter selected Chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce, each accompanied by potatoes and seasonal vegetables. My pick of the tempting desserts: Reims’ signature pink biscuits with strawberry sorbet. Peter opted for the Royal Rum Baba with vanilla ice cream. Both made us very happy.
Storm clouds gathered outside as we ate, and a drenching rain fell across Reims. The sparkling raindrops reminded us what we came here for — to learn about Champagne — but as often happens when we travel, we’d discovered so much more.
Where to stay
• Center Parcs’ Lac d’Ailette: 1 Parc Nautique de L’Ailette, 02860 Chamouille; www.centerparcs.com. Rates vary by season from 299 euros for four nights in low season to 900 euros for four nights in high season for a four-person “Comfort Cottage” bungalow.
• Hotel Azur: 9 Rue des Ecrevées, 51100 Reims; www.hotel-azur-reims.com. Affordable accommodations in Reims’ city center. Rates start at 69 euros per night for a double room.
Where to eat
• Brasserie Flo: 96 Place Drouet d’Erlon, 51100 Reims; www.floreims.com. Three-course meal starts at 28.50 euros.
• Le Cafe du Palais: 14 Place Myron Herrick, 51100 Reims; www.cafedupalais.fr. Cozy cafe with simple, tasty fare and eclectic art deco décor. Prices average 22 euros per entree.
What to do
• Reims Mountain Nature Reserve Visitors Center: Chemin de Nanteuil, 51480 Pourcy;
www.parc-montagnedereims.fr. No admission charge.
• Reims Cathedral Tour: Place du Cardinal Luçon, 51100 Reims; www.cathedrale-reims.com. No admission charge. Tours can be booked via the Reims tourist office (see below): adults 8 euros, 4.50 euros children ages 12-18.
• Le Phare de Verzenay Museum & Lighthouse: 51360 Verzenay; www.lepharedeverzenay.com. Admission for both museum and lighthouse is 9 euros for adults and 5 euros for children ages 6-16; children under 6 enter free.
• Vranken-Pommery Champagne House: 5 Place du General Gouraud, 51100 Reims; www.vrankenpommery.com/en. Admission: 13 euros for adults, including one tasting; 7 euros for children ages 10-18; children under 10 enter free.