The Champagne region of France was mostly rural, with lots of open land and vineyards eagerly producing the region's signature bubbly. Urbania was limited to just a couple cities, but those cities were extraordinary. Indeed, few of France's northern cities compared to Reims, an architect's dream and a wine shopper's paradise.
I was inspired to visit Reims based on several strong recommendations from acquaintances who loved old architecture. As Reims had several on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, there was plenty of beautiful and important old buildings to see. For example, the first photo shows the Place du Hotel de Ville (town hall plaza) with a massive statue of King Louis XV in the center and the famous Reims Cathedrale standing above it in the background. Considering that Reims took a bit of a pounding during the two World Wars, many of her greatest structures survived pretty well. What was fascinating to see, however, were the numbers of buildings that didn't survive and were rebuilt in half, like a duplex house with one side sheared off and the opening covered with a flat brick wall. Some were refashioned as a half-old/half-new hybrid. Several private manors that were not restored showed plenty of scars.
I worked my journey in a loop from the train station at the north part of town, to the west along the Marne canal, to the Cathedral in the center of town, south to the Basilica, then north and east through the city's administrative district. Reims has several walking paths that were well-marked, and the free tourist maps were very good.
The train station faced a long park that stretched about a kilometer across in between two major boulevards. There was a lot to see at the east end such as the Place de la Republique, a huge roundabout with a curious egg-shell sculpture in the center of it. Surrounding this roundabout were several landmarks such as a marvelous World War I Memorial with a massive cemetary behind it; the Gate of Mars, a three-arched roman ruin; and a large covered marketplace that was active every Wednesday and Saturday. When I got there, the Saturday market was just in the process of shutting down (it closed at two PM). The western end had its own share of attractions. There was a huge metal gate,painted dark blue and with gold trim, that stood alone in the middle of a park, probably to mark the old fence line of private property or a palace garden. The brand new Cirque and Ménage, a theater and art house, were behind it. The monstrous conference center Reims Champagne Congrés, shown in the second photo, was perched over a canal drawn off the Aisne and Marne Rivers, the primary waterways in town.
The first district I visited in depth was the Place Drouet d'Erlon with its lovely column celebrating Champagne's four major rivers. This place is shown in the third photograph. As the far left of the photo suggested, this plaza was quite long (about a half-mile, I figured) and was lined on both sides with brasseries and restaurants. I had lunch in a brewery there and the food and drink were outstanding. Plenty of different menu and budget options were available.
This was also the heart of the shopping district, extending several blocks toward the center of the city. Reims had numerous gallerias and large department stores, much of it catering to a sophisticated clientele. The Rue de Vesle was the main east-west street, and it took me across the Grand Theater to Reims' main attraction, the Cathedral.
The Cathedral was more than a single church, it was a complex of structures. The fourth photo shows the front of the Cathedral in the background with the Palais de Tau in front. The Palais was once the archbishop's palace but in modern times served as the Cathedral's museum. On the opposite side of the Cathedral was what appeared to be the rectory, fronted by a statue of Joan of Arc. Like many of France's cathedrals, the one in Reims was immense but spartan, an imposing concrete structure decorated only with simple sculptures using little color. The chapels around the nave were all very interesting, each depicting one of the regional saints. Signs in multiple languages were posted all around to accommodate tourists.
Another structure worthy of note was the Office de Tourisme, located right outside the Cathedral. It occupied an unrestored bombed-out chapel. The city converted the floor of the former chapel into the ceiling of the Office, so the majority of it was underground, leaving the ruined walls exposed above. Different.
The Cathedral may have been great, but I was more impressed by the smaller St. Remi Basilica, shown in the fifth photo. Located on high ground in the south, St. Remi was unusually decorative inside, with a massive sepulchrum behind the altar and a huge concrete tomb. The significance of this basilica was that St. Remi was the one who baptized Clovis, a Frankish barbarian, in the 5th century as Christianity originally spread across Europe. A memorial to that event was located on the church grounds across from the nave.
After leaving the Basilica, I worked my way back north past the Cathedral to the Place du Forum, that contained some of Reims' best residential architecture, to the Place du Hotel de Ville from the first photo. Along the way, I encountered the Gallo-roman crypto-portico, an archaeological Roman dig located in the middle of the city.
As the largest city in Champagne, it should not be surprising that Reims had plenty of champagne houses. Indeed the tourist map identified eleven, and I walked by a couple of them. They looked like small palaces, with signs posted indicating tastings being held at set points during the year. They were also heavily guarded, so I did not take photos of them.
Reims was fantastic. Lots to see and do, even during a cold day in March. I could just imagine how fabulous it would have been in summer.
Trip taken 1 March 2003 -- Page Last Updated 05 October 2006 -- (C) 2003 Tom Galvin