Reims, France

We spent the long Labor Day weekend in Reims, France.   Reims is one of the centers of the Champagne region. Although the term “champagne” is often used to generically describe sparkling wine, legally only sparkling wine made from grapes from the Champagne region of France can be called champagne.  Sparkling wine made from grapes from other areas have to be called something else.  For example, in Germany it’s called Sekt, in Spain it’s called Cava and in Italy it’s called Prosecco.

We arrived in Reims at about 9:00 p.m. on the Thursday before Labor Day and started our sightseeing Friday morning.  As we started our walk to the city center, we passed a park that had this “La Résistance” monument.   The French are very proud of their resistance movements from World War II and we’ve seen monuments to it everywhere we’ve been in France.

Not far from the monument is the Mars Gate, part of the old Roman city walls dating from around the 3rd century.  There were once 4 gates built into the walls and this is the only one left, having escaped being damaged in World War I.  The rest of Reims was heavily damaged during that war.

We ran into this kitty on a leash on our walk.  We’ve tried walking our oldest kitty on a leash but she doesn’t really get the concept.  She ends up flopping on her side and just being dragged along like the cat in this video.

Arriving in the center of town, we were greeted by the Sube Fountain in Place d’Erlon. There are four statues at the base of the fountain that are supposed to represent the four rivers in the area.  However, the fountain has not had running water since World War II.  The victory statue on top was taken by the Germans during World War II and it was replaced in 1989.

We seem to run across a lot of weddings in our travels and this trip was no exception.  This bride and groom were riding the carousel while being photographed.

As we made our way to the cathedral, one of the main attractions in Reims, we saw this statue of Joan of Arc.  This is another thing in which the French take pride as Joan of Arc was French.  You see statues of her all over France.  Joan’s mission in life was to see Charles VII crowned as King of France and to get France freed from English rule.  Charles VII was crowned King of France in 1429 in Reims, so both he and Joan are important figures in the city.

And here is the cathedral, called Notre-Dame de Reims or Our Lady of Reims.  Be prepared to see more photos of it later.  It was pretty amazing.  The cathedral was originally built starting in the year 1211. As you just read, Charles VII was crowned here, as were 25 other kings of France.  The very first French king, Clovis, was baptized here.  The last French king, Charles X, was crowned here in 1825. It was badly damaged during World War I in 1914 and was reconstructed thanks to money donated from the Rockefeller family.  It luckily was not destroyed again during World War II. 

This stunningly beautiful stained glass rose window, dating from 1255, was removed before the cathedral was damaged in World War I.  It was preserved and reinstalled later.

This is part of a stained glass panel in the cathedral showing scenes of champagne-making.  If you look closely you can see people stomping on grapes.

After visiting the cathedral it was time for lunch.  Of course one must have French fries while in France, oui?

This interesting building was covered in greenery.

And naturally you can’t go anywhere in France without seeing Gérard Depardieu, even though he now apparently has both Russian and Belgian citizenship.

Later that afternoon we toured our first champagne house, Veuve Clicquot.  We ended up doing tours of three different champagne houses and this one was definitely the best.  At the start of the tour, the guide asked if anyone knew the meaning of the French word “veuve”.  Luckily I had read up on Veuve Clicquot before our trip and had told Sean what the word meant.  So, he gave the correct answer of “widow” and got a gold star.  OK, he didn’t really get a gold star but it was the correct answer.  Philippe Clicquot-Muiron founded a champagne house in 1772. His son, François married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin.  She became the Widow Clicquot when François died 7 years later and she basically took over the company.  She turned out to be quite an innovator and businesswoman and made the champagne brand extremely successful.

Here is Sean at the tasting after the tour.

The next day we visited another church, the Abbey of Saint Remi.  You may remember Clovis, the first French King, from earlier in the blog.  Well, the dude who baptized Clovis was Saint Remi, after whom this church is named.  Saint Remi is also buried in this church.

In this photo you can see the use of the flying buttress.  In the old days, church walls that had a lot of stained glass were not strong enough to hold up the heavy roof.  The purpose of putting the flying buttress outside was to move the weight of the roof off the walls.  The buttresses at this church date from around 1170 and are the oldest original flying buttresses in the world.  Pretty impressive, huh?

After visiting the Abbey, we moved on to more secular activities and took a drive on the Route Touristique du Champagne or the Champagne Route.

Here you can see some vineyards with champagne grapes.  By the way, all French champagne is made from only 3 grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Chardonnary is a white grape that produces white juice.  The other two are red grapes that produce white juice. 

And here’s a closeup of a grape vine.  The harvesting starts around this time of year (September).

The slopes on which the grapes are grown are very chalky, as you can see in this photo.  When you tour the champagne houses, they take you through their underground cellars which all have chalk walls.  Each of the 3 houses we visited said they have a few million bottles of champagne stored underground, so I can’t imagine how many bottles total are stored under the streets of Reims.

As you’re going through the vineyards, you see markers like this to show which house is growing the grapes.  For example, this vineyard belongs to Veuve Clicquot.

We stopped in the town of Aÿ.  Unfortunately France pretty much shuts down between noon and 2:00 or so, and that’s the time we were in town. So, although we weren’t able to visit any champagne houses in this town, we still had a nice stroll around the cute little town.  This is their city hall.

You can see in this photo that it was like a ghost town here because of everything being closed for their 2-hour lunch.  You can also see the World War I monument on the right-hand side of the photo.  This entire area of France is just covered with World War I monuments.

A French chat hangin’ out on the roof!  We named him Henri but he didn’t pay much attention to us.

The house you see with the red shutters contained the personal wine press of Henry IV. 

This is the Saint Brice church, which dates from the 15th century.  It too was closed while we were in town so we couldn’t see the interior, but the exterior was beautiful.

We continued our drive and stopped in the town of Hautvillers, which means “high village”.  Imagine my surprise when I saw this sign for the Riesling wine road in Germany.  The town of Kiedrich, mentioned on this sign, is less than a 30-minute drive from where we live in Germany.

Sean had commented earlier in the day that they must have tractors that straddle the grape vines in order to plow between the rows of grapes.  We later saw these tractors so as you can see, Sean was correct.

Here is a little town square in Hautvillers.  Also kind of a ghost town due to it being lunchtime, but that was OK because we were there for a specific reason, which will be revealed to you in a moment.

Here we are on Rue Dom Perignon.  The reason we stopped in Hautvillers was to visit his burial site.  Dom Perignon was a monk at the abbey of Hautvillers starting in 1668.  He was their cellar master until his death in 1715.  Although he did not invent champagne as is sometimes stated, he did make improvements in its production. 

We had stopped in the Tourist Information office in Hautvillers before heading out to see Dom Perignon.  The guy in the office gave us a map, showed us where Dom Perignon’s burial site was and told us about the tin signs that are all over town.  Here’s an example of one of them.

And here is the famous burial site of Dom Perignon.

In the same church where Dom Perignon is buried, you can see the relics of Saint Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.  Helena supposedly found the relics of the True Cross, the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity.

This is a building in Hautvillers.  On it you will see the words “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité “ and you see these words all over France.  That’s because it’s the national motto of France and it means “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.

Heading out of Hautvillers, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the Marne river.

We then headed into the town of Epernay, home of Moët & Chandon, producers of Dom Perignon champagne.  One thing I learned here is that Moët is not pronounced “Mow-ay” as I’d previously thought and as it is commonly mispronounced.  This champagne house was founded by Claude Moët.  Although he was French, his last name was Dutch and is pronounced “Mow-ett”.

Here is Sean outside the Moët & Chandon building, standing with the statue of Dom Perignon.

Beautiful grounds across the street from the Moët & Chandon building.

Of all the times I’ve been in France, I’d never bought a loaf of French bread there until now.  Also picked up some French cheese and some champagne to enjoy in the hotel room after a day of touring.  Don’t I look French now, surrounded by all that Frenchness?

The next day we started off with a tour of the Taittinger champagne house.  Here’s a few of their millions of bottle that are stored underground in the chalk caves.

And here I am tasting the Taittinger champagne after the tour.

A little side story.  We drove from the hotel to Taittinger.  We were a bit early for the tour so we were just sitting in the car in parking lot.  Into the parking lot rolls a Bentley with a couple in it who were probably in their 70s.  (If you’re not familiar with Bentley cars, a new one will set you back approximately $200,000.) They got out of the car, went inside and came out just a few minutes later with their purchase of several bottles of champagne.  I guess when one drives a Bentley one knows exactly what kind of champagne one wants and doesn’t need to take no stinkin’ tour to do a tasting to decide whether one likes it or not.

In the afternoon, we did our final champagne house tour and that one was at Mumm.  I liked the little tray with the champagne glass holder that they gave us at the tasting. The little cookies you see on the tray are called “Biscuits Roses” and you’re supposed to dunk them in your champagne before you bite into them.  Almost as good as cookies and milk.

This building was only a block or so away from our hotel and we visited it after the tour of Mumm.  It used to be a school is now the Museum of the Surrender and is where the Germans signed the document to surrender their forces to the Allies to end World War II.  Prior to this trip I didn’t know this.  The document was signed on May 7, 1945.  However, it wasn’t announced until the following day and so V-E (Victory in Europe) Day is often celebrated on May 8th

We watched a short film of the events while we were at the museum.  When they showed German General Alfred Jodl being asked if he would sign the document and surrender unconditionally and he gave a little nod, I oddly enough ALMOST felt a little sorry for him.  Here’s a guy who was acting as a representative for German President Karl Dönitz.  Dönitz had been thrust in charge less than a week after Hitler and Goebbels both committed suicide and Hitler had dismissed Göring and Himmler in his will.  He probably really believed his whole life that he belonged to a superior race and that Germany was going to rule the world, and then in one week his key leaders are dead and he realizes there is no hope of his country winning the war.  No matter how wrong this was, I just can’t imagine how he felt having to be the one who surrendered an entire country.  I mean how do you sell THAT to your followers?  Any inkling of sympathy I had for him, though, was lost when he asked that the Allies treat the Germans kindly.  Uh yeah, ok, because you were so known for your kind treatment of your prisoners, right?  My misplaced, short-lived sympathy is gone now.

Here is the table at which the surrender was signed, in the room where it took place.

That evening we walked into town to see a light show at the cathedral.  If you read my blog on Nancy, France and read about the light show that takes place there, this was something very similar although on a smaller scale.  Before the light show started, we walked around the area a bit and saw this public library, which was built with money donated by Andrew Carnegie after World War I.

Here’s a photo of the cathedral all lit up just prior to the start of the light show.  It looked beautiful.

And here’s what the cathedral looked like at one point during the light show.  Every little nook cranny and statue on the church, even the tiny statues with broken-off heads, were lit up in different colors.  This is all done by light projected onto the cathedral so it has to be lined up exactly.  It’s pretty amazing to see.  If you click here

you can see a video of part of the show.  You can skip ahead to watch the last 2 minutes of the video as those are the best.  The rest of it can be a little slow to watch on video vs. seeing it in person.  (This isn’t my video; just found it on YouTube.  Also, the music you hear in the video was not added.  It’s what you actually here when you’re watching the show live.)

The show is actually run twice nightly.  In between the two shows, they leave the cathedral lit up so you can go and take close-up photos, so here’s one of some of the statues.  You can’t make out this level of detail when you see the cathedral in its unlit state.

Last photo of Reims.  On our way out of town the next morning, we stopped to take a look at this house.  This is where General Dwight D. Eisenhower lived for a few months at the end of World War II. 

On our way back to Germany, we stopped and visited a couple of World War I sights and those will be covered in the next blog.  Hope you enjoyed your photo tour of Reims!

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