Crack open a bottle of Champagne and its fizzes over with joy – as does the Champagne-Ardennes’ former capital Reims, whose attractions will delight even the most culture-hungry visitor. But what lies behind the historic façades? Here are nine facts about the city that may well surprise.
Reims is less than four hours by train
Hop onto Eurostar at London St Pancras and you’ll be clinking Champagne flutes in just over four hours. A swift check-in at London St Pancras (allow 30 minutes), and 2.5 hours by train and you will arrive at Paris Gare du Nord (2.5 hours) not long after you’ve finished your croque monsieur. Trains to Reims go from Paris Est railway station, an easy 10-minute walk from Gare du Nord. From there, the high-speed double-decker Paris to Strasbourg train will take you 89 miles east to Reims in just 48 minutes Zut alors!
Women rule in Champagne
Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot took over the running of the Veuve Clicquot champagne house on the outskirts of Reims in 1805, becoming one of the first business women in the world. In 1813, Veuve Clicquot produced 1,000 bottles. Today, 100 million bottles are stored in its crayeres (caves) and underground tunnels.
Thick white limestone walls maintain an ideal temperature and constant humidity. Take a guided tour through the labyrinth of crayeres with their 100 chimneys and ornate wall carvings paying homage to the grape and “la grande dame de la Champagne”. There’s a welcome glass of bubbly at the end of the 1.5 hour tour (Tues-Sat €25 euros per person).
At roughly the same time, Madame Jeanne Pommery took over her family’s wine estate in 1858, developing the label into a luxury brand and setting up the first pension fund and social security system for her employees.
Pommery tours operate daily from 9.30am to 7pm early April to mid-November; 10am-6pm winter.
.. and its cellars provide refuge in war time
Extensive shelling of the city by the Germans during World War 1 forced the city’s inhabitants to flee to the city’s 75-mile network of champagne cellars, where they lived underground for months at a time.
Six restaurants have Michelin stars
Some cities struggle to offer one Michelin-starred restaurant but Reims boasts six with the coveted accolade – the most per head of population of any French city. Racine, a gastronomic Japanese-influenced French restaurant in the heart of Reims, has one Michelin star and is the latest to be awarded the accolade. It joins Amaud Lallement’s L’Assiette Champenoise with three stars, Philippe Mille’s Les Crayeres (two stars) and Le Foch and Le Millenaire (one star each).
Off with their heads – Cathedral statues are copies
They may look like the real thing, but if you want to see the Cathedral’s original stone statues, head to museum at the Palais du Tau next door. The 14th century statues were placed here during restoration of the cathedral after it was extensively bombed during the First World War. Many lost their heads after a cannonball was shot onto the steps of the cathedral in 1914 and were too weak to move back to the cathedral.
Unsurprisingly, Goliath, which was situated above the large rose window on the west facade, is the largest statue, at 5.4 metres tall. You’ll see huge gargoyles, too, their mouths filled with lead from when the cathedral’s Gothic roof burned and ‘molten rivers of lead came cascading down’.
The largest Treasury in France
The royal treasury, housed at the Palais du Tau, is one of the largest in France with iconic items such as Charlemagne’s talisman, the chalice of the Kings of France (only kings can drink from it), the collier de l’orders du Saint-Esprit (pictured above) and the nave of Saint Ursula. The Palatine chapel, reserved for the archbishop, dates from the first third of the 13th century.
Reims Cathedral – UNESCO first
This stunning Gothic masterpiece was one of the first monuments to be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and a tour around to its magnificent stained-glass windows will demonstrate why. All the kings of France were crowned at Notre-Dame Reims Cathedral but the festivities took place next door in the Palais du Tau’s stunning banquet hall (1500), built in the shape of an inverted ship’s hull.
Art Deco abounds
Widespread reconstruction of the city in the 1920s, after it suffered extensive bombing during the First World War, means there are lots of examples of Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture. Notable examples include the Carnegie library, Saint-Nicaise Church, the interior of the Opera House and the Café du Palais.
Family cafe and quirky art
The Café du Palais, founded in 1930, is an absolute delight, particularly the Art Deco glass roof designed by Jacques Simon and the quirky artefacts. Admire the fancy memorabilia, glass chandeliers, sculptures and artworks by Luc Simon, Florence Kutten and Christian Lapie, over a chilled glass of champagne – what else? The café has been in the same family for 70 years and is now run by Isabelle and Jean-Francois Vogt, the fourth generation.
Americans fund city restoration
The fine example of Gothic architecture that you see at Reims Notre-Dame Cathedral today is thanks to the generosity of American billionaire John D Rockefeller, who funded its restoration after World War I. Rockefeller was not the only American to fund the city’s restoration. Andrew Carnegie donated a large library and a hospital was built with American funding and named the White House.