France: Of kings and champagne
Twenty-five French kings were crowned in Reims. These crowned heads included Charles VII with Joan of Arc at his side in 1429.
The city’s cathedral, a gothic confection built between the 13th and 15th centuries, was the setting for 19 of those coronations; a stone on its floor identifies its site as the place were Clovis, the founder of the original Frankish kingdom, was baptized around 500 A.D.
For a wildly different distinction, Reims also is where the Germans signed papers surrendering unconditionally to end World War II in Europe.
On my most recent visit to Paris this October, I settled on Reims for a day trip from the French capital. It had the history, which promised several touristic attracts of interest, and it was close enough to manage easily in a day.
Reims is in the Champagne wine region, which means, naturally, wine tours and tastings featuring champagne. Pursuing this seriously would require more than a day trip (in my opinion anyway). There are tastings options in Reims itself, too, but given I don’t care for champagne, I did not take time for that.
My journey began and ended on trains out of and back to Gare de l’Est in Paris, aboard the high-speed TGV, producing trips of about 45 minutes each. There are other considerably cheaper options, but they take longer and can involve train changes.
The Reims city center is a short walk from the train station, and station personnel, upon request, will provide a city map that usefully indicates a walking route for visitors. I relied on it.
A couple of attractions are Roman, the Mars Gate, a triumphal arch from around 200 A.D., plus a cryptoporticus, or underground passageway, dating from the third century. The underground space is open to visitors in summer, which means I did not see it.
What I did see was a gorgeous city hall, pretty town squares (especially Place Royale), plus a few houses dating from the 13th and later centuries that are now museums. Two houses were described on plaques as middle class homes, but looked to me to be several cuts above that, certainly by the standards of the relevant time period.
I would have enjoyed visits, but with only a few hours and sun-drenched autumn scenes outdoors, I reserved my indoor sightseeing for the cathedral, an attached museum (former bishop’s palace) and the older St. Remi Basilica, which dates from the 11th century.
The cathedral, an outstanding example of gothic architecture, doesn’t look like a building that was in ruins at the end of World War I; its restoration was hugely aided by Rockefeller Foundation contributions. It is notable for the countless sculptures on the exterior and for its rose windows, best seen from the sanctuary on a sunny day in the late afternoon. I studied those windows, watching their vivid reds and blues, which seemed alive in the way of kaleidoscopes.
The cathedral was undergoing some maintenance including cleaning. There was a barricade blocking views of the facade, but fortunately, only around the central of three big doors, something that could be cropped out of most photos. Also, there was lots of scaffolding and shrouding at the back of the cathedral.
Parts of the front are newly cleaned and parts still quite dark, which produced an odd effect.
Not wanting to dawdle over a long lunch, I settled into the square that fronts the cathedral with an ice cream cone in hand, a supremely relaxing way to enjoy the cathedral’s grandeur, the lusciously colored autumn leaves and the perfect weather.
Loitering in a great environment is restorative, but I wanted to see the St. Remi Basilica, which once served an attached and still-standing abbey, now a museum. Among other things, the basilica is known for the tomb of St. Remi (or St. Remigius), the man credited with bringing the Frankish king, Clovis, to Christianity. Much of the basilica also was reconstructed after World War I.
In some ways, the basilica’s collection of stained-glass windows, including those from the 12th century, is more striking than the group at the cathedral. The collection boasts modern examples, too.
From here, my strolls were pointed toward the train station, but I wasn’t leaving just yet. I was surprised to pass by a Carnegie library, a quite pretty circular building located behind the cathedral.
I had to see the cathedral’s windows again (the late-day light yielded more vivid colors) and eat a second ice cream cone (what’s better than one cone? make that two).
And, now it was time for a drop by at the former bishop’s residence, Tau Palace, to look at the cathedral’s treasury, several historic tapestries and some of the cathedral’s original statuary, now protected indoors.
Finally, time ran out, but somehow I had overlooked a rather obvious statue of the mounted Joan of Arc. Maybe I could use that as my excuse to return — as if I needed one.
This blog and photos are by Nadine Godwin, BestTripChoices.com editorial director and contributor to the trade newspaper, Travel Weekly. She also is the author of “Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia.”