(Wine) Weekending: Reims in Champagne
Surrounded by vineyards and wineries, Reims is the unofficial ‘capital’ city of France’s Champagne region. Champagne is all around you in this city – from the grand buildings of the famous Champagne houses to the drinkers packing the pavement bars and cafés along the main pedestrian street, Place Drouet d’Erlon. It’s even below you too, as there are miles of tunnels dating back as far as Roman times carved into the chalk rocks beneath the city. At about 11°C the temperature down there is perfect for storing fermenting Champagne so there are thousands of bottles stacked up underground. As you’d expect from a city dedicated to the most luxurious of drinks, Reims has plenty of smart hotels, restaurants and shops, but it’s not just a place for the super-rich and not all of the city’s attractions come in a bottle.
Reims’ Notre-Dame Cathedral (similar in name and style to its Parisian counterpart) towers over the centre of the city. This Catholic cathedral was built on the site of an original wooden church which burnt down, and the current building has had to withstand the onslaught of wars, bombings and sieges over the years. It was where the Kings of France were crowned for 1000 years and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Gothic architecture, ornate statues – with over 2300 of them altogether – and stained glass. The stained glass windows date from all eras, as far back as the 13th century to as recent as last year, when six new ones were commissioned as part of the cathedral’s 800-year-anniversary celebrations. Next door to the cathedral is the Palace de Tau, a former Archbishop’s palace where the Kings of France stayed before their coronation. It’s now a museum with statues and tapestries from the cathedral on display (entry costs €7.50), and it has a lovely shady terrace restaurant (see below).
Other non-Champagne-related attractions in Reims include the Porte Mars, a third-century Roman arch. Back then it was the widest arch in the Roman World and was used as a city gate, but now the buildings around it have been removed and it stands in a parkland area running along the north of the city. There’s also a couple of good museums – the Musée des Beaux-Arts fine art museum and the Musée de la Reddition, an old school room where the Germans signed an unconditional surrender to mark the end of the Second World War in 1945. Or if you’re there in the summer, the city is a great place to just wander around and check out some of the Art Deco architecture or stop off in one of the pavement cafés. And in winter the Place Drouet d’Erlon holds a big Christmas market, with wooden chalet stalls and carol singers.
But who are we kidding, it’s all about the Champagne really. If you don’t want to go far, the easiest Champagne houses to visit are the big three within walking distance of the city centre – Mumm, which is near the train station, and Taittinger and Pommery, which are to the south of the city. All three of them run tours of their cellars and tastings without an appointment (cost is normally around €10). Many of the other Champagne houses also offer tours and tastings by appointment – it’s a good idea to check at the tourist office to see which are open that day and they can book you in. Or if you want to go further afield, then you can take a tour out into the Champagne countryside to get out and see more of the area.
Getting there… The nearest airport is in Paris, with flights from across the UK (including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh) and around the world. From central Paris it’s a 45-minute train journey to Reims. Or you can take the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord (2 hours 15 mins), then it’s a five-minute walk to Paris Gare d’Est where the train to Reims departs from. Once you get to Reims, the city is easy to get around on foot.
Sleeping… The Best Western Hôtel de La Paix is just off the main pedestrian street and easily walkable to all Reims’ attractions. It’s modern and well-designed with comfy beds and smart bathrooms, as well as a courtyard garden and pool and gym (or check out their Champagne bar if that sounds too energetic). Rooms start from £110 a night. Or on a budget and right next to the train station is the Ibis Reims Centre. Rooms are pretty tiny but have all you need and with en suite doubles from £50 a night (room only) you can save plenty of money to spend on Champagne.
Eating and drinking… The Place Drouet d’Erlon is lined with bars spilling out on the pavement, any of which are a great spot for a glass of Champagne and a bit of people-watching. The quality of the restaurants varies though, but one of the nicest is the elegant Brasserie Flo at the top of the street. You can sit at under one of the cream umbrellas on the terrace or in the Art Deco dining room, and they do a great set menu of traditional French dishes as well as the best crème brûlée in Reims (and we tasted a few). Another good lunch spot is Le Sourire in the courtyard of the Palais du Tau, for tartines or salads with a glass of Champagne and a cathedral view. One of our best Reims food discoveries was the café gourmand – aka ‘greedy coffee’ – a coffee served with mini versions of desserts and pastries.