Even if you have never heard of Reims, you have no doubt heard of Champagne. What you might not know is that it is not only the name of the most glamorous (and deliciously addictive) drink around; it is also a region in France. But the region has a lot more to offer than just world-renowned champagne, though personally I think that is more than enough to elicit a visit. It is also home to one of France’s most exciting cities, Reims.
First of all, I must stress something of paramount importance. If you are going to visit (which shouldn’t really be a question) do not butcher the name. I myself have been guilty of this for the last decade that I have spent wanting to visit the city. Honestly, it was embarrassing. French is irrefutably the most graceful language in the world, and yet most people continue to anglicise French names. Look up a video or audio recording beforehand. If you cannot wrap your head around the pronunciation, well then I can say from experience that silence really is golden. This is after all a city ridiculously rich in culture and history! Elegance is a prerequisite.
Dating all the way back to the first century BC, the city was damaged heavily in World Wars I and II. But just as it has withstood everything over the past two thousand years, it survived. Though often forgotten outside of France, Reims has witnessed some of Europe’s most significant events. Most important perhaps was the first signing of the Instrument of Surrender by the Nazi German forces. The city witnessed the fall of the most devastating and threatening dictatorship of the twentieth century. Yet somehow it has managed for the most part to escape the tourism tsunami that descends on cities like Paris and Cannes every summer.
But not everyone is a history geek like myself so while I get giddy over the signing of important documents, everyone else goes wild for crêpes and croissants. Actually, that is a bit of a fib. Who am I kidding? Food takes up a considerable chunk of my daily thought process. So right now I cannot think of anything better than enjoying the sun at an outdoor café on the Place du Forum.
What’s more, the city is not only far less crowded than other tourist hotspots, the people are also friendlier. I know that the French can be notoriously unwelcoming to foreigners but, to my surprise, I made instant friends with a Frenchman on the steps of the cathedral. Sceptical? I have a photo to prove it.
Easily the most important landmark in Reims is the gothic cathedral at the heart, literally and figuratively, of the city. While Europe is covered in gothic churches, the Cathedral in Reims is unique. Namely, it is unfinished. The twin towers were originally to be completed with tall spires, but fire ensured that this would never happen. The Cathedral also suffered heavy damage during World War I leaving it almost in ruins. Consequently, for the last hundred years it has been under continuous restoration. This is perhaps most obvious in the somewhat eclectic mix of stained glass windows which date from the medieval period to the twentieth century.
But it is not just the Cathedral’s singular beauty which marks it out as a French monument. Reims cathedral has had an important role in French history since before the current structure was even built. Every French king beginning with Henry I in 1027 was crowned in the church with the exception of seven. The Cathedral also has a unique affinity with the beloved Joan of Arc. She was after all in large part to thank for the city’s liberation from the English during the Hundred Years’ War.
After eight hundred years, the cathedral has survived wars, invasions and modernisation. It’s a considerable feat. I certainly do not think anything built in the last century will be able to boast such an achievement given another eight hundred years, do you?
Now this is for all of my fellow champagne lovers. There is only one place where genuine champagne is produced; everything else is merely a poor imitation. Think of it like owning a genuine Louis Vuitton tote as opposed to a monogram knockoff made in China. Travesty. After all, know one knows wine like the French and sparkling wine is a true gift to the world.
So if you are lucky enough to be in the region, make sure to visit one of the famous champagne vineyards. Sip, savour and enjoy. The world has deemed it one of the most important and treasured parts of the world (it became a UNESCO World Heritage Sight in 2015). Isn’t that proof enough that Champagne is worth a slice of that coveted paid vacation time? Let me know what you think!
Photography by Savannah Hayes with Deanna Hayes
Top: Cathedral Square
Middle: Place du Forum
Bottom: Reims Cathedral