Reims1 is a medium-sized French city located in the north-east of the country, about 100km from Belgium and 160km2 from Paris. Due to a fast train line linking Paris and Strasbourg having opened in March 2007, Reims is now a mere 45 minutes from the capital, instead of 90.
The city is well-known for two reasons: champagne and a cathedral. But it has more to offer. This Entry should give you a taste of the possibilities, according to how much time you have on your hands.
Half an Hour
So you are on your way to somewhere else and have to wait for 30 minutes in Reims' main train station for a connection - what can you do in such a short amount of time? Honestly speaking? Not much, other than take a short walk around the station. But there is enough choice to warrant some entertainment in the return trip as well.
Right opposite the main exit you will find Square Colbert, a small garden of flowers and trees with benches and a statue in the middle. It is a perfect place to relax while eating a sandwich, reading a magazine, or even watching people pass by.
If you feel like walking, exit the station, turn left, and walk along Hautes Promenades until you reach Place de la République. It is often referred to by locals as Place de l'Œuf due to the presence of the Luchrone in its centre. This is a large egg-like, luminous construction with ever-changing patterns, which make it quite an interesting sight, particularly at night.
On the far side of the square stands Porte Mars, a Roman triumphal arc dating from the 3rd Century, making it the oldest monument in Reims. It was named after a nearby temple that is dedicated to the Roman god of war.
Turning right when leaving the station, you can walk along Basses Promenades until you reach a park (a slightly longer distance than Porte Mars). If you are still on the same side of this large street (Boulevard Roederer) as the train station, you will find yourself in Jardin Schneiter - a small horticultural garden where an array of flowers and trees are labelled for visitors' edification and delight. Sometimes there are even small botanical exhibitions in the pavilion at the far end of the garden.
If you have crossed the boulevard at some point, you will now be in Parc de la Patte d'Oie, or 'Goose Foot Park'. This one is large enough to allow a longer walk in which you may encounter a fountain and duck pond, children's playgrounds, a few sculptures and a (usually empty) music kiosk. Also, before you ask, the large, serious-looking building is the Centre des Congrès. If anything is taking place there, you will probably not have time to attend 3.
Half a Day
Now we are getting somewhere. Maybe you are having a holiday in Paris and want to take a few hours to visit nearby Reims? Maybe you are driving through the city and decide to stop and see the basics - but not too much because you want to be home before sunset? In any case, here comes a short guide to help you choose what to do.
There are many prestigious champagne houses in Reims. Most organise visits to their cellars, an overview of the history and preparation of the wine, plus the inevitable tasting, of course. Just as all champagnes have a distinct character, the cellars can provide a variety of experiences - from the vast galleries of Pommery to the solemnity of Louis Roederer, through the crypts of the Saint-Nicaise Abbey used by Taittinger.
The Cathedral and the Basilica
Reims also has a large Gothic cathedral, essentially constructed between the 11th and 13th Centuries (although part of the west side was added in the 14th Century, and the spires were never completed). It was here that most of the kings of France were crowned, with the notable exception of Henri IV, who was crowned in Chartres4 because he was Protestant and Reims was in the hands of the Catholic Guise family.
Noticeably, the eastern chapel contains three windows that were designed by the artist Marc Chagall. On the other hand, if you are seeking the cathedral's trademark 'smiling angel', take a look at the left portal of the main facade. Less known is the presence of a sculpted elephant among the flying buttresses5. An ascension of the towers is also very worthwhile. Here, a guide will give you more insight into the history of the cathedral, its building process and restorations. You get a breathtaking view of the city roofs, too.
Less well-known, but considered by some to be more beautiful than the cathedral, is the Saint Remi Basilica. It is slightly older, having almost been completed in the 11th Century. Unlike the cathedral, the basilica also has a Roman style. It is named after the bishop Remi of Reims, who baptised Clovis, first king of the Franks, in 496 AD. This event established the tradition of crowning Catholic kings in Reims.
There are a few museums which can quench the visitor's thirst for culture. If you come out of the cathedral, a nice complement to your visit is the adjacent Palais du Tau. It contains some of the cathedral's original decorations, such as statues and carpets, as well as royal jewellery and some of the items used for the coronations. Rumour has it that the chalice has a smudge on it due to a mistake by the goldsmith while carving the sacred text. If this is indeed the case, chances are the smudge will be facing the wall anyway so you will not notice anything amiss.
If you visit the basilica instead, it is a stone's throw to the Musée Saint Remi. Its scope is more historical, giving, in particular, an insight into the city's Gallo-Roman past. However, the museum also hosts a planetarium, as well as a very large astronomical clock built from Meccano.
For more recent history, you can visit the small Musée de la Reddition. This is basically a school classroom that was used by Eisenhower as a headquarters in 1945. Musée de la Reddition is also famous for being the place where the German general Jodl officially signed a surrender act on 7 May 1945.
The artistically minded might find it worth paying a visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts to enjoy its collection of paintings, sculptures and other artistic items from the 16th to 20th Century, notably a large collection of Corot paintings. As an alternative for the more practically minded, the Musée Automobile displays all sorts of cars and motorbikes - the real thing as well as models.
When the weather is nice, taking a lazy stroll at random can be a good choice of activity. Some parks in the vicinity of the main train station have already been mentioned. It will not come as a surprise to know there are more. The most striking may well be the vast Parc de Champagne (or, as it is still called by old-fashioned locals, Parc Pommery) - an early 20th Century garden originally built to hold sporting events but used in a more general fashion nowadays.
If you just fancy a walk in the streets, a pleasant choice is the area surrounding the city hall (which is nice, too, by the way), from Place de la République to Place du Forum and Place Royale. If you have two minutes to spare for a very anti-climactic moment, pass by the location of the birth house of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance for King Louis XIV. The house is not there anymore - there is just a plaque on the wall of a more-than-ordinary building in Rue Cérès.
There are, unsurprisingly, many options to get rid of your money. A standard activity in France is to enjoy the products of local bakeries. One of the best in town may well be Le Four à Bois. The original store is a bit isolated in Rue Chanzy, but there is a newer one in the commercial Rue de Vesle. Opposite the city hall, Boulangerie Hardy is recommended as well. On the other hand, you can just enter one by following your intuition, and let yourself be tempted!
In a similar vein, you can visit Chocolatier Deléans. Some of its creations are a tribute to the city's treasures, such as Effervescence, Pavés de Reims ('Cobblestone of Reims') or chocolate with Biscuits Roses - these 'pink cookies' being a biscuit traditionally served with champagne.
Speaking of the city's treasures, why not buy some local wine? The easiest option is to enter any supermarket and purchase your favourite brand of champagne. Most of the more prestigious brands will be represented (at probably cheaper rates than in a souvenir shop), and you can try out more obscure ones as well.
If you visit a cellar, you can buy something from there, and you may get a wider offer of fancy vintages and special bottles. If you do not want to commit yourself to a particular brand, or want some neutral or personalised advice, visit specialised shops. Particularly recommended is Le Marché aux Vins (located on Place Léon Bourgeois, near Place du Forum), whose very wise cellarman can expertly help you through the forest of offers according to your taste and budget.
But there is more to local wine than the sparkling one. The region also produces a variety of fruity red wines called Coteaux Champenois, the most famous probably being the Bouzy rouge. They are a surprising less-known aspect of local viticulture and can be quite difficult to obtain outside the region.
After a hectic half-day of sightseeing and wine-buying, you can finally take a rest and sit somewhere for a coffee, beer, coupe of champagne and/or simple snack such as the typical croque-monsieur. The easiest place to do so is Place d'Erlon, the throbbing heart of Reims' eating-out activity. Here you can find all sorts of cafés, bars, brasseries and restaurants which, unlike their less-central counterparts, are likely to be open at almost any time of day.
Half a Week
That is more like it! So you have decided to exhaust all of the city's possibilities? Or maybe you are attending a three-day conference about wine-making in the region, or visiting friends who have just moved there? In any case, you have enough time to do all of the above and more.
Reims offers a variety of ways to spend a nice evening. There are not many cinemas (two downtown and one outside) and only one of them, Cinéma Opéra, really stands out. First of all, it is the only one to offer films in the original language. Second, its programme is usually a well-conceived mix of grand public, such as Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, and more, say, artistic pictures (not to mention frequent documentaries).
For an alternative night out, visit the César's Club, where you can play all kinds of billiards: pool, snooker and French billiards. If you have more confidence in luck than skill, go to the upper floor casino, Le Multicolore.
There is little choice for an evening at the theatre. The Grand Theâtre has a classical programme and opera in a classical direction, while the Comédie de Reims has classic and modern plays in modern realisations6. Moreover, every Saturday the Comédie organises a small theatre workshop that is open to the public prior to the evening's representation.
When eating out, the safest bet is to stay in close to Place d'Erlon. There is not much happening away from it at night, and if you are not careful you might end up walking for hours without seeing any open restaurants. A notable exception is L'auberge du Maret. But, be warned, it is actually more of a corridor in a commercial gallery, but the owner is friendly and the food quite stunning, if simple7. Away from the centre, brasserie Le Hibou Gourmand offers quality food in an unpretentious atmosphere, and is reasonably close to the César's Club.
But the pièce de résistance of French gastronomy has to be the restaurant Les Crayères. One of the most prestigious in France, its chef Gérard Boyer raised it to the level of three stars in the Michelin Guide, although the rating has dropped to two stars since Boyer retired in 2004. Les Crayères even has a menu which entirely revolves around (you may guess) champagne8, but unlike other chic restaurants it will not force it down your throat.
Going out - did we not just cover that? Well, I do not mean the same 'out' now. As you are staying in Reims for a few days, maybe you can take some time to visit the surrounding region.
A great idea for a sunny day is driving along Route Touristique du Champagne. This is a well-indicated road between Reims and its bubbly rival Épernay, snaking through vineyards and bucolic wine-producing villages. You can stop almost anywhere for a dégustation at a local producer, and even tour their cellars or vineyards. If you decide to go for such a tour, it is advisable to find a non-drinking driver.
While you are out that way be sure to stop in Verzy and visit the Faux de Verzy - a unique forest of low, twisted, spooky trees which grow into some very strange formations9.
About 50km south-east of Reims you can visit Châlons-en-Champagne, the administrative centre of the Marne département. It may well be smaller than Reims but, having suffered much less in World War I, it is better preserved and the streets can have more character. Incidentally, this is also the birth town of Nicolas Appert, the inventor of air-tight food preservation.
Continuing your way about 90km southwards, you will end up in Troyes, a small and characterful town that is known for its cathedral and textile industry. According to mathematician Hermann Weyl, the rose window of the cathedral is a breathtaking example of symmetries of order three.
If you have a day to spare for shopping, visit the magasins d'usine (factory outlet), where you will find a broad offer of high-quality clothing at low prices. It attracts people from all over the region. Finally, if you are into popular French culture, you will appreciate the fact that Troyes is the birth town of comedian Jean-Marie Bigard.
Alternatively, if you like poetry, you might be interested in Charleville-Mézières. Situated 90km north-east of Reims, this is the birth place of the poète maudit Arthur Rimbaud. If you are lucky, you may even catch the Festival Mondial des Marionnettes, the World Puppets Festival, which takes place once every three years and hosts more than 150 puppeteers from across the world10.
Due to the region's location11, it suffered quite heavily during World War I. You can go 5km down the road to Châlons and visit the museum of the Fort de la Pompelle, which played a significant role in the defence of Reims and hosts collections of uniforms and significant items from those days.
If you have more time, a 120km trip to the east will take you to Verdun, where the infamous 1916 eponymous battle12 took place. In the vicinity of the battlefield you can find six villages which were completely destroyed and never reconstructed – and kept instead as a monument to the fallen.
On a lighter note, why not drive 70km east of Reims to see Rouvroy-Ripont, whose claim to fame is being the second-least populated village in France (with two inhabitants as of 2007).
If you are planning a visit well in advance, it can be worth making it coincide with one of the few annual events to take place in the city. Towards the end of May, Parc de Champagne hosts the yearly show-jumping competition Jumping International. The rest of the time all sort of events take place in the park, such as exhibitions and concerts. Try to find out if anything is happening while you are there, especially during one of those long summer evenings.
The flâneries musicales is a month-long musical event in July where more than 100 classical and jazz concerts are held all over the city, in locations such as churches and theatres, the Centre of Congress, or even just on the street. Do not miss the famous Concert Pique-Nique in Parc de Champagne! Also noteworthy is a specific jazz festival in November.
The Fêtes Johanniques - the Joan of Arc festival - takes place on the last weekend in June. Various historic events are re-enacted - dedicated to the French heroine. On the Saturday, a medieval market takes over the city centre and visitors can buy traditional craft products: home decorations, food, toys, clothing, you name it. The highlight has to be the Sunday parade, though, where people dressed up as medieval characters parade through the streets. While minstrels play songs and knights display (more or less convincing) sword-fighting skills, exotic animals are walked through the city. Watch out for significant personalities such as the kings of France (do not worry, heralds will usually carry a banner indicating who is who) and, the jewel of the parade, a horse-riding Joan of Arc.
Want to Find out More?
If this heavily loaded programme is not enough for you, find out more by visiting Le Monocle, the guide to everything you need to know about Reims, or the city's very own website. Of course, it barely comes as a surprise to know that both sites are only in French. Do not let that discourage you! Take the opportunity to learn the language.