Champagne Cathedral, Cellar Tasting, And A World Cup Win—Weekend In Reims
One of the great things about being at home somewhere in Europe is that the rest of Europe can be an easy car or train ride away.
Friends from Panama came to visit us in Paris last week. Where to take them for the weekend…
Brussels… Luxembourg… London… Barcelona…
Or, rather than a train trip, what if we rented a car? That way we’d be more flexible and more in control of our itinerary.
By car, from Paris, we could go south… or west… or… ah, ha!
We could travel a couple of hours northeast… to Champagne.
Paris is always a good idea… and Champagne is petit Paris with more bubbles.
We aren’t the only ones who think a few days in this part of France is a good idea this time of year. Châteaux and boutique hotels were fully booked when we tried to make last-minute reservations. Finally, we found two rooms for the two nights we wanted at the Premier Best Western in the center of Reims.
It turned out to be a surprisingly good choice. The abundant treasures and delights of this City of Kings were all a short, pleasant, interesting walk away.
Today’s best cities are those that, at some time in their history, enjoyed great wealth managed by people who liked to create grand things. Reims is one of those cities.
The city’s Cathedral of Notre-Dame is bigger than its sister in Paris and a defining example of Gothic architecture. It was here that, for centuries, the kings of France were crowned.
Despite this impressive pedigree, you don’t have to wait in line to tour the place. Unlike the world famous church on the Seine, Reims’ cathedral is less recognized and so less visited. We showed up for the 10 o’clock tour Saturday morning to find but a handful of fellow tourists waiting in the courtyard.
You can visit Reims’ cathedral at will (and I recommend you do if you’re ever in the neighborhood), but you need a guide to climb the tower. We invested 11 euros in tickets that allowed us access to both the tower and the museum in the Palais du Tau across the parvis.
Up the 246 stone steps to the rooftop our little group trooped… then we followed our guide out onto the parapet and then proceeded to walk the circumference of the structure, appreciating every angle. We all oohed and ahhed appropriately at the gilded fleurs-de-lys all around, the grotesques and the gargoyles, and the sweeping view across the city of Reims and the surrounding countryside of Champagne.
Having fulfilled our duties as tourists and visited the city’s primary sights, we set off to indulge in the other reason to come to Reims—pleasures bacchanalian.
If you’ve got time (as we did) to tour only one champagne house in Reims, I recommend Mumm. The hour-and-a-half experience takes you through the underground cellars carved from the limestone the region is famous for. This subterranean city extends across 25 kilometers and houses 25 million bottles of champagne. Paths from one section to another have been given street names; the Champs-Élysées is the 400-meter-long central thoroughfare down which bottles of Mumm champagne are transported when they’re ready to be shipped.
The tour finishes, of course, with a tasting and a chance to buy bottles to take away with you, including some labels not available anywhere else. This was where having a car really paid off. Our little Volkswagen left the Mumm cellars much heavier than it had been upon arrival.
Part III of our memorable Saturday in Reims was courtesy of a young French soccer player named Kylian Mbappé.
We arrived back at our hotel following our Mumm tasting just as the France-Argentina World Cup match was getting under way. I’d hardly call myself a soccer enthusiast, but, when in France while the French team is playing in the World Cup… well, you watch the game.
The streets of Reims were packed with jubilant fans. We took up a position at a sidewalk café at the fringe of the mob, ordered a cold bottle of (what else?) champagne, and settled in to enjoy the spectacle.
Only, from where we’d based ourselves, we couldn’t see the screen inside the café. Loud cheer after loud cheer made the point, though.
Things were going well for the French.
Finally, I couldn’t resist the urge to make my way to the front of the crowd to try to catch a glimpse of the scene on the field. I pushed through the mass of fans outside the Ernest Hemingway Café and was able to watch a few minutes of play.
It wasn’t until we finally called it a day and returned to our hotel room that I learned how special that afternoon’s match had been. The young Kylian Mbappé ruled.
The New Yorker reporter Brian Phillips put it much better than I could:
“What a thrill, in a game where most of the grownups seemed to be battling the weights of ancient legacies and unbearable stakes, to see things decided by a kid who ran as if he were out to remind the world what magic is.”
The celebrating continued in the streets beneath our windows until the wee hours.