For those who read our day one instalment it will come as no surprise that we awoke on our second day; hot, sticky and feeling rather worse for wear. Priority number one was to vacate the hot box that was our tiny stifling room which we did with pleasure. We didn’t have much planned for today other than lunch and so made our way to nearby café Pain & Cie for breakfast in the morning sunshine. This café was perfectly acceptable but we later realised if we had walked 5 minutes in the opposite direction we would have had a nicer more varied choice for breakfast. Unknowingly, we sat down for a cheapish snack of orange juice, ice-tea and I opted for a cheese and meat platter. When in France you really can’t go wrong with cheese and meat and it was delicious served on some rather sad rye bread (I was imagining a crusty baguette). We made some calls and consulted the essential Lonely Planet before heading off into the sun for our first stop of the day.
Arguably the most famous site in Reims is the iconic Cathedral Notre Dame which was sadly burned down during WWI in 1914 with the restoration not covering many of the windows giving it a rather barren, unfinished feel. Regardless of the history, your first sight of the arresting building as you round the corner and are confronted by its looming towers and incredible carvings is quite something. There are statues and sitting spots situated around the building allowing you to enjoy the masterpiece before or after entering. As I mentioned, the inside is a little lacklustre and traditional with little to note other than a particularly pretty rose window. We wandered around for 5 minutes before heading back into the sun.
The fame of the Cathedral comes not from the building itself but the events which took place here over the centuries. Since the year 987 the Kings of France were all crowned in Reims Cathedral. Due to the proximity of the coronations the Palace of Tau arose adjacent to the Cathedral to house the Kings and their royal households before and after the coronations. The site is now a museum and a UNESCO world heritage site and so we decided to check it out. The initial part of the building is empty and started us wondering why we were there over drinking Champagne? As you go upstairs and see the Royal Banquet Hall – used to celebrate all those coronations you get a better idea of what the palace would have looked like and the grandiose décor associated with the monarchy Due to the aforementioned fire the museum now holds a lot of artefacts previously found within the Cathedral as well as other memorabilia associated with dressing for coronations and dining. I was slightly underwhelmed by the palace as a whole, particularly in comparison to some of the other grand palaces I have visited the world over. Given the hefty €8 price tag I would probably skip it.
We had some time to kill before lunch and so decided to walk down to the other famous church of Reims – the Basilique of Saint Remi. This Abbey is famous for housing the relics of Saint Remi who is responsible for converting Clovis, King of the Franks to Christianity and as a result the spread of Christianity across modern day Europe in 496AD. The building was nice enough but unfortunately not open, potentially due to it being early on a Sunday. Instead we sat in the nearby park in the sun to pass some time before lunch.
When choosing our lunch stop I had went for popularity and stuck to the old faithful option of Lonely Planet recommendations. Since they had a few options I supplemented this with tripadvisor and blog posts to arrive at the best option – Anna-s. We hadn’t thought through our location and so after a 20-25 minute walk back from the abbey arrived to a cool dining room with purple décor. It was very busy so we were lucky to have made a reservation. I opted for the vintage champagne (which was potentially the nicest Champagne I drank throughout my stay). I opted for the garlic snails which rather than the annoying shells well served in easy pots with loads of butter and topped with a bit of bread. They were done really well but I always forget how earthy snails taste when ordering them. For main I had a veal chop in a mushroom sauce. Unfortunately it was hard to decipher between meat and fat/bone and I wasn’t a fan of it other than the sauce. After 2 glasses of Champagne I was looking for some wine but the waiter forgot to ask me if I wanted any which was a disappointment. We also had the usual rush of taking forever to get the bill meaning we had to hotleg it in the heat of the day to Taittinger a 20 minute walk away where we were due to be in 10 minutes. Not fun.
Originally the plan had been to only do one cellar tour (they all look fairly similar) and to spend the second day visiting Champagne houses instead. However, Nicola was still feeling worse for wear and we had not foresaw everything being closed with it being a Sunday so it turned out our Champagne options were limited. Even a lot of the nice bars where you can just sample different varieties were closed. We were looking at the map and the cellars of Taittinger caught our eye so we had managed to book on a last minute tour that morning. However, as we were running late we missed the introductory video telling you about the house. The house was quite different from Moet, only being founded in 1932 as a producer of Champagne and making roughly half of the production levels of Moet. However, there is a historic element to the house, it was originally an Abbey run by monks who – you guessed it – produced fine wines. If I were a man becoming a monk is a life I would seriously consider. That being said much of the historic architecture of the abbey can be seen throughout the cellars and in places they are really high compared with the low, curved ceilings of a traditional cellar. The other interesting aspect of the cellars is the carvings, many of which were undertaken during the 2 world wars where people were hiding and made art to fill the day. Otherwise the tour was pretty much identical to that of Moet, other than we learned a bit about the different sizes of bottles – a magnum (2 bottles), jeroboam (4 bottles), rehoboam (6 bottles), methuselah (8 bottles), salmanazar (12 bottles), balthazar (16 bottles) and the nabuchadnezzar (20 bottles). While we saw all of them the house only makes up to a jeroboam for health and safety reasons. We finished the tour with a tasting of the standard brut variety and then a vintage. I was not blown away by either and left without purchasing any taking my total bottles from the weekend to 1. (Not really worth the £20 luggage fee).
We again took the long walk back to our hotel and were treated to a light reprieve from the heat by a short rain shower. We arrived back in enough time but took a taxi to the station instead which of course took ages to get there. There was just enough time to buy a drink before boarding our train back to Paris. It was a short 40 minute trip to Gare d’Est where we changed to the metro one stop to Gare du Nord for the airport train. Make sure you buy your ticket for the airport train before coming out of the barriers – it makes everything quicker and easier. Another 40 minute journey later and we were in the airport train station. The Sleazyjet terminal is quite a walk and after checking our bag we came to the sorry realisation our dinner options were limited to a Brioche Doree – come on CDG you are one of the biggest airports in Europe! A mini wine, baguette and chocolate cake later and I was ready to board but alas, of course we were delayed. Only by 30 minutes but with nothing to do, drink or eat our waiting options were reduced. The flight back was painfree and quick and all of our 4 bottles made it through in checked luggage unscathed. A bonus really.
The Champagne region was nice and definitely worth visiting. Perhaps those with lower expectations would enjoy it more. If you only have time to visit one city my pick would be Epernay. That being said there was a cool war museum we missed in Reims due to time. TRAVEL TIP: Make sure your accommodation has a/c in the rooms and remember everything in Europe is closed on Sundays!