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Despite the fact that I cannot pronounce the name of this town I still love it.  Okay, I exaggerate Reims (rhymes with France – obvious, right?) is not terribly hard to pronounce but I struggle all the same and it certainly does not sound like it is spelled!  This was my second visit to the city that saw all French coronations but two and is the capital of Champagne – by this time I imagine those that know me are starting to understand the appeal of this city for me.

So, I have to confess that both times I have been to Reims I cheated – instead of taking the train from Gare de l’Est I took friends up on their offer to go via car.  I think because I do not have a car, and because I am American and very car dependent, I quite like the idea of a road trip.  Also, because my sole means of transport in France are the trains sometimes being in a car is more of an adventure for me.

We left Paris at 8 am in driving rain for the two hour drive to Reims.  One of the things that I find fascinating about traveling through France, whether it be by car or by train, is the immense amount of history you are passing over with each mile.  As Ina Caro points out in ‘Paris to the Past’ the ride from Paris to Reims goes past trees that have witnessed the 100 Years War, may have seen Joan of Arc make her ride to liberate Reims and to witness the coronation of Charles VII and maybe watched the Germans march to Paris.

The cathedral at Reims was the site of coronations in France dating back to Clovis I in 498 who converted from Paganism to Catholicism long before the current cathedral was built in 1211.  When you walk into the Cathdral at Reims you immediately notice how much darker it is than Chartres but also how much taller the ceiling feels.  The ceiling in actuality is only six feet higher in Reims than in Chartres but because the nave is more narrow it feels higher.

Like in Chartres I arrived just in time for mass.  The difference being that this was Toussaint (All Saints Day) and mass was being given by the Archbishop of Reims.  I noticed right away upon the start of mass that the Archbishop sits in a thrown like chair covered in the fleurs-de-lis and is likely the same thrown used in the coronation of the kings of France dating back almost a thousand years.  You do not see the fleurs-de-lis a lot anymore in France as it is pre-revolution and conjures up the monarchy and all the things the French faught against in 1789.  But, here in Reims, a cathedral so enveloped in the history of the French monarchy, you see evidence of it everywhere.

The cathedral at Reims, unlike in Chartres, unfortunately has not escaped the many wars France has seen, unscathed.  The cathedral was under siege for a year during the Hundred Year’s War in 1359 and was liberated by Joan of Arc.  During WWI the cathedral was severely damaged by German shellfire.  The roof was destroyed and there is a famous photo of the cathedral with the roof completely gone.  Reparations have been steadily ongoing to the cathedral since the damage during WWI in 1914.

After mass we braved the rain and wind to find a brasserie not far from  the cathedral where I had one of my more memorable meals in France.  The roast chicken in and of itself was good but not great, what made this meal so amazing were the gratin daphinois.  I have to confess that I am a sucker for cheesy potatoes but these also had mushrooms and foie gras mixed in.  I would go back to Reims just to eat those again!

Once we wrapped up lunch it was time to make our way through Champagne country to the small village of Hautvillers where we visited an amazing little champagne house called G. Tribaut.  But, as that is not part of the book ‘Paris to the Past’ that is a story for another day.

Next Stop – The Louvre