Back in February, I wrote a quick synopsis of my trip to Paris and promised I’d “be back with more soon.” Does *eight months later* count as “soon”? I’m hoping you’ll take a long-term view and forgive my long absence. Bien, alors …
Those of you who know me know how much I love Paris — so you’ll understand my reluctance at leaving my favorite city after just two days. But that’s exactly what I did on Monday, January 28, when my dear friends Chris and Silke invited me to visit Reims.
Located 80 miles east-northeast of Paris, Reims boasts a rich historical tradition: It was once a major Roman city, its cathedral was the coronation site for the kings of France, and then it was mercilessly bombed during World Wars I and II. But for all its rich history, it’s perhaps its last (and most commercial) achievement that Reims most celebrates. Yes, champagne. Mmm!
Although the TGV ride from Paris took only about an hour, stepping off the train was like stepping back in time. Gone were the Hausmann-era buildings and boulevards; instead, we found only narrow, tree-lined streets and plazas. This one, in the center of the old town, was my favorite.
In hindsight, I realized why: Its gilded angel reminded me of the statue I’d seen so often at the Paseo de la Reforma when I was growing up in Mexico City.
As good Parisians would do, first we stopped for a wonderful two-hour lunch. (It was delicious, but I didn’t take any photos because it seemed gauche.) Then we meandered our way to the cathedral.
If you’ve never read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, you may not fully appreciate the delicate filigree of masonry that punctuates the second story of this cathedral. So let me sum it up: Scores of people died to make this airy architecture possible.
In the foreground are my friends Chris, Silke and Alison.
On the outside of the cathedral you’ll find many unexpected wonders, such as retrofitted gargoyles …
… beautifully restored portals …
… and an oddly beheaded St. Denis. (St. Denis was the third-Century bishop whom the Romans martyred by beheading. As the story goes, St. Denis picked up his severed head and walked about five miles — while continuing to deliver what must have been the most disturbing sermon in history.)
But seriously: Do you think the Romans would have lopped off only the top third of his noggin? Regardless, I think it’s a bit upsetting how happily the angel on the right is looking on at St. Denis’ now-missing skullcap. “Well done, Denis! Hardly a hair out of place!”
On the outside of the cathedral I also found evidence of several hundred years’ reconstruction.
But inside the Reims Cathedral, it was all harmony and light. It didn’t matter whether the vitrailles were ancient …
… or modern installations, courtesy of Marc Chagall …
… everything worked in unity. I couldn’t help but marvel at the scores of worshipers this site has welcomed over the centuries — or at how desolate it felt on this Monday in January.
As with all things temporal, though, our time in the cathedral was up: We had a date with Veuve Pommery.
The famous champagne house Pommery started out rather humbly as a wool-trading business in 1858. When owner Alexandre Louis Pommery died in 1860, his enterprising widow (veuve in French) Louise took over the business.
Her neighbors must have thought she was mad when she stopped buying fleece, and instead purchased more than 100 limestone pits that the Romans had carved under what was then Gaul. But Veuve Pommery wasn’t crazy: She knew that this labyrinth of cellars would be perfect for making champagne.
Eventually her empire grew into this sprawling estate (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).
I thoroughly enjoyed the tour of the Pommery cellars, which double as a modern-art gallery. I’m not sure what the “house raining on the inside” or upside-down elephant symbolized …
… but going beneath the earth, into the cellars, reminded me a bit of the catacombs.
Although the tunnels soon snaked in every direction, most were well-lit and carefully labeled. Our guide explained that each section was named for a city to which Pommery is exported. Here’s Bristol, for instance.
Most of the corridors were lined with bottles that were undergoing their secondary fermentation. Apparently many of the champagne houses had experimented with automation at some point, only to find that there’s no substitute for turning the bottles and expelling the sediment by hand.
I found it hard to believe that these seemingly old and forgotten bottles were actually destined for market.
Occasionally we’d enter a room that vented to the exterior, some 60 to 80 feet above us.
Many of the older pits that were once used for champagne production were beautifully decorated. This first bas-relief depicted a young Veuve Pommery.
Other installations, like this pile of plastic debris on a hook, were more avant-garde.
And this row of dancing boots — an homage to the men and women who have worked in these cellars — was downright disconcerting.
I didn’t absorb all of the history our guide rattled off, but I did come away with a much deeper appreciation of the art that is making champagne. On our way out we passed one last cellar, which contained some of the more historic vintages. Down in front we have the first bottle of Pommery, dating from 1874. I bet it would still be pretty tasty.
Just like the glass we were served at the end of our tour. We enjoyed it so much, in fact, that we bought a bottle, found some disposable plastic glasses, and toasted to Veuve Pommery’s ingenuity all the way back to Paris.
Here’s to good friends — and to a day well-spent. Santé !