Reminiscing about Reims

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!

Reims train 1020156 CX BLOG

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.

Reims square 1020157 HDR BLOG

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.

Reims angel detail BLOG
My version, sloppily Photoshopped for consistency …


… with Jorge Luis Tagle’s version of the statue 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.

PReims cathedral 1020170 CX2 BLOG

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 …

Reims cathedral facade 1020178 CX BLOG

… beautifully restored portals …

Reims cathedral portal 1020181 CX BLOG

… 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.)

Reims cathedral st denis 1020184 DETAIL BLOG

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.

Reims tower 1020159 CX BLOG

But inside the Reims Cathedral, it was all harmony and light. It didn’t matter whether the vitrailles were ancient …

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Reims Cathedral rose detail 1020217 BLOG

… or modern installations, courtesy of Marc Chagall

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… 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.

Reims Cathedral 1020205 BLOG

Reims Catheral chairs 1020202 EXP BLOG

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 …

Rain house sculpture

Pommery elephant 1020259 CLA BLOG

Pomery elephant 1020255 BLOG

… but going beneath the earth, into the cellars, reminded me a bit of the catacombs.

Pommery stairs 1020272 CX BLOG

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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.

Pommery tour 1020339 BLOG

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.

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I found it hard to believe that these seemingly old and forgotten bottles were actually destined for market.

Pommery 1020293 EXP BLOG

Occasionally we’d enter a room that vented to the exterior, some 60 to 80 feet above us.

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Many of the older pits that were once used for champagne production were beautifully decorated. This first bas-relief depicted a young Veuve Pommery.

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Other installations, like this pile of plastic debris on a hook, were more avant-garde.

Pommery tour 1020303 BLOG

And this row of dancing boots — an homage to the men and women who have worked in these cellars — was downright disconcerting.

Pommery tour 1020343 BLOG

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.

Pommery cave 1020371 BLOG

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 !



    • Thank you, Jim! Not too shabby for the $100 screw-on wide-angle adapter I bought on eBay, eh? It’s the size of a Volkswagen and weighs almost as much, but it’s sure a heckuvalot easier than trying to stick together 15 frames (as you well know from experience). Grin.

    • It’s incredible how much you can do and see in one day, when you’re in the right frame of mind, isn’t it? It’ll serve as a good reminder for the next time I don’t want to leave Paris. 😉 ¡Cuídate mucho, Rosa, y un enorme abrazo!

    • I’m no art expert, but I think it represents the light-yet-unbalanced feeling you get from drinking champagne out of disposable plastic cups on the TGV.

    • Mumm’s the word? Ha, ha!
      I’m curious, Xpat: How did the Mumm’s tour compare? Is it a similar set-up? Or is it different enough to merit its own tour? I’m thinking of taking my husband to Reims but don’t want to *exactly* duplicate the first experience.
      In any case, thank you for starting my day with a smile.

      • It was a long time ago when I took the Mumm tour – 1976 – so my recollection of it is scant and the fact that I’m not a wine aficionado probably means that I wasn’t paying all that much attention at the time. I do recall that the winery is in the centre of the city and I seem to recall that, as a result, the tour is confined to the caves; but I could be wrong about that. I did check on Trip Advisor and the reviews are mostly very good and excellent but I also had a look on Google Streetview and it has changed since I was there. Unfortunately, I can’t send you a picture of it as it was then because I only have a proof and I lent my scanner to a friend who still has it.

    • … and thank YOU for your very kind comment, johncoyote! I’m sorry you now regret not having taken more photos in German — but hopefully your memories are rich enough to compensate. Here’s wishing you a wonderful 2014!

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