A mere 80 miles North-West of Paris lies the historic city of Reims (confusingly pronounced Rahonce). The city, founded by the Gauls in 80 BC, lies in the Champagne-Ardenne region and has played a titular role in French history for centuries.
The city was originally home to the Remi tribe before the Romans systematically conquered the Gauls and their tribal fortresses. Reims then fared relatively well for a few decades, converting to Christianity in 26o, when Saint Sixtus officially founded the bishopric of Reims. However, all good things must come to an end, the end arriving in the 400s when the city was ransacked by the Vandals in 406 and decimated by the armies of Attila the Hun in 451. Several centuries later Reims saw more bloodshed in 1359 when it was besieged by the British during the Hundred Years War.
While Reims pays tribute to its rich Gallo-Roman history (above you can see the remains of the Roman arch Porte Mars), it’s most famed for its iconic place in the heart of the French monarchy. This royal history is the defining reason I visited Reims on a wet May weekend last year, making the 273-mile journey to visit the stunning 13th-century cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims. Now I’ve been lucky enough to visit around 18 French cathedrals (that’s either impressive or tragic), but the Notre-Dame de Reims has a history like no other. This is because the cathedral served as the coronation spot of the French kings from the 1100s until the abolition of the monarchy during the French Revolution. The first recorded king to hold his coronation in Reims is Louis VII- Eleanor of Aquitaine’s first husband- in 1131. 50 years later, his son Philip Augustus would have his coronation at Reims attended by Henry II and his sons the Young King Henry, Richard Duke of Aquitaine (later King of England) and Geoffrey Duke of Brittany. Sadly, the original cathedral was damaged by a fire in 1211 and needed extensive reconstruction under the reign of the ambitious Philip Augustus. Much like his extensive rebuilding of Paris- which included new city walls and a fortress you and I call the Louvre- Philip set about making the cathedral at Reims far bigger and better than its predecessor. The rebuilding of the cathedral ground to something of a halt in 1233 after the inhabitants of Reims revolted against the cathedral chapter (a ye olde word for staff) due to heavy taxation. Almost all of the chapter fled the city after several clerics were killed in violent protests and the cathedral was left empty- as a result, all public worship was banned in the city for three years, only beginning again when the clergy begrudgingly returned. Like most medieval cathedrals, Notre Dame de Reims took centuries to build and the final result is a charming mix of c13th interiors-this includes a beautiful vaulted ceiling- and an impressive c14th facade.
The cathedral also played its part in the Hundred Years War, successfully surviving a year-long British siege. However, the British weren’t gone for long and, after a surprise victory at Agincourt, Henry V took Reims and the majority of Northern France for the English. The English held Reims until 1429 when it was liberated by Joan of Arc. Unfortunately the for famously weak-willed King Henry VI of England losing Reims and eventually the French crown was just one in a list of diplomatic cock-ups that led to last Lancastrian King’s sticky end.
Architecturally, the cathedral remained in something of a steady state until WWI when it was turned into a makeshift hospital and later damaged extensively by German shell-bombs. The French didn’t take this lying down, and the press accused the Germans of deliberately damaging culturally significant French landmarks…and that’s before WWII!
Because this was originally intended to serve as a holiday/history blog, I think it’s only fair to talk a little bit about what else a daytripper can get up to in Reims. While many do flock to Reims for its cathedral, there is another, slightly boozier reason to visit the Champagne city and the clue is in its name. As one of the larger cities in the Champagne-Ardenne, Reims is home to ten houses/caves/museums dedicated to the production of the province’s namesake, champagne. The quality of these ‘champagne houses’ varies with the brand, so tourists be warned that the most exclusive brands require that you pre-book a tour quite far in advance. All tours offer exclusive tastings and demonstrations of the production of champagne, and many houses extend their tours into historic caves that stretch underneath the city. One of the pricier tours is the Taittinger experience, which cost €20 for a lengthy tour and a free tasting. While that may sound expensive at first glance, do keep in mind that the cheaper Taittinger bottles averages at about £35! The tour takes you through the fairly swish modern house and into the C14 caves that the monks initially stored their champagne in; fun sightings include staircases that lead directly to the cathedral so that monks could sneak off for a cheeky glass between masses…or hide during the revolutionary period, whatever floats your boat.
If you’re still on a medieval high from the cathedral, you’re in luck because directly opposite is the Palais du Tau. Once a lavish place of residence for the monks of the cathedral the PDT has been converted into a magnificent museum of city treasures. Museum goers will find a plethora of exhibitions from Gallo-Roman pottery, medieval frescoes to the opulent (and tacky) clothes of French aristocrats. Another place that’s perfect for history lovers is St Remi, the oldest church in Reims. Dating from the C12 the church is on the far reaches of the city, so it’s a trek to get there but well worth it all the same.
As I hinted at earlier, Reims is not the easiest of cities to get around if you’re relying on public transport. Buses are infrequent, and your other option is the single tram line that runs from the North of the city to the South. While it’s annoying this is not uncommon for the smaller French cities, and if you invest in a decent map and pair of shoes, you’ll be ok.
Regarding hotels Reims is one of the cheaper cities I’ve been too and while it may be down to the size of it, I’d like to point out that Le Mans was super expensive in comparison. If you’re old-fashioned like me, and you don’t want to use Air BnB I’d advise staying near the main station as it’s actually pretty nice: you’re a stones through away from a few nice restaurants, a park and it’s probably a ten-minute walk to the cathedral at most.
All in all, Reims is a pretty good choice for a long weekend, it’s pleasant enough to walk around, and there is definitely sufficient amount of things to do with your day. However, there isn’t much in the way of nightlife and if cathedrals and cobblestones aren’t your thing you may get a little bored. As I’m forcing myself to score this I’d give the champagne city a solid 7/10.
Over and out!