On Thursday, we spend the day exploring Reims. Why – is it worth it? Yes it is!
Firstly, we’ll make our way to the magnificent Villa Demoiselle, the blend of Art Nouveau and Art Deco that houses the Champagne maker, Vranken-Pommery.
This is one of the largest Champagne Houses, and it played a very important role in the history of Champagne.
Louise Pommery is another of the giant figures in the history of Champagne. After becoming widowed (a bit of a theme in Champagne history!), Mme Pommery purchased a vast collection of chalk pits, originally excavated by the Romans. She had these pits connected by tunnels to create vast cellars that allowed Pommery to store their wines at a constant temperature. All the big Champagne houses have these cave networks, but Mme Pommery did it first.
Her other great contribution was to make Champagne a dry wine. Until the late 19th Century, Champagne was a sweet drink, sweetened at the ‘dosage’ stage just prior to storing. It was served as a dessert wine, with sugar levels as high as 300 grammes per litre. To put that in context, modern Brut (dry) champagnes must have less than 12 gm of sugar per litre to qualify as a ‘Brut’. Louise Pommery had been educated in England. She thought British tastes would prefer a less sweet sparkling wine. And so the first Champagnes that we might recognise were born.
There’s another reason why we choose Vranken-Pommery, why it’s an important estate. In 1914, the German army captured Reims. The French army quickly recaptured Rein, driving the Germans out of the town centre, and into the surrounding hills. From where they destroyed Reims with artillery. Reims was virtually flattened, and that includes the Cathedral and the Basilica. Much of the population retreated into the caves and galleries below Vranken-Pommery. We’ll explore these galleries, and remember that during the First World War, they set up schools, even hospitals, in these same caves.
Quick stop before lunch, the Basilica of St Remi. This is the site of the conversion to Catholicism of Clovis I, the first King of the Franks. This event pre-dates the Abbey subsequently built on the site (by about 500 years!) but is memorialised by a statue.
The Abbey was very heavily damaged in the First World War (like everything in Reims) but was meticulously rebuilt after the war, and what we see today is effectively a facsimile of the original abbey, a Romanesque building, as opposed to all the gothic cathedrals we’re used to including Reims). That means less knowledge about the supportive role of buttresses, thicker walls, smaller windows and less light. An interesting contrast to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Reims, a classic gothic cathedral.
Why is it a Basilica? Whatever else a Catholic building of worship might be, it can be appointed as a ‘Basilica’ by the Pope. Notre Dame is, Saint-Denis in Paris is, the church dedicated to my favourite Saint, Saine Thérese of Lisieux, is, St Peter’s in Vatican City is. The Abbey of St Remi is, but Reims Cathedral isn’t. So we’ll go and have a quick look.
We’ll take lunch in the centre of Reims, before visiting the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, a beautiful gothic cathedral. Believe it or not, this was also largely destroyed in the First World War. Everything in Reims is less than 100 years old, give-or-take, and it’s a point of interest that when Reims was rebuilt, Art Deco was all the rage in architectural circles, which explains why you’ll see so many examples of the art deco style in Reims. But some buildings were rebuilt in their original style – notably the cathedral and the basilica. But it is new. The stained-glass windows are fantastic, among my all-time favourites.
Back on our bikes, we’ll head out past the Hotel Azur to what I think is Reims’ best-kept secret. This is where the 2nd World War ended.
As the Allies moved into Germany, General Eisenhower established the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe (SHAEF) in a school in Reims. Following Hiter’s suicide on April 30th, 1945, Admiral Dönitz became the Nazi leader. On May 6th he authorised General Jodl to surrender to the Allies. Jodl offered to surrender all German troops on the Western front. Eisenhower threatened to close the German border, forcing the Germans to surrender to Russia. Dönitz’s bluff was effectively called, and the unconditional surrender document was signed in the Reims HQ on May 7th, 1945.
Stalin wasn’t very happy, he thought the surrender should be in Berlin, and include Russia. So the whole charade was re-enacted the following day on May 8th. Which is now celebrated as Victory in Europe Day (VE Day). But the war ended the day before, in Reims. Come and check it out.
The museum is still in the grounds of a school – how cool is that? The signing room is still there, with the actual desk. It’s a spine-tingling experience.
On our way back to the hotel, we’ll cycle right past the Porte de Mars. Built in the 3rd Century, this is the widest Triumphal Arch in the Roman World. Yes, of course we stop and have a look!
And back to the hotel before an evening stroll and dinner in Reims. We’ve only cycled 8 Km, but today is a wonderful day.