Dorothy Parker typically once wrote, “Three be the things I shall never attain: Envy, content, and sufficient Champagne.”
We’ve long held a similar position when it comes to the good bubbly stuff – there is, indeed, never too much, even if sometimes your head might be trying to tell you otherwise. But perhaps because most Americans tend to only uncork a bottle to fête some or other ethereal event in their lives, visiting the namesake French region hasn’t seemed to have the lure of wine-tripping to, say, Burgundy or the Loire.
We fell in love with this little plot of Northeastern France a few years back on a visit to the impossibly picturesque old city of Troyes. But a more recent sojourn took us to Reims (pronounced Rhance), which is something of the Mecca of Champagne – especially if you’ve ever been struck by a sense of divinity when communing with a glass of the good stuff. It’s home to the major houses like Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, Ruinart, Taittinger and Vranken-Pommery, where we were greeted like visiting royalty.
But there is another, suddenly exigent reason to visit Reims. When Paris’ fabled Notre Dame fell to conflagration this past April, we were reminded that just an hour away by TGV, another awe-inspiring “Cathedral of Our Lady” has stood proud and intact since its post-WWI reconstruction. It is there ready to comfort (and astonish) all those now deprived of the privilege of seeing the more famous cathedral.
Still and all, the charms of France’s smaller cities are very much worth considering for a visit, especially if you’ve already trod the boulevards of the capital a couple of times. A “ville” like Reims offers a peek at a bit more of an authentic version of French living, especially as its attractions are not thronged with tourists – something we found ourselves specifically appreciating.
Here’s what we did.
Considering the low-built city around it, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims will literally take your breath away with its epic scale and haunted beauty. Built over a period of three centuries, the 13th to the 15th, it is an indisputable masterpiece of gothic architecture. It was significantly bombed during WWI (the indignant French used the incident as anti-German propaganda, as one would), and later restored to its inimitable majesty with equal measures of determination and pride. One of the captivating highlights is the Smiling Angel statue at the entrance – perhaps she’d gotten into the Champagne?
Most fascinatingly, Champagne culture is woven into the very fabric of Notre-Dame. During the 1950s, the major houses paid for the new, postwar stained glass, which now artfully tells the story of Champagne (early product placement?), perhaps reminding us that a few sips might genuinely take one closer to God. Indeed, it even has its own patron saint, which is John the Baptist (not Saint Vincent, as is sometimes assumed).
There are also dazzling works of stained glass by Marc Chagall in the axis of the apse of the church, dating to 1974. Inquiring as to his prominent use of the color blue, we were told that in France it is used to indicate prestige.
We also discussed the state ownership of French churches – something which very much came to the fore after the Notre-Dame fire in Paris.
There are just about 200 km of cellars in the region, and 1.5 billion bottles are stored away in those very cellars. And though Ruinart was first to plant its flag in Reims, we were drawn to Pommery for its artistic heritage – it is, arguably, the hippest Champagne producer.
The house itself was founded by Alexandre and Louise Pommery in 1836, and upon the former’s death in 1860, le madame took the reins – something virtually unheard of in those days; and history considers her as being one of the first prominent female businesswomen. Today it belongs to a larger concern called Vranken Pommery Monopole Group – but one detects nary a whiff of corporate overlordsmanship. It feels very much like a small, artisan concern.
Still, more than half a million cases of champers are produced there each year. And descending into the dark, enigmatic cellars via a dramatically lit stairway, one gets a sense of the seriousness that goes on there.
We learned of the patient process of turning the bottles by hand over a given period of time. Also, harvesting machines are forbidden in Champagne, so great care and genuine sweat goes into every stage of the process. Various combinations of three red skin / white juice grapes, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, are the basis of Champagne – and the year doesn’t matter all that much. But if the bottle is labeled “vintage,” it means the grapes were all from the same harvest. Got that?
But Pommery were always something of the “avant-garde” Champagne makers. And fittingly, the house now curates an annual art project, with outlandish installations woven through the cellars and the cavernous reception room. The latter has a stylish tasting area, where we acquired a considerable but decidedly elegant buzz well before noontime, amidst several imposing art pieces. It’s a bit of a surreal experience, is all we can say.
This year’s art theme is Underground Spirit, a nice double-entendre with both geographical and ideological hints contained within. There was something of a postmodern bouncy castle, and another genuinely affecting work was made up of some 20,000 odd bullet casings.
Fascinating historical fact: Pommery were the first to develop the “brut” champagne, all the way back in 1875.
Pommery, Underground Spirit exhibition
As one does in smaller French cities, we booked lunch at the classic Cafe du Palais, which was even grander than its name suggests. Looking much like a vintage poster of what you might imagine a famous French bistro to look like, the atmosphere was lively, and the seats were full with smart looking business types, charming old regulars, a fashionable sort or two, and savvy/hungry internationalists like ourselves.
It was all there, the faux Louis-the-something chairs, the dark leather banquettes, an absolutely stunning stained glass skylight, and authentic Art Deco everything (the place dates to 1930). We feasted on plates of local ham, homemade foie gras and a hearty duck confit that will essentially ruin you for eating the same dish back home.
A genuine revelation, however, was the restaurant Continental, in the hotel of the same name in which we were staying. As stylish as anything in Marylebone or NoLIta, it had a strikingly coffered ceiling, clever “lampshade” chandeliers, chicly mismatched furnishings and an attention-grabbing, glittery gold bar – all fitted throughout three separate rooms. We started with a cheeky l’œuf parfait, and our dish of medallions of veal in tarragon jus was tender and incredibly flavorful.
The hotel sits at the end of busy Place Drouet d’Erlon, and strolling along it after dinner, the too-many-to-count outdoor bars and pavement cafes were thumping with 20- and 30-somethings all trying to look cool and impress the opposite sex. Spring is definitely mating season in France.
The next night we took a short stroll over the the century-old Cafe de la Paix, which, having recently gotten a designer makeover, is now one of the city’s absolute scenes, packed with a distinctly cosmopolitan crowd. Its cool, contemporary eclecticism makes it seem as if Kelly Wearstler could have done the redesign (a significant compliment, btw). And the menu items were very much of the moment: citrus carpaccio with avocado, sea bream with sesame and soy…and our grilled andouillette was as immersively French as food can possibly be.
Reims was heavily bombed during WWII, yet it remains an endearingly attractive city – so it’s worth taking an afternoon stroll without a specific plan. We stumbled upon the Bibliotheque de Reims, which, considering our penchant for authentic Art Deco, was a thrilling highlight…for the exquisitely realized lobby alone.
We also took a tram to the Urbanisme Transitoire, a street art project inaugurated just last spring, which brought together several artists to create an ongoing multi-mural of sorts, a bit outside the city center. But if you look up – and sometimes even down – you’ll notice such art in unexpected places all around town, including a parking garage turned gallery. C215, who is a sort of French Banksy without the politics, is prominently featured.
But truly our favorite experience was what came next: a ride in an old Renault bus with My Vintage Tour Company, who proceeded to take us out of the city for a late afternoon vineyard tour, followed by a Champagne and cheese party right there in the very same vineyard. Watching the sunlight play off the fields stretched below while the bubbles dazzled our palettes, the impending apocalypse flashing across our television screens that very same morning seemed very far away.
France’s smaller cities have been a little slow to the boutique hotel races – though with so many charming independent places to stay, it has hardly seemed a matter. But walking into the new Hotel Continental, we were struck by how of-the-moment it was. The cosy but high-ceilinged lobby was done up in what could only be described as baroque-industrial, with a few flamboyant flourishes enhancing a handsome grey and brown, almost Corbusian color scheme.
Stylish rooms featured bold reds and blacks, with playfully hip wall coverings and patterned floors. Ask for one facing front, to take in the lively street scene.
As for its terrific restaurant, see above. But the excellent breakfast should also be noted – and, yes, it comes with Champagne.