Travel

Champagne Weekend in Reims, France

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Thursday Oct 4, 2012

By now you’re savvy enough to know: true Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France. Hence the uppercase.

If the word "champagne" is in lower case or accompanied by the words "méthode traditionnelle," then you’re looking at sparking wine that utilizes the "French method" - but, as they say in France, "Ceci n’est pas Champagne."

And, as you also probably know, only grapes from the Champagne region can be used to produce Champagne wines.

And also - all harvesting in the Champagne region must be done by hand, in order to prevent the white juice of the grapes from coming into contact with the skins of the pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, which are two of the three grapes used to make Champagne - and which happen to be black grapes.

These are just a few of the tidbits you’ll recall after your Champagne weekend in Reims. The next time you’re thinking of a week in Paris, think about spending a weekend in nearby Reims, the center of the Champagne region and home to one of the three most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in the world (the other two being Chartres and Amiens).


Since 2007, Reims has been linked to Paris by a TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse - or high speed train) rail link, which makes the journey from Gare de l’Est in Paris to Reims Station in approximately 45 minutes.

A town of approximately 200,000 "Rémois," as the city’s citizens are called, Reims was allegedly named for Remus, brother of Romulus, the founder of Rome. The 2,000-year-old city has a remarkable history for such a relatively small town. It was here in 498 that Clovis, the King of the Franks, was converted to Christianity by Bishop Remi, a conversion which marked the birth of France. Thereafter, the cathedral of Reims hosted the coronations of no less than 29 French kings, making Notre-Dame of Reims the equivalent of Britain’s Westminster Abbey.

Every student of military and European history knows that Reims was a city martyred by World War I, shelled repeatedly by the Germans for more than three years, which resulted in the destruction of more than 80% of the city.

American soldiers (known as "Sammies" by the French, in reference to Uncle Sam) fought in the Champagne region during both World Wars - and it was an American infusion of philanthropy and altruism by magnates such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr. that enabled Reims to rebuild after the desecration of World War I.


From the ashes rose a city notable for its Art Deco architecture. The master plan for the rebuilding of Reims was submitted by urban planner and New York architect, George B. Ford, Jr., who was assisted by more than 300 architects and their practices. It was Rockefeller who rebuilt the cathedral’s roof, while the Carnegie Foundation donated funds for the municipal library, one of the many Art Deco architectural treasures in Reims, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1991.

The next time you’re feeling a little queasy about American foreign policy, you might think about its exemplary record in Reims.

Oh, but let’s face it: the primary reason you’re in Reims (which is pronounced "Rahnz" by the locals and "Reams" by the British and most Americans) is for the bubbles. Speaking of bubbles, did you know that there are between 45 - 50,000 bubbles per bottle of Champagne?

Reims is a town where every third person is involved in the Champagne industry. And no matter how you feel about religion, if you appreciate the joys of Champagne, you’re going to have to nod to the monasteries. The monk Dom Perignon is considered the father of Champagne, after his discovery of the virtues of blending grapes from various villages. The resultant sparkling wine became a favorite of the royal courts - and a symbol of "l’art de vivre" in France.


Reims was also, in the Middle Ages, the gingerbread capital of Europe, a culinary prowess that may have contributed to the creation of the celebrated "biscuit rose de Reims," the rose-colored confection invented in the late 17th century and favored by the royal courts. Today, the rose biscuits are still manufactured in Reims by Maison Fossier, using an original recipe dating from 1756.

Pink biscuits and Champagne: what more do you need for a romance-filled weekend? How about some of the best oysters in France, thanks to the ice-filled trucks that arrive daily from Bretagne? Toss in a plethora of Art Deco buildings and a world-famous cathedral built atop the ruins of the Roman baths and you’ve got yourself an aphrodisiacal idyll.

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(Feature continues on next pages: Where to Eat, What to Do, Where to Stay, Getting There...)


WHERE TO EAT:

Cafe du Palais: If you want to feel immediately at home in Reims, book a table at this well-loved restaurant on your first night in town.

Located in the center of town, Cafe du Palais has been run by the same family since 1930. The Art Deco glass canopy ceiling by Jacques Simon is hung with scores of objects from the numerous events that the restaurant has hosted over the years, including concerts, fashion shows, and parties.

The truth is, every night at Cafe du Palais feels like a party and the convivial owners and staff are as effervescent and bubbly as the local Champagnes, which are liberally poured.

The menu features traditional French cuisine - and you’ll leave Cafe du Palais feeling like a member of the Reims royal court.

LINK: Cafe du Palais


L’Epicerie "Au Bon Manger": An epicerie in France is a grocer, but L’epicerie "Au Bon Manger" is the Reims equivalent of a small-scale Dean & DeLuca or Eataly: a veritable temple of sleek design and products with pedigree. Originally from Paris, the stylish young owners are motivated by a love of good taste - in all its forms.

There’s an exquisite olive oil from Sicily by Cedric Casanova and organic Champagne from a boutique vineyard that produces only 6081 bottles, as well as a plethora of other fascinating and delicious culinary temptations.

If you book a table for lunch inside the small eatery, you’ll find yourself indulging in some of the most toothsome local cheeses and charcuterie, all while basking in the generous hospitality of these two gentle souls.

LINK: L’Epicerie "Au Bon Manger"


Cafe de la Paix: Oysters. Les huitres. Oysters. There are many fine things about dining at Cafe de la Paix, the in-house restaurant at the four-star Hotel de la Paix in the center of Reims, but it’s the oysters that leave a diner breathless. Brought in daily in an ice-filled truck from Bretagne, the oysters at Cafe de la Paix are meaty and briny, with enough oyster liquor to fill a shooter. As large as a langoustine and as clean as ice water, these oysters are a testament to why the French eat more oysters per person each year than any other Europeans, which leads us to consider anew the nation’s reputation for licentiousness. The dining room at Cafe de la Paix is sleek and contemporary and the staff admirably professional - but oh, it’s the oysters here that you’ll recall with the most fondness.

LINK: Cafe de la Paix


Brasserie Flo: On a sunny afternoon, dining al fresco at Brasserie Flo is the epitome of summer indolence: the Champagne is on ice, the clink of crystal in the air. You close your eyes to the sun and sink into a reverie about the glories of French cuisine.

When the weather turns, head inside to the restaurant’s classic dining room with its original wrought-iron and wood staircase and stained glass windows. The interior of this Parisian brasserie in Reims evokes the Belle Époque almost as effectively as reading Proust; order a bottle of Champagne and flip open your dog-eared copy of "In Search of Lost Time." You’re in Champagne heaven.

LINK: Brasserie Flo


Au Conti: Located in the heart of Reims, Au Conti is housed in a mansion built in 1862 that is now the home of the Grand Hotel Continental. Outfitted in red velvet and gold, with vases of long-stemmed red roses, the dining room of Au Conti appears ready for an entrance by Sarah Bernhardt.

Chef Thierry Siden began his career at Hotel de Crillon in Paris and his menu includes classics such as a knife-chopped steak tartare, as well as scampi carpaccio with mango. A chilled strawberry soup with tomatoes provides the final kiss of summer. With its white linens and heavy silver, Au Conti provides the perfect stage for crêpes au Conti flambé: the blue flames causing a small sensation around the otherwise hushed dining room. Au Conti is where the Rémois go when there’s something special to celebrate.

LINK: Au Conti

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(Feature continues on next pages: What to Do, Where to Stay, Getting There...)


WHAT TO DO:

Champagne Etienne Lefevre: While the surfeit of big Champagne houses in Reims and the environs draw the tourists and the oenophiles, there’s something special about a visit to the smaller Champagne producers.

Located in nearby Verzy, Champagne Etienne Lefevre is owned and operated by a family passionate about their wines. If you are fortunate, the matriarch, Anne-Marie Lefevre, will lead you on a tour of the house’s 19th-century cellar. The estate’s Grand Cru vineyards are 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay and tastings include a silken Brut Rosé and a distinguished Brut Prestige that nearly begs for a dozen oysters.

An afternoon enveloped by the familial atmosphere at Champagne Etienne Lefevre is as delicious and effervescent as the house Champagne.

LINK: Champagne Etienne Lefevre


Champagne Pommery: Founded in 1836, Domaine Pommery has long been associated with its Brut Royal, a pale yellow-green elixir that is both fresh and elegant, a bit like Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany’s." Created in 1874, Brut Royal is the bubbly that built the house.

A visit to the Elizabethan-style chateau in the heart of Reims is not unlike paying a call to the Queen and each year, more than 120,000 visitors pay their respects. The Pommery estate contains more than 11 miles of chalk-pit cellars, which hold approximately 20 million bottles of the estate’s bounty. Tour guides count heads, so there’s no point in your hoping to get locked in overnight for a Dionysian bacchanal.

LINK: Pommery


Carnegie Library: One of the most stunning examples of Art Deco architecture in a public building, the Carnegie Library was built in 1928 with donations from the Carnegie Foundation. The reception hall’s small mosaics are splendid homages to manual and physical labor - and it’s possible to stare at them and be reminded of Tom of Finland’s work. The hanging lantern at the room’s center is by Jacques Simon, as are the stained glass windows in the reading room. Every thoughtful detail about the Carnegie Library honors the building’s role in the intellectual development of humanity. A sanctuary for reflection and a reminder of America’s love for France, the Carnegie Library is an Art Deco jewel.

LINK: Carnegie Library

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WHERE TO STAY:

Campanile Reims Centre: Renovated in 2011, the three-star Campanile Reims Centre is located within a five-minute walk to the center of Reims.

The modern rooms are a bit like an adolescent boy’s bedroom, painted in Granny Smith apple green and furnished with a candy apple red chair. Framed paintings of race cars hang on the walls above the bed, as if the teenage boy were dreaming of racing at Le Mans.

Try as he might, however, the boy cannot deny the fact of his existence at Reims for the window flawlessly frames a postcard perfect view of the famous Gothic cathedral.

WiFi is free and the bathrooms include a large rain forest showerhead with plenty of hot water. A breakfast buffet is served in the modern dining room, where two hi-tech coffee machines provide caffeine for the weary. Baguettes and croissants are fresh daily.

Marketed to the businessperson, Campanile Reims Centre provides a clean and well-illuminated space in which to conduct one’s affairs.

LINK: Campanile Reims Centre

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GETTING THERE:

Air France: On Air France, there’s still a middle class - and it is rightfully celebrated.

It’s called Premium Economy, meaning it’s a class above Air France’s economy class - and right behind Air France’s business class.

With Premium Economy, you get many of the same amenities as business class. In Premium Economy, the Air France seats are like your father’s favorite Barcalounger. Meal service in Premium Economy, conceived by Michel Nugues of "Toques du Ciel" (or Sky Chefs), has been designed specifically for this cabin and includes classic French specialties.

As for the price, depending on destination, Premium Economy is approximately 50% less than business class - and sometimes only $400 more than a round-trip economy ticket.

Regardless of which class you choose, Air France is the only airline that offers Champagne to all passengers on its long-haul international flights - at no extra charge.

LINKS:

Air France

Air France Premium Economy

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ADDITIONAL INFO:

Click here for photo album of Reims

Reims Tourisme

A Tout France, France Tourism Development Agency

Rail Europe

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A long-term New Yorker and a member of New York Travel Writers Association, Mark Thompson has also lived in San Francisco, Boston, Provincetown, D.C., Miami Beach and the south of France. The author of the novels WOLFCHILD and MY HAWAIIAN PENTHOUSE, he has a PhD in American Studies and is the recipient of fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. His work has appeared in numerous publications.

This article is part of our "Winter 2013" series. Want to read more? Here's the full list»

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