Reims is a city in northern France, located about 90 miles east of Paris. Visiting the city can be done as a day trip from Paris, as the train takes less than an hour each way. There is enough to see and do, though, that I’d recommend an overnight stay.
Reims played several important roles in the history of France.
Reims was founded in 80 BC, by the tribe of Remi. During the Roman conquest, the tribe sided with the Romans, which gained them favor with the Roman rulers. In 496, King Clovis was baptized in Reims, an event which started the belief in divine monarchies.
In the eleventh century, the Archbishop of Reims held a strong political power. Henry I was crowned King of France in the Reims cathedral in 1027. For the next 800 years, almost all of the French coronations took place there.
The city was impoverished by the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War. It was heavily damaged during World War I and then again during World War II. The city was redeemed when the final surrender of the Germans took place in the small school that had been commandeered by the Allies.
There are notable structures and sites in the city of Reims. Three main plazas are located throughout the city. The Place Royale, is home to a statue of Louis XV. The Place Cardinal-Luçon has an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc. The Subé Fountain, celebrating the rivers of the region, is in the Place Drouet d’Erlon in the city center.
The Mars Gate is an impressive piece of Roman architecture. The triumphal arch is 109 feet long by 43 feet high. It is the only remaining gate of the four that originally surrounded the city.
The Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Reims was built between 1211 and 1275, constructed in the High Gothic style (see more below).
The Palace of Tau is located next to the cathedral. The palace was originally used in conjunction with the coronation ceremonies. The kings would dress here before walking to the cathedral. After the coronation, a banquet would be held in the palace.
About a mile from the cathedral is the Saint Remi Basilica. Although similar in size to the cathedral, it is less well-known. Next to the basilica is an abbey, formerly known as the Royal Abbey of St. Remi. The Basilica dates from the 11th century, although additions were made as late as the 15th century. The abbey now houses a museum displaying tapestries, pottery, jewelry and furniture. There is also a permanent military exhibit.
Notre Dame de Reims
The original Reims Cathedral was built in the early 5th century on the site of a Roman bath. Additions and improvements were made over the years, but in 1210, the church was destroyed by fire. A new church was begun almost immediately. There were controversies regarding its size and the cost to the citizens (through taxes) that led to a violent revolt and cessation of construction in 1233. Three years later, a truce was brought about through mediation by the King and Pope, so construction resumed. Although the majority of the church was completed by 1275, work on the facades continued through the 15th century.
Both the interior and exterior of the cathedral are adorned with sculptures and statues. Throughout Europe, only the Chartres Cathedral has more statues. One of the most unique sculptures on the exterior of the Reims Cathedral is the one known as the Smiling Angel. Figures and angels are usually sculpted with an emotionless face, but this one has a smile.
Notre Dame de Reims suffered considerable damage during World War I. German shells destroyed much of the sculpture and shot out almost all the windows. The Germans then brought in thousands of bales of straw so the church could be used as a hospital. Before they could use the church-hospital, the Germans were evacuated. A few days later, a shell was dropped on the bishop’s palace. Fire from the bomb spread through the church causing even more damage.
Restoration work began on the church in 1919. Although it reopened in 1938, the restoration process is still continuing today. During my recent visit, there was a photo display of the damage and progress. It was unbelievable.
Some stained glass windows have been replaced with more modern versions by contemporary artists. My favorites are the windows by Marc Chagall, but there are also beautiful ones by Imi Knoebel and Brigitte Simon.
Another modern spectacle is the laser light show that is projected on the cathedral six evenings throughout the summer. It is one of the best I’ve seen.
World Wars I and II
The city was widely damaged during World War I, including the famous cathedral. Pictures of the damaged church were used as propaganda, showing how the Germans were trying to destroy European culture.
During World War II, more damage was done to the city, although the cathedral was spared. More notable, though, is that in Reims, on May 7, 1945, General Eisenhower and the Allies received the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht. A school, known as the College Moderne et Technique de Reims had been commandeered as the operational headquarters of SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, under General Dwight D. Eisenhower. General Alfred Jodl, German Chief-of-Staff, signed the document of surrender.
The school, now known as Lycee Franklin Roosevelt (Franklin Roosevelt High School) continues to celebrate the historical event that took place within its walls. They have established the Surrender Museum in the rooms used as the Allies’ command center which remain as they were. Maps hang on the walls, surrounding the tables and chairs used to discuss strategy. In other rooms, a variety of military paraphernalia is displayed.
Reims is located in the center of Champagne country. No visit to the city would be complete without a tour of the caves. There are both large and small champagne houses, the most popular of which seem to be Taittinger and Mumm. These champagne houses along with some smaller ones offer tours – reservations are recommended. (I’ll talk more about my experience in a later post). If you don’t have time for a tour, taste a glass of local champagne at a Reims cafe.
For your itinerary, I’d recommend arriving in the city in the morning. If you are staying overnight, have the hotel hold your bags (or check in if the room is ready). Walk to the center of town to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims and the Palace de Tau – plan about two hours. Take your pick of several cafes that line Place Drouet d’Erlon.
After lunch, visit a champagne house or two. Take a tour of the caves. Enjoy a glass of champagne while people watching near the Place de Forum or the cathedral. After a relaxing dinner in the evening, join the group of people near the cathedral so you can watch the fantastic laser light show.
On your second morning, visit the Surrender Museum or other sites you missed the day before. Return to Paris or head to your next destination after lunch.
Reims is a beautiful city, often overlooked by visitors. Carve out a little time in your next European trip to visit this historic French city.