Rheims and Epernay

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Rheims and Epernay

This is an easy and enjoyable full-day excursion on the 'I Love Paris' program. Lunch is included, probably in Epernay. You need about 2 hours from Paris to Rheims, a couple of hours, maybe less, in Rheims to visit the cathedral and allow free time for shopping etc., 20 minutes to Epernay, lunch, and then 1 hour 30 minutes for the champagne cellars. Leaving Paris at 8.30am you can expect to be back by between 5.00 and 5.30pm. The intervening scenery is green but bland and there is nothing of surpassing interest to point out en route. You will begin to see the champagne vineyards within almost an hour of Rheims.

Champagne  "I'm drinking stars" Dom Pérignon, C17 monk who discovered the sparkling wine's fermentation process. Much of the following information will be given by the guide at the Moët-et-Chandon cellars but it is just as well to know it in advance. Rheims is one of the two capitals of champagne, the great rival of Epernay. Mumm, Heidsieck, Taittinger and Krug are among the famous names associated with Rheims. Epernay is Moët-et-Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Perrier-Jouet, Pol Roger, Mercier and Bollinger. There are 64,000 acres of champagne vineyards in this region.

Rheims  Pop. 190,000. This town was badly damaged in WW I and largely presents a modern and uninspiring face. In the course of both world wars about 18,000 houses were destroyed. Rheims is still, however, dominated by its cathedral which remains one of the finest jewels of French medieval architecture. This is the focus of your visit. Afterwards, if you have time and the inclination (they pay) it is worth visiting the Palais du Tau. This was the Archbishop's Palace and today houses an impressive collection of paraphernalia from the royal coronations, including a fragment of the True Cross that was once the private property of Charlemagne. Otherwise you can pass the time pleasantly enough shopping in the pedestrian precinct within easy walking distance of the cathedral.

The Cathedral  Unlike Chartres, the cathedral of Rheims was built over a period of centuries, the present building dating from between 1211 and the 1430s when the last towers were completed. Nevertheless, it presents a remarkable stylistic unity. It is 450 ft. long, 130 ft. high and 50 ft. wide in the nave. The deepest impression as you enter is normally created by the soaring nave. Most importantly, this was where the French kings were crowned, 56 of them in all, from Philippe- Auguste in 1180 (in the church's earlier incarnation) to Charles X in 1825. You can talk about Joan of Arc here (see Loire Valley notes) with regard to the coronation of Charles VII. Clovis, the Merovingian king and often considered the first king of France, was baptised by Bishop Rémi on Christmas Day 496 in the first church building on this site. There is a rather lovely story associated with Clovis' baptism. Just as he was being anointed, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended from heaven carrying in its beak the ampulla, the vessel containing the Holy Oil, and presented it to the bishop, thus confirming that Clovis' kingship over the Franks was ordained from above.

Rheims suffered terribly in WW I. The cathedral itself was bombed over several days in September 1914, April 1917 and November 1918 when the worst damage was inflicted on the vaulting, the walls and the west facade. Restoration was financed by the Rockefeller Foundation and the cathedral was reconsecrated in 1937. It did not suffer as badly in WW II. (In fact, as a result of the bombing, the crypt of the original C5 church on this site was found.)

You do not need to do a tour. The cathedral's outstanding features are very well explained on multilingual illuminated panels situated all around the cathedral. In addition you can and should pick up free leaflets in English from the tourist office adjacent to the cathedral entrance. Allow the group half an hour or so to explore the building. Among the treasures are the elongated sculpted figures on the cathedral's west front and, uniquely, on its interior face. There is a magnificent collection of stained-glass windows, many of them C13 and C14 but restored after WW I and WW II. In one of the side-chapels are windows painted by Marc Chagall. For a discussion of stained glass in general, see Chartres notes.

Epernay  Epernay's Avenue de Champagne is the headquarters of many of the greatest champagne companies. Möet et Chandon, the largest house, has cellars that extend over a total of 17 miles and hold an extraordinary 95,000,000 bottles. These are the caves that you will be visiting. (In total Epernay has more than 200 miles of cellars and tunnels hollowed out of the chalk.) NB. You must not be late. If you are even a couple of minutes late you may find yourself waiting for up to an hour for the next available tour. Almost all the guides are frightfully English, charmingly scathing, probably educated at Eton, almost certainly called Ambrose or Aloysius, and wearing boaters. If you do not have a reservation booked through the office you must make sure that you arrange one yourself sufficient time in advance. The champagne cellars are plush and extremely impressive. The tour takes you through the vast, mouldy network of cellars - you really do get an impression of the enormous size of the place - explaining the famous méthode champenoise. There are loos at the beginning and end of the visit. You will see, among others, champagne bottles that were ordered for Adolf Hitler. The list of famous or infamous names, all A grade celebrities, is endless. At the end of the tour you come to a stunning champagne fountain made from champagne glasses and flutes. There is also a shop but selling is not really a part of the deal (unlike, eg. Fragonard). Prices are the same as in Paris. Apart from champagne there is nothing to Epernay.

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