Northeastern France's Crossroads City

Facts in Brief:

  • Location: 49°18'N 04°02'W
  • Population: 187,206 (city), 291,735 (metropolitan area) (1999 census)
  • Government: sous-préfecture of the Marne département, Champagne-Ardenne administrative région
  • Alternate (English) Spelling: Rheims*
  • Demonym: Rémois

A familiar legend tells of a pair of twin brothers, raised in the hills of southern Italy by a mother wolf. One of the brothers, Romulus, founded Rome, while, according to one version of the myth, the other brother, Remus, went much further to the north and west. Romulus' astute twin could not have picked a more beautiful site—his city sits on the Vesle river amid the forested and vine-covered hills of the Champagne-Ardenne region of northeastern France.

The City

Reims is located 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Paris, on the Vesle River and a canal connecting the Aisne and Marne Rivers. Southeast of the city is the Montagne de Reims, a large round hill covered in forest and vines. A city of antique splendor and exceptional charm, Reims is home to two of the most spectacular old buildings in the world.

Reims is a major crossroads for northeastern France, both figuratively, as the largest commercial/industrial center in the entire region, and literally, as the junction of the important A4/E50 from Paris to Strasbourg, the A26/E17 from Calais to Lyon, and the A34 from the Ardennes to Belgium.

The Cathedral: Notre-Dame de Reims

Perhaps the most famous feature of Reims is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, a magnificent building which took over 200 years to construct. In 1210, Archbishop Aubry de Humbert conceived a plan to build a holy building that would be the glory of the area. Architect Jean d'Orbais designed the great building and five successive architects built it to his specifications over the next two centuries. This undertaking was so expensive that it caused a local uprising in 1223. Noted as one of the most beautiful buildings in France, this exquisite Gothic church has been the host to the coronation of nearly every French king.

The Cathedral is noted for both art and architecture, especially the impressive stained glass windows, including a modern one by Marc Chagall (who once worked in one of the city's stained glass workshops). The western façade is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Medieval art—it features a famous smiling angel known as the Sourire de Reims which is something of a local mascot. The superb Gothic architecture has been admired for a long time, and the flying buttresses of this huge building are among the most spectacular in existence. Notre-Dame Cathedral is also known for its fine collection or reliquaries.

Hiding among the wonderful art on the façade is an elephant, among the flying buttresses. In order to locate it, consider the Cathedral from above and in front as if it were a clock face. Thus, the main entrance is at six o'clock and the Chagall stained glass is at twelve. Going to the back of the building and viewing the area of two o'clock reveals the elephant!

During World War I, the city was shelled repeatedly for several years. At this time, the Cathedral sustained terrible damage, including losing much of its old stained glass and façade work. In 1937, it was rebuilt with the aid of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Other Points of Interest

Reims is home to the beautiful Basilica of St.-Rémi. Barely a mile from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, these medieval architectural marvels are nearly equal in size. The Basilica, dedicated to the 5th century patron saint of the city, is built on the site where Saint Remi is supposed to have been buried in AD 533. The church was consecrated by Pope Leon X in 1049, it is attached to an important Benedictine abbey. Incorporating elements from many centuries, the Basilica houses an amazing collection of artwork and artifacts from the area, dating back as far as prehistoric times. Many kings and nobles of France are interred here, as well as the archbishops. World War I's shelling severely damaged the old building, but it was painstakingly restored, largely through the patient work of architect Henri Deneux.

The city of Reims has several wonderful museums. Notable among them are:

  • Reims' town hall, a fine old 17th century building, which was enlarged in the 19th century, has a gallery of art and a collection of archaeological finds and photographs pertaining to the region. The building also houses the public library.
  • The Musée St.-Denis (on the rue de Chanzy) has a small but lovely collection of tapestry, painting, sculpture and pottery from French and Flemish artists from the Renaissance to modern times.
  • The Musée du Vieux-Reims on Place du Forum is decorated with 17th and 18th century furniture, sculpture and carving, much of which was salvaged from buildings in the area. Many prints by the famous printmaker A. Dürer.
  • The Ancien Collège des Jésuites & Planetarium was a hospice from its creation in 1606 until 1976. Since then, it has been open for tours of its magnificent interior and library. It has been the setting for several motion pictures, including Queen Margot and Germinal. Shows are available at the planetarium almost every day of the year.
  • The Palais du Tau, is named for the T shape of the building. It is at 2 Place du Cardinal Luçon and was built as the Archbishop's palace. Later it housed kings and their entourages during the occasion of their crowning. It is open to the public as a museum and contains much of the lovely art and sculpture from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. It also has a fine collection of tapestry, costumes and paintings, mostly related to the French kings who were crowned here.
  • Musée de la Reddition (The Surrender Museum) was General Eisenhower's headquarters in 1945, it had been a hall of the College Moderne. The map room (the Salle de la Signature), where German General Jodl signed the surrender on May 7 has been preserved exactly as it was on that historic day. The museum is right behind the train station—12 rue Franklin Roosevelt.
  • The Chapelle Foujita, (33 rue du Champ de Mars) was built by Léonard Foujita (1886-1968), a Japanese painter, in celebration of his conversion to Christianity. The Romanesque-styled chapel showcases some of Mr. Foujita's fine work.
  • The Motorcar Museum (Musée Automobile de Reims-Champagne), located near the train station, has a wide collection of classic motorcycles and autos, mostly from the collection of Philippe Charbonneaux. The displays change often and there are also vintage toys, model cars and classic advertising art.

The Place Royale is the main square and has a famous statue of Louis XV. The neoclassical area around the square was designed and built in the 18th century. Reims' main street, the rue de Vesle, passes through the Place Royale as it traverses the town. Another important square is the Place du Parvis, in front of the Cathedral, which has an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc.

Reims boasts many beautiful old churches, homes and a chain of forts built in the 1870's to defend the northern approaches to Paris (some of the buildings are available for tours). The University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne was founded in 1548, but abolished during the French Revolution. It was re-established in the 1960s and has grown into an important center for learning in the region.

Very few architectural remains of the Roman settlement have been found. The most spectacular is a third century triumphal arch, the Mars Gate (Porte de Mars). This arch is the only survivor of four gates through the town walls. Not far from the Porte de Mars is a remarkable 36 foot long mosaic, covered with depictions of gladiators and animals. In the Place du Forum, the Cryptoportique (or Cryptoportico, in English) is a third century Roman gallery, partially underground, which was the entrance to the forum, used for grain storage. It is open to the public from June through September.

Economy

Set in the middle of a very important wine-making region, Reims is extremely well-known for the champagnes that are produced here. Reims also has an important wool market. Other commercial and industrial activities in the region include the manufacture of paper, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, soap, aircraft and automotive equipment, food and clothing. Banking, insurance and real estate are also important to the economy of Reims. The city is famous for its beautiful white cotton lace and needlework. The river port at Reims is an important link in the industry and commerce of northeastern France.

This town and nearby Epernay are the industrial heart of the Champagne wine region. There are several great champagne makers in Reims, including Mumm, Taittinger, Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Piper Heidsieck—tours are available of many of the champagne makers' facilities. Beneath Reims' fertile soil are thick strata of chalk. Many kilometers of underground tunnels (called crayeres) run through the soft, rocky layers, housing some of the best champagne that the world will ever enjoy, sitting in the gentle darkness and awaiting the day when it will be ready to be sold. These soft tunnels (many were originally dug by Roman settlers many centuries ago) have an unfortunate tendency to collapse, which has led to worries about the preservation of the city's architectural treasures.

History

In prehistoric times, the area was settled by Gallic tribes. One of these tribes, the Remi, supposedly lent its name to the city (although the tale of the city's founding by Remus is certainly compelling). This area was an important and flourishing outpost of the Roman Empire for many centuries. The Romans called it Durocortorum Remorum, and it was the home of the governors of the Belgian province.

Reims has been the site of many battles over the centuries. It was invaded by Vandals and razed by the forces of Attila the Hun. In 496, Clovis, King of the Franks was baptized into the Christian church at Reims by Saint Rémi (Remigius). Clovis' wife was a Christian woman who begged him to convert to her religion. When his army was preparing to fight the Alemanni, he swore that if his troops defeated their foes, he would convert. The king was as good as his word. A white dove supposedly descended from heaven with the Holy Chrism (holy anointing oil) for the king's baptism. The ampulla is housed in the cathedral, where it was used to anoint the monarchs of France for hundreds of years. Notre-Dame cathedral was thus built on that sacred site and all but six of the kings of France were installed there.

A portion of the reason for this hallowed spot being used for the crowning of the line of monarchs must certainly be to lend credibility to the reign of whatever potentate was being installed. During the turbulent times of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, rulers had to do whatever they could to inspire confidence in their divine right to lead. Being installed at the same place the St. Rémi received King Clovis into the faith was certain to inspire the confidence of a lot of the people, particularly during times of dynasty change, when competing factions might be vying for the throne.

On Sunday, 17 July, 1429, Joan of Arc travelled to Reims to see the coronation of Charles VII, the monarch whom she helped to put on the throne during the vicious Hundred Years War. The Maid of Orleans held the king's banner during the service and after he was declared sovereign, she knelt before him, embraced his knees and declared her loyalty to him as God's chosen ruler.

In the 17th century, King Louis XIV appointed Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a Reims native as his finance minister. This was a boon to the industries of the area, especially the wool industry. Wool had been a staple industry of the area since the 12th century, but faded in importance with the introduction of cotton in recent centuries.

Given its vital strategic location on the northern route to the capital, Reims has often known the hardships of war. During the Franco-Prussian War, Reims was captured and, during 1870 and 1871, it was occupied by German troops. These years were hard for the locals.

In September, 1914, German troops occupied the city for a time. After the soldiers were forced from the city, they occupied the surrounding high ground and shelled the city with artillery fire for four years. The town was awarded the Legion of Honour and Military cross at the end of the war for the valor that its people showed. During the 1920s, over 325 architects worked diligently to reconstruct the town.

In 1940-1944, Reims again suffered the horrors of war, as the bombs of the Luftwaffe reduced much of the city to rubble. My some miracle, the freshly-restored cathedral amazingly escaped damage that time, however. Reims was occupied by Allies, who used it as a major base for the assault on Axis troops. General Alfred Jodl, representative for Karl Dönitz signed a treaty of unconditional surrender acting on behalf of the German army on May 7, 1945.

Thousands of years after the twins supposedly parted company and Remus built his city on the Vesle, Reims remains in important crossroads city for the northeastern portion of France—a city of history, cultural heritage, industry and, of course, champagne.

Visiting Reims:

According to Rail Booker's City Guides "Reims is less than four hours from London Waterloo by Eurostar and train." With its many beautiful landmarks and champagne cellars (many tours are free, but almost all require advance booking), Reims is a wonderful holiday spot.

The tourism office is in the restored house of the treasurer at 2 rue de Guillaume-de-Machaut. Town tours are available year-round. Reims is somewhat less "touristy" than many other destinations, and it is noted for being easy to navigate and a friendly, affordable vacation spot. If you are planning a visit, it might be a good idea to check on www.reims.fr (pages in English, French and German), because there is far more to see and do in this city than this one writeup could possibly cover!

Once the visitor has sampled some of the churches, homes and museums, the city also offers fine dining (there are a number of good restaurants, in every price range), shopping and hotels. Directly across from the rail station, the Place Drouet D'Erlon is home to hotels, coffee shops, cafés, cinemas, bars, stores, nightlife and restaurants. A very good road system connects everything.

Local culinary specialties include:

  • Cerises de Dormans, a dish with cherries from Dormans
  • Pieds de Porc de Ste-Menehould, pig's feet (trotters)
  • Jambon de Reims, Reims is famous for the local ham steak
  • Coq au Vin, chicken in wine sauce, an international favorite, is particularly well-loved here
  • Sorbet au Marc de Champagne, a type of sorbet, flavoured with champagne brandy (as one might expect, some of the dishes are champagne-based)
  • Ratafia, which is an aperitif with champagne

Annual events include:

  • Circus performances (January-February)—in one of the area's only permanent circuses.
  • Les Fêtes Johanniques (June)—an extravagant and beautiful medieval festival honoring Joan of Arc.
  • Les Sacres du Folklore (six days in June, corresponding with Les Fêtes Johanniques)—one of the largest, most colorful and best-known folklore festivals in Europe.
  • Evocation Lumiere (July through Early October, 9:30 pm on Saturdays)—music and light shows held at the Basilica. These impressive and beautiful performances tell the story of the Basilica.
  • Flâneries musicales d'été (July and August)—more than one hundred free musical performances (Jazz and Classical music, mostly) in area churches, museums and parks.
  • There are also a number of annual sports matches in and near Reims including tennis, cycling, auto racing, equestrian and running events.

*Author's note regarding orthography: Traditionally, the spelling RHEIMS has been used in English-speaking places (like E2). This practice seems to have fallen into disfavour, however, and nearly every source from the 1980s to present, including Encyclopaedia Britannica, World Book and Wikipedia, uses the native spelling REIMS. It may be that the other spelling is headed for the orthographic dustbin to take its place alongside such quaint antiquities as "Hindoo", "Peking" and "Nippon."


References:
A big tip of the chapeau to themanwho for the idea, guidance, grammar checking and lots of facts. You made this writeup happen!
Thanks also to LeoDV for his wonderful advice
Blush Response's writeup under Clovis (which I've used more than once!) and my own research on Saint Leonard
Jacobs, Michael and Stirton, Paul “the Knopf Traveler’s Guides to Art: France” (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1984).
Michelin Tyre PLC Tourism Department, "Alsace Lorraine Champagne"–tourist guide (Watford, 1999).
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 9, (Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, London, 2002).
Time Genie, current time in different parts of the world: http://www.timegenie.com/city.time/frrhe/
Tiscali Reference: http://www.tiscali.co.uk/reference/encyclopaedia/hutchinson/m0011717.html
Into France: http://www.intofrance.co.uk/destinations/guides/department.asp?departmentid=30
Catling, Christopher, ed. “Must-See France” (Thomas Cook Publishing, Peterborough, 2000).
Maps of the World - France: http://www.mapsofworld.com/lat_long/france-lat-long.html
Paine, Albert Bigelow "The Girl In White Armor" (Macmillan, New York, 1957).
La chapelle Foujita: http://perso.wanadoo.fr/epjamin/Reims/Foujita/foujita.htm
Rail Booker's City Guides: http://www.railbookers.com/guides/reims.php
Reims' tourism sites: www.tourisme.fr/reims
www.ville-reims.com
http://www.reims.fr/

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