I love visitors. They come with wide-open eyes and inspire us with fresh motivation to explore. When our buddy Mike F. showed up in his zippy rental car a few days ago, he asked if we had any side trips we'd like to do. You bet. So, after Karl taught Mike how to wear all black and tie a scarf like a proper Frenchman, we motored off to the fine city of Reims.
To say the name right, hold your nose and say "rans" as in "ransacked." Which apparently, it was - several times. Yet, thanks to the ongoing restorations, the town is a veritable timeline of European history. It is marked by Roman ruins (here you see me too deep in thought next to the walls from a former granary, and archways from a temple to Mars below), churches from the very beginning of Christianity in France such as a 12th century abbey built into a 9th century Romanesque church, the centerpiece of the town Notre-Dame de Reims from the 13-14th centuries, and modern architecture from the rebuilding after the World Wars.
The cathedral in and of itself is a microcosm of history, a spectacular mixture of styles and eras. For example, I was delighted to find the Christian imaginary of 20th century Jewish painter Marc Chagall, realized in luminous stained glass, and housed in this Gothic cathedral. This church and city also has the distinction of being the spot where French kings were crowned and anointed for centuries. (Mike and Karl re-anact Clovis' crowning as the first Christian king of France in the 5th century.) These were times when they believed that kings were given a divine right to rule, authority passed directly to them by God. A bit hard for our postmodern, democracy-centered minds to grasp. But that's how it was. Just like we say a pastor is "called" to the ministry, a king was "called" to rule, and that came with a certain number of rights and privileges.
Besides bishops, there's the bubbly. This is the Champagne region, and there's a vendor of that most revered sparkling wine on nearly every corner.As legend would have it, Dom Peringnon popped open a forgotten bottle of stored wine, took a swig, and proclaimed: "I'm drinking stars!" Up until a couple of days ago, I didn't really understand what the fuss was all about. What? That glorified selzer water that they serve at celebrations? Well, all I can say is that if you think you don't like champagne, wait until you go to the actual region in France, taste it, and then tell me how you feel.
I totally fell for it. We had been wandering around the city all afternoon, soaking in intermittent sun rays and all that ecclesiastical history, when we decided it was time for a snack. Ducking quickly into a fine-looking neighborhood butcher, we watched as a friendly woman lovingly arranged chiffonade-thin slices of cured ham from the region. A trip to the boulangerie for fresh baguette and the store for fresh fruit rounded out the picnic. Now, all we needed was the much-touted champagne. Apparently, there was a cellar just around the corner...
The small, family-run operation of Martel was done with tours for the day, but they were happy to suggest a bottle of Charles du Roy Premier Cru Brut to accompany our tasty victuals, and soon we were triumphantly heading back to the gardens around the Benedictine Abbey of St. Remi to indulge our appetites for late-afternoon golden sun and the products of the terroir.