The third decade of my life ended as I was face-down on a hotel bed in Reims, fully clothed, and unconscious. I’m fairly certain that I had a smile on my face.
I had decided to celebrate turning the big 4-0 in the Champagne region of France in August 2016. My husband’s work schedule at the time did not allow for us to be away for long, so an hour-long flight to Paris, then another hour by car to Reims, was a feasible choice. We turned to our friends at Grape Escapes to help us with ALL of our last-minute arrangements, as I had decided on this plan in mid-July. We’ve used this wine-focused tourism company quite a few times previously and have never been disappointed. I usually send them an email, tell them where I want to go, remind them that I’ve been in the trade (no “this is how wine is made” tours and tastings for us!), and they magic up a faultless itinerary for which I happily exchange my husband’s bank details.
We took an evening flight from Birmingham, England, to Paris, where a driver was waiting to take us to Reims. (Pronounced closely to "Rance" or "Ras" if you're local, they don't like to hear it called "Reems.") It would have been quite easy to get a train to Champagne Ardennes, and then a taxi to the hotel, but, alas, no trains operate on this route after 7:30pm. We were deposited at Hotel de la Paix in the center of Reims just in time for a quick nightcap in the bar, then to bed. “Hotel of Peace,” as the name translates into English, reiterates the role Reims has played in European wars, politics, and peace negotiations throughout the centuries. Not to be missed is the Museum of the Surrender which documents World War II and the unconditional surrender of the Third Reich to the Allied Forces on May 7, 1945, in the former war rooms of General Eisenhower’s supreme headquarters.
We were up bright and early the next morning to meet our guide for a walking tour of the city, which began at Reims Cathedral (Notre Dame de Reims), a UNESCO World Heritage site. There has been a church here in some form since around 400 AD and is where the kings of France were crowned. It has a sordid history of destruction and restoration but as an important part of contemporary life, it has withstood the tests of time. Our guide was incredibly informative and I would definitely recommend a guided tour if you go – there’s just so much to see both inside and outside of the cathedral. She told us a story about how some of the scenes sculpted on the outside of the cathedral had been either removed or changed by order of a medieval priest because he thought that the depictions of hell were giving his parishioners too many bad ideas! My favorite parts were the Smiling Angel (above), the stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall (below) and the collection of stained glass paying homage to the local vineyard workers and winemakers.
After learning about the cathedral and a walk around the high points of town, we said goodbye to our guide and headed to La Brasserie du Boulingrin for lunch, just across from the massive market hall, Halles du Boulingrin. This quintessential French bistro features shellfish platters, escargots, and traditional bistro fare – duck, steak frites, foie gras, and beef tartare. Thankfully, Grape Escapes had arranged a set lunch menu for us with minimal choices to be made because the choice is overwhelming. We only got worse at making choices as a carafe of wine was presented with each of the three courses. It was all delicious and I seriously thought I’d have to be rolled out of there because I ate every last bit on my plates.
I managed to hoist myself out of my chair to be collected by our driver, who took us for a tour and tasting at Champagne Veuve Clicquot. What could be better than spending an afternoon at a Champagne house? Turns out, not much. We had a great time. After our winery visit, our driver took us back to our hotel at about 4pm, where we had an important decision to make – do we crash out obscenely early and get lots of rest? Or do we carry on drinking and possibly eating even more food? We went for option number two and wandered aimlessly around the city, stopping at cafes for glasses of wine in the sunshine.
We eventually ended up back on the street which was the scene of our gluttonous lunch and took a sidewalk table at Le Bocal. We had a selection of “nibbles” – ok, we were complete gluttons again – and everything was fresh and perfectly prepared. The selection of wines by the glass was amazing and featured gems that are normally not easily found on lists outside of France. My favorite of the evening was the Sylvaner, which paired perfectly with my crab. I mention this because I had asked my husband if he wanted any crab when we were ordering. He said “no, thanks.” Then he had the audacity to ask me for a bit of my crab when our food arrived. I did not share. I told him to get his own crab as I was wrist-deep in shell, meat, and drawn butter. I still hear about that incident to this day but, honestly, we’re not newlyweds. He should have known how that was going to play out.
After dinner, we found our way back to our hotel and I told my husband that I was going to have a little nap before we went to see the light show at the cathedral. We never made it. We both woke up the next morning – my BIG birthday morning. I still had all of my clothes on and was being strangled by a particularly large necklace that hadn’t been removed, either. But I was alive, I had made it to 40, and my liver had a monster of a day ahead of it – starting with a breakfast birthday bottle at Dom Pérignon...