Sampling France's Finest

Trip Start Apr 02, 2008
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Trip End Ongoing


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Sunday, April 12, 2009

The next morning, we walked into town to find breakfast - seemingly a chore when we could have eaten something in the hotel, but a great excuse to explore the famous French petit-dejeuner: croissants, pain au chocolates, brioches, baguettes, pastries with exotic names and maracons (not to be confused with the Spanish maricons). We found an amazing patisserie on Reims' main street, which - as it was Easter Sunday - was in full swing wrapping fantastic three-storied gateaux for delivery. We sat down and enjoyed croissants, coffee and Easter eggs, kindly bought by my mum for the four of us!

Easter Sunday was to be spent exploring the Champagne Houses of the region, and fortunately James knew the area well. We got into the car and drove to the Pommery, one of the finest brands of champagne and housed in a stunning chateau a few miles from Reims city centre. The champagne caves of the Pommery, stretching an enormous 12 miles underground, were famed for being the first to put the fizz into champagne, which until then had been still, and today also doubles as a modern art gallery. We descended into the depths of the murky and chilly caves, and were escorted around.

Our guide enlightened us to the champagne distillation process, as we dodged the moving works of art: an inflating/deflating military tank, a room filled with birds that perched on guitars making music, an enormous propeller hanging from the ceiling. We were taught the differences between vintage and regular champagne and saw some of the oldest bottles in the country, which our guide whispered were probably replicas as the actual bottles were so expensive he suspected they had been removed for safe storage somewhere. Although we didn't see any champagne being made, the underground tour inspired an overdue respect for the labour-intensive process that waters the world's most fortunate.

We returned to Reims and took a picnic and bottle to the city's premier feature - (you guessed it) its cathedral. It is remarkably similar in its aesthetics to Notre Dame and equally magnificent, we mused, whilst munching on France's customary baguette, ham and cheese. A fine bottle of Beaujolais was also consumed and we became merry, Ed playing practical jokes on my mum (making water from a tin look like he was relieving himself in public in broad daylight) before mimicking a homeless bum sleeping on the bench (which he pulled off well).

Unlike Notre Dame, we made it into the cathedral's interior, which was overwhelming. Its arches stood proud, creating domes way above our heads and long and cold echoey halls in which silence reverberated and hung heavy around our ears. The coloured stain-glass windows shone, interjecting the murkiness of the church. We perused the length of the basilica, deferentially dodging the average Frenchman assuming his religious duties on this significant day.

We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling Reims' streets and book fairs, stopping for the habitual beer when thirst set in. That evening we returned to our favourite Big Café, this time for raw meat (steak tatare) and scallops. And just when we thought we couldn't eat, drink or stay awake any more, Ed suggested that we take a look at the Cathedral at night-time, hoping it to be illuminated and more peaceful than earlier. None of us were overly keen I think, desperate to make it to bed and sleep off the previous days' excesses, but Ed pushed us to walk off the heavy food and clear our heads before bed.

As we rounded the corner, the cathedral took our breath away. It glowed, literally divinely, from the black night surrounding it, proudly demanding and consuming the attention of its environs. Its ornate figures created, and yet were simultaneously shrouded, by their own formation, making a mottled surface of faces all the way up the imposing church front. In the spacious and empty foreground, we looked up in awe; we felt like we were seeing this magnificent structure at its zenith - the way it was meant to be seen and admired, and as though we were the only people sharing with it the secret of its full greatness and beauty. It instilled in me the feeling of a quiet satisfaction, almost euphoria. And maintaining that enriched feeling, we gaily walked home to bed.
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