Ever the romantic, Mr. Michael Ballard has planned several stops on this trip that are anniversary gifts to me. One of those was a visit to the Champagne region of France.
About 100 miles (160 km) east of Paris, the region is split into five wine-producing districts with two main cities: Reims and Épernay.
We always enjoy visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so we chose Reims, which is home to the Notre Dame de Reims. This magnificent High Gothic cathedral was built in the early 13th century after a fire destroyed the previous structure. But the site dates to the fifth century, when St. Nicasius founded the first church on the site of a Gallo-Roman bath.
Joan of Arc liberated the city of Reims in 1429, and a statue in her honor stands on the plaza in front of the cathedral. A second statue and tributary altar are located inside.
Not too long after Joan of Arc’s heroic deeds, Henry II was crowned King of France at Notre Dame de Reims in 1547. Thirty other French kings have also been crowned there, and it was the traditional site for these ceremonies until Napoleon chose Notre Dame de Paris in 1804.
Notre Dame de Reims suffered major damage during World War I, and the cathedral wasn’t fully reopened until 1938. A sizeable portion of the funding for the repairs came from the American Rockefeller family, largely because of a passion for historical preservation on the part of John Rockefeller, Jr., who also donated $2 million toward the restoration of France’s Palace of Versailles in the 1920s.
The Reims cathedral was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, and Pope John Paul II visited it in 1996 for the 1500th anniversary of the Notre Dame de Reims baptism of Clovis, the first king of the Franks to unite the country under one ruler.
The interior of the cathedral is filled with awe-inspiring detail, including stained glass that dates back to the 13th century. The spectacular rose window above the entrance was removed during World War I and buried to prevent it from being destroyed by bombs. There are modern installations in Notre Dame de Reims as well, including a stained glass work by Marc Chagall that was installed in 1974.
You’ll find tapestries and wood carvings, statues and clocks, paintings and stone, as well as a temporary exhibit showing the cathedral’s history and post-war restoration.
But, lest we forget the main reason for our foray to Reims, there was also Champagne.
As with all wines, it’s the terroir of the Champagne region that makes its bubbly so special. Over 70 million years ago, ancient oceans receded and left behind chalk deposits and abundant marine fossils in the French soil. More than 60 million years after that, earthquakes throughout the area brought the ancient fossils to the surface, and the resulting special soil absorbs heat from the sun during the daytime that keeps the grapevines warm at night. That, plus the soil’s excellent drainage properties, is what makes Champagne so light and sparkly. And now you know.
On our last night in Reims, Ben had planned a FaceTime date with his girlfriend, so Mike and I had a date night of our own. We chose a Moroccan restaurant on the town square, and we dined on crispy spinach briouats, chicken tagine with lemons and olives, and an orange flower custard, all accompanied by Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
Reims was a lovely anniversary gift indeed.