800 years Old and Still Dazzling
The city of Reims was one of the heavily destroyed places during World War I. Frequently shelled, 80% of town centre were ruins at the end of the conflict. The rebuilding coincided with the Art Deco period. So Reims has become a city of contrasts, a mix of old houses and Art Deco buildings. Close to the Cathedral stand two houses built side by side by two architects, father and son. One, designed by the father, was rebuilt in a renaissance style with elements coming from a destroyed house of that period, while his son built his home in a pure modern style. Nothing better sums up this city of old and new.
Close by is the Carnegie Library, given to the city by the Carnegie Foundation and which is a perfect Art Deco building in the heart of Reims.
The centre of Reims, a large pedestrian zone, has many squares and big streets with shops, restaurants and bars. Be French! Meander, don’t rush, have a seat on a terrace, drink a cup of coffee or a flute of champagne. (every bar, every restaurant, offers a choice of various champagnes.) Then, and only then, take time to visit the various monuments, museums, and, of course, the cathedral.
Where else would you start but with the cathedral. The outside walls are adorned with more than 2,300 statues (no, I didn’t count them all) and is lucky to have survived the war since its roof was burned to ashes. After the war, thanks to David Rockfeller’s tremendous generosity, the lead covered roof was rebuilt over a new concrete structure. The first impression in entering the Cathedral is the peaceful feeling coming from the light flowing through the stained glass windows, among a forest of high pillars. Go behind the chancel, to discover the famous three Chagall blue stained glass windows, now flanked by the newly unveiled ones made this year by Imi Knoebel, a German artist, who chose an abstract style with bright colours. Returning to the main door through the triple nave, the main rose window surrounded by 52 statues, appears in all its splendour. Outside, stare at the magnificent facade of the Cathedral. Take your time to discover all the statues, figures and characters and don’t forget the Smiling Angel. Then move away from the building to admire the Cathedral in its entirety with its two graceful towers standing over the long lines of the giant statues of kings. Remember the image because if you return at night it will look so different.
The foundation stone of the Cathedral of Reims was laid in 1211. From this time on it was the coronation place of almost all the kings of France. Now eight hundred years on, later, Reims highlights its gothic Cathedral with a fabulous lightshow called “Rêve de Couleurs” (Dreams of Colours).
Twice every night during summer – except Mondays – the Cathedral attracts those that may have already seen it daytime as well as those who are just drawn to the shimmering light. Illuminated by projectors, the Cathedral stands high in the night sky, seemingly much taller and more impressive in the night. Silently, maybe in awe, the audience stands in the middle of the forecourt and then sits down directly on the cobblestones, to watch the sight.
The cathedral leaves a lasting impression on the visitor. Around the three great gates on the facade are the statues of 56 monarchs, the rose window and the two towers going up into the stars in the blue dark sky. These elements combine to make the cathedral appear as one giant sandcastle.
Slowly, the music comes up and the street lights disappear. All of sudden, there is an explosion of lights and colours, and you are back to the middle ages, at the time of its construction. You are one of the architects, designing the Cathedral, drawing all the lines and curbs to create arches, doors, tympanum, rose windows, towers… Step-by-step you discover how these men created one of the finest gothic cathedrals in France, and may be in Europe. The workers then arrive some carrying huge stones and others carving statues using only primitive tools such as hammers and chisels. A small jump in time and the construction is finished and you are among the people on a coronation day…And the lightshow continues.
The masterpiece comes when the Cathedral frontage is illuminated with the real colours used in the middle ages. Astonished, the audience gazes most being unable to believe that cathedrals were fully painted in strong, vibrant colours of blue, red and yellow. Suddenly it dawns on them that the facade they saw in the day is painted with light, completely transformed by the colours. The statues take life, the faces seem real and you have an urge to want to touch the clothes. So easy is it to dream away from our century, back to the time of the cathedrals builders.
After twenty-five minutes, the fastest twenty-five minutes I have experienced for a long time the show is over. The street lights come back on, the spectators begin to mill around but then, as an encore, the colours come back on the Cathedral frontage. Now you can get closer to the building and the statues. The cleverness of combining the lights in this high-tech demonstration makes it difficult not to want to touch. This lasts for five minutes. It’s over but do people leave? No, another performance begins. People move back and, so overcome by the first show, settle down to watch it for a second time.
This free lightshow, just by itself, is a good reason to visit Reims. But Reims has a lot more to offer to visitors. It all depends on how long you can manage to stay. A day? A weekend? Four of five days? There is more than enough to see.
Just on the southern side of the Cathedral stop off at the Palace of Tau, formerly the palace of the archbishop of Reims. The Banquet Room was used after the king coronation but all rooms are worth a visit particularly the vaulted Lower Room and the Treasure Room that contains Charlemagne’s talisman. The museum also has sculptures, tapestries, costumes which date back to the Middle Ages and continue until the 19th century.
In medieval times, life revolved around the cathedral. Today it doesn’t seem to have changed. Here, you can reserve a ticket to climb up inside it’s. If you’re fit, don’t miss it. After 249 steps, (this time I did count!) you go through the base of the towers and onto the balcony by the statues of the kings. From there, while walking over the central nef stone vault, you can see the entire concrete structure of the huge roof. Then out on another long balcony, the tour path winds along the entire lead roof of the Cathedral, between gargoyles, devils and monsters. This one hour visit also gives you the best view of the entire city of Reims.
Back to the ground, stroll through Place Royale, an elegant 18th century square and you reach Place du Forum. As its name suggests, this was where the forum was in Roman times. Today all that remains is an interesting Gallo-Roman cryptoportico, a long vaulted half-buried grain warehouse, one of the five known in the world. It is open only in the afternoon and is free.
On the northern side of Place du Forum is the Hotel Le Vergeur. This old, renaissance house is now a museum but has some rooms still furnished thus keeping alive the spirit of its last owner. The 16th century facade of another old remaining building, the Hotel St Jean Baptiste de la Salle, is just a a few steps away, in front of an Art Deco building, the former Galeries Remoises. One again the city of contrasts is keen to demonstrate the fact. Now it has been converted into restaurants and shops.
A five- minute walk gets you to the Place Drouet d’Erlon, the lively centre of Reims, a wide, crowded pedestrian avenue, full of bars and restaurants, each one with its own terrace. Be French again. Have a restoring coffee and giving your exhausted legs a rest and consider the delights that you’ve seen.
It’s quite easy to reach Reims. From Paris a 45 minute journey on board the TGV gets you right in the heart of the city of Reims. By car, Paris is 135km away on the A4 motorway and it takes about an hour and a quarter. If you’re travelling via Calais (use the A26) and allow for about two-and-a-half hours to get to Reims. For those, on holiday, driving south through France Reims would be a short detour offering an interesting stopover.
images and story © Frederic Mouren de Poligny