Paris Day 6: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Today we branched out and conquered the train system, adding to the list of transportation options we can now navigate successfully. We wanted to have one out-of-the-city day to experience the less metropolitan side of France so we picked Reims (pronounced as a very nasal and gutteral “Rance,” apparently) for its famous Reims Cathedral and the champagne houses. In the end, maybe it was more of our usual, just in a different city! Admittedly, the first class train seats were far and away more pleasant than anything on the metro.

Our first impression of Reims was getting turned around (not to be confused with “lost”) in the train station, the second was trying to use hand signals to a non-English-speaking audience to ask directions to the cathedral and the third that the locals must be made of steel because they had no fear of crossing the street right in front of a speeding car. Our fourth impression was the overall theme of the city: the interesting mix of the old - bordering on ancient - city mixed with the new and modern.

Both of us studied the Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims in depth in our second art history survey class, but it was still a bit of a shock to see the towering edifice in person. Stranger still to recognize the creepy little angel sculpture on one of the arches that we used to laugh about! Following the theme of the city, Reims has a rich evolving history, beginning in the 4th century with its construction and then enduring multiple expansions and remodelings. The most notable and noticeable change is the variety of stained glass windows; a few original, many filled in after both World Wars, and the last handful added as late as the 70s as a more modern homage to the church’s history. Even now, the large rose window and surrounding facade are undergoing reconstruction and restoration as the elements take their toll, but for the sake of this particular section’s beauty we hope the restoration is exact.

Because many of the windows were destroyed during the wars, the architects (we think) were unable to replicate the originals, instead creating lighter, less saturated casements which in turn create a lighter and more airy atmosphere in the church. This sets the Reims cathedral apart from any of the other cathedrals and chapels we have toured this week since most are often bathed in dark colourful glows from darker stained glass. We both loved this impressive cathedral when we first came across it in our studies, but seeing it in a photograph or a book simply cannot convey the tangible beauty and spirituality of it, or indeed any of the architectural wonders we have visited.

Possibly because we have now been in a fair few historic cathedrals, maybe because we've studied the material so much that we feel very familiar with it or probably because we we're destined to be struck by lightning, we spent the last few minutes in the cathedral examining some of the narrative stained glass pieces and naming them; most notably Erin's self-proclaimed "Jesus, Rise and Shine" in place of "Jesus in Glory" depicting Him on the throne after the ascension. After slapping our hands over our mouths to hold back peels of laughter, we left quickly with imminent natural disaster on our heels.

Making a 180 degree turn from churches to alcohol, we set off to tour the Maison de Taittinger, a renowned champagne house known for its custom tastings and tours through the carved Roman mines. We were honestly more excited to walk the same halls that monks and builders in the 4th century hand-dug, but the tasting at the end was certainly an added bonus. The coolest part - other than the chilly temperature - was seeing the original doors, stairways and carvings of what had once been an abbey. The entire chalk walled cellar showed the original digging tool marks as well as more contemporary carvings, sculptures and drawings. And possibly my initials.

  We found our preferred method of navigation. 

We found our preferred method of navigation. 

A cute little French girl who liked to laugh at her own jokes led the tour for the two of us and a couple hulking German champagne connoisseurs. During our tasting, our tour guide would ask each of us what we thought of that particular selection and while the guys supplied many more knowledgable comments, we usually just said “well, it’s really tasty.” I was tempted to say that it opened up well in the glass, but I wasn’t sure how they would feel about me joking about the expensive liquid. We tried a Brut Reserve - 40% chardonnay, 35% pinot noir, and 25% pinot meunier - and then a 2004 vintage of Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs (100% chardonnay) which was far and away my favorite of the two. Because it, err, opened up in the glass nicely.

We dashed out before anyone asked us to buy bottles, but unfortunately had no other plans and almost four hours to kill before our train left. So, as usual, we walked around until finding a sweet shop, this time opting for chocolate. We got 5 truffles a piece meaning to savor them but eating them in 5 minutes flat as we walked. But with flavors like raspberry champagne and chocolate covered orange slice, it was hard to resist.

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Eventually we actually ate some real food - delicious kebabs from a Turkish hole-in-the-wall - and then spent the last couple hours roaming the older part of the city. Again we noticed the contrasting yet complementary ancient and modern elements: the cathedral in the middle of a shopping district, the tram cutting through a cobblestone and grass walkway. This is, in my opinion, is what lends France, and indeed a majority of Europe from what I can tell, its particular charm; the perfect melding of old styles and historic sites with new ideas and contemporary methods.

Our architectural and intelligent musing soon took a nosedive and the penultimate day of our travel began to show its colors. We likened our tiredness to the second-to-last lap of a race; always the toughest one. Indeed, our fatigue soon turned to goofiness and we giggled for a full three minutes about how the colorful trams looked like engorged colourful caterpillars inching (albeit quickly) across the land. And then we out-and-out guffawed about a “buslet” so much so that we got even more strange looks than usual.

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Finally, we tired of walking around and sought shelter in the warmth of a train station cafe for a cup of tea and glass of wine before boarding our two story train back to Paris. Even before departure, we were both fast asleep, oddly enough both dreaming of being spies. 

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Time has absolutely flown by this week, although or possibly because we have packed in so many varying activities. I’m not sure that either of us is truly ready to come home, so I anticipate another fun-packed day tomorrow fitting in as much of Parisian life as we possibly can.