Laid flat by the shells of World War I, Reims (pronounced like a nasal “Rance”, and traditionally spelled Rheims in English) was rebuilt afterwards with tact and touches of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, but lacks any great sense of antiquity. It makes up for this with a walkable centre, beneath which lies its real treasure – kilometre upon kilometre of bottles of fermenting champagne. The old centre of Reims clusters around one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in France – formerly the coronation church of dynasties of French monarchs going back to Clovis, the first king of the Franks, and later painted obsessively by Monet. The northernmost section of the old town was protected by the place de la République’s triumphal Roman arch, the Porte de Mars, reached via the grand squares of place Royale, place du Forum and place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. To the west, place Drouet d’Erlon is the focus of the city’s nightlife and an almost-complete example of the city’s 1920s reconstruction. To the south, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the cathedral, is the other historical focus of the town, the Abbaye St-Remi, with the Jesuits’ College nearby. Most of the champagne houses are to the east of here, and still further east, there’s a museum of cars. These attractions, plus a handful of interesting museums and a big city buzz unusual in this part of France, make it worth a day or two’s stopover.
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