Nik and I have been wanting to visit the Normandy region of France for a few years now, to explore the rich WWII history there, but we keep striking out for one reason or another. Most recently because mid-November is offseason and numerous hotels are closed for a break. Military History is one of Nik’s interests and he knew there are many WWI sites (and one WWII site) roughly two hours from Paris so we decided to take a trip and spend a couple days exploring Reims and Northern France.
As we started to research this trip for a couple days in Northern France, it made the most sense to stay in the city of Reims because of it’s proximity from Paris and to the few places we wanted to visit. Reims is also the largest city of the Champagne region, and many of the champagne houses there offer tastings and cellar tours.
Heading Across Northern France
Aisle-Marne American Cemetery
Just over an hour from the airport, we stopped in the town of Belleau where we visited the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. We arrived when it was a little overcast and left with the sun peaking out. It was a beautiful cemetery to visit.
Aisne-Marne American Cemetery is a World War I cemetery located at the foot of the hill where the Battle of Belleau Wood was fought in 1918, with many American fatalities. The cemetery contains the graves of 2,289 war dead. A beautiful memorial chapel sits on a hillside, decorated with sculptured and stained-glass details of wartime personnel, equipment and insignia. Inscribed on its interior wall are 1,060 names of the missing.
On our way to the cemetery we passed this cute tree and got out to take a closer look. The plaque translates to: This is a 19th century pear tree. It served as a temporary American cemetery in 1918. In 1939-40, the Germans made it an aerial observatory.
Devil Dog Fountain
A very short drive from the cemetery, basically across the street and down another short road, is the “Devil Dog Fountain.”1Not sure if it’s always closed off or not, but we couldn’t get close for pictures. It’s a fountain in the shape of a dog’s head in the town of Belleau. Supposedly the nickname “Devil Dog” was bestowed upon the U.S. Marines by German soldiers at the Battle of Belleau Wood. There are so many theories about this fountain, so just read this article.
Eating and Drinking in Reims
The House of Ruinart
Reims is the unofficial capital of the Champagne Region and we knew we wanted to visit at least one Champagne House. We decided on a reservation for a tour and tasting at Maison Ruinart, the oldest house in the area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The tour was not cheap at 70 Euro a person for a 2 hour visit, which included a tasting of two cuvées. For the price, it was also nice that the tour was limited to 12 people.
The tour started in a library-style room where the guide gave us the history of the champagne house, including the picture above. The Oyster Dinner is the first appearance of a champagne bottle in painting. It was commissioned by Louis XV, who I jokingly remember as “fun king” thanks to a Revolutionary War walking tour we took in 2018 where the guide used that nickname to describe the king who loved to have a good time.2To keep all the Louis’ straight, Louis XIV is referred to as “Sun King” and Louis XVI is remembered as “Dead King” because of his execution by guillotine.
At our deepest point in the cellar we were 40 meters (131 feet) below ground where it was very cool and mostly dark for the aging process.
Along some of the walls are wall carvings of random doodles and things of the sort.
The tour concluded with two tastings and I misunderstood the explanation of how to pick the two. It’s meant to get their main Brut style and their aged Brut OR their main Rosé and their aged Rosé. I thought I could get one brut and one rosé. Nope. So both Nik and I ended up having the brut’s which were very good.
Dinner at Brasserie Le Jardin
Following our champagne tour and tasting, Nik and I walked over The Château des Crayères, a former residence dating to 1902, and now a luxury hotel in Reims where we were having dinner a bit later. To fill the time, we checked out Bar La Rotunde for drinks which came with a cute charcuterie tower (eaten too quickly so no picture.)
The bar is one of three dining options on the grounds, the other two being the Michelin starred Restaurant Le Parc and Brasserie Le Jardin. The latter is where we had a delicious meal. Possibly one of the best we’ve had in six months of living in and traveling around Europe.
Dinner at Excelsior Reims
Not sure how we found Excelsior as a dinner option but we made a reservation there for our second night dinner in Reims.
Their menu and Instagram looked good, but we were very disappointed with the dinner. Service was very meh, which we are pretty lenient about. Nik’s filet wasn’t nearly as good as the one I had the night before and my pork loin was just ok. Credit where credit’s due, the half cold lobster starter was very good.
Pre-dinner drinks at The Continental were much more memorable.
Pastries from Boulangerie Les Halles
Two days in a row we started our day with delicious croissants from Boulangerie Les Halles.
Our hotel was located just off of Place Drouet-d’Erlon, the Subé Fountain sits in the center of the square which is the heart of the commercial shopping district.
Notre-Dame de Reims, or Reims Cathedral, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular attractions in Reims. It’s history dates back to the early 5th century. Construction of the present Reims Cathedral began in the 13th century and concluded in the 14th century. It was the traditional location for the coronation of the kings of France.3Including Fun King, Sun King and Dead King
Absolutely beautiful design and architecture both outside and inside.
Monument to the Heroes of the Black Army
If we hadn’t walked around after our champagne tour we would’ve missed the Monument to the Heroes of the Black Army. Much like many things along this trip, the monument has an interesting history. There are two of them. An original located in Bamako, Mali and its replica, with a different base, located in Parc de Champagne, Reims. It commemorates the role of African soldiers in the defense of the city in the summer of 1918.4The monument was dismantled during the German occupation in September 1940. In September 1958, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Defense of Reims, a new monument was started and completed in time for a second inauguration ceremony on 6 October 1963. Not really comparable to the original.
Porte de Mars
Dating from the third century is the Porte de Mars, an ancient Roman triumphal arch. It is the single remaining example of the four monumental Roman gates that once welcomed visitors to the Roman town of Durocortorum, now Reims.
Elaborate decoration is very visible on all parts of it, as is the wear and tear of weather and war.
Overall, we really enjoyed staying in and exploring Reims. We definitely missed the busy season, which was fine by us. The weather was cool and windy with some rain. We have more posts coming for other areas in Northern France, so stay tuned!