REIMS, France — Christmas in Champagne country: The bubbly fizz of holiday toasts, flickering candles piercing a cathedral's gloom, cascades of tiny blue lights festooning the streets, the spicy scent of hot wine wafting in the chill air, the lively sound of holiday tunes played by a Santa Claus band. So it is in Reims, the city of kings and Champagne.
A quick 45-minute ride from Paris' Gare de l'Est station via the superfast TGV train, Reims offers many attractions in a relatively compact area easily navigated by foot or, if you must, by taxi. There's the Gothic masterpiece that is the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the more subdued Roman-esque Basilica of St. Remi (53, rue Simon), where lies the tomb of said saint, who bap-tized Clovis, king of Franks.
You can visit the Musee de la Reddition (The Surrender Museum, 12, rue Franklin Roosevelt), where the Germans surrendered to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, ending the European phase of World War II, or gaze on the Mars Gate (Place de la Republique), the only remaining gate to what was the Roman city of Durocortorum. Dine in subtle but unmistakable luxury in the Michelin one-star restaurant Le Millenaire (4-6, rue Bertin — try the langoustines four ways to start) or jovially jostle elbows with locals and visitors (if you hear any English, they're likely British) at fast, affordable neighborhood boites such as Le Lion de Bel-fort (37, place Drouet d'Erlon — try the Gruyere cheese omelet: deliciously simple).
And don't forget the Champagne houses — yes, some remain open for the holidays — where you'll be able to tour ancient quarries-turned-wine-cellars and sip some of the bubbly that made Champagne world famous.
Dominating the city skyline is the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Reims (Our Lady of Reims). Construction began in 1211.
Each succeeding century has left a mark for good or ill. The cathedral was nearly destroyed by German bombardment during World War I, and it remains a restoration work in progress.
The cathedral (1, rue Guil-laume de Machault) strikes me as being far more imposing than Notre Dame in Paris. The scale seems grander, with the pillars soaring upward to the vaulted ceiling high above.
Nor are there the crowds and the lines you have to endure at any of Paris' historic churches.
At the neighboring Palace of Tau (2, place du Cardinal-Lucon), the former home of the archbishops of Reims, you can get a close-up look at some of the statuary removed from cathedral facade because they were too fragile or damaged. The kings of France were crowned in the cathedral, the last being Charles X in 1825. So it's natural the palais would have an exhibition focusing on the kings and their coronations. Children and those of like heart will adore the annual display of nativity scenes from around the world. The creches range from minuscule to more than life-size, serious to whimsical, expertly carved and naively rendered. This exhibit runs through Jan. 16.
Every year, Reims hosts Le Village de Noel, or Christmas Village. The action is centered on the Place Drouet d'Erlon, one of the major downtown streets just minutes from the Reims train station. Take the time to get into the holiday spirit by strolling down streets lined with some 120 small wooden chalets selling everything from jewelry to clothing to tree ornaments to creches to food and drink. Open every day through Christmas Eve, the Christmas Village is a great opportunity to people-watch and, perhaps, snag a bargain or two.
Interestingly, the Reims tourism Web site, reims-tourism.com, heralds the Christmas village prominently on its French-language site but not at all on the English version. Maybe they think Le Village de Noel is only a French thing; go surprise 'em.
The Christmas celebration in Reims is echoed with holiday festivities in 40 surrounding villages and towns. Rent a car, if you like, and go exploring. For details visit the region's official holiday website, noelsdechampagne.com.
Reims is friendly, but remember: English can be sparse, so learn some rudimentary French phrases, practice your pantomime and meet smile with smile; you'll be all set for the holidays here and year-round.
VISITING THE BIG NAMES
No visit to Reims at any season would be complete without visiting a Champagne house.
Though some close for the Christmas season, a number of big names remain open, such as Pommery, G.H. Mumm and Taittinger. Even if you don't drink Champagne, a visit can be instructive, as the houses themselves and their luxury products reflect the culture and history of France. Just remember to reserve a tour time.
Reims sits on a large deposit of easily carved limestone.
Over the millennia, residents have cut tunnels through the rock, building subterranean galleries perfect for aging Champagne. Most tunnel tours offer a quick how-to in making Champagne, complete with display bottles at various stages in the production process.
Domaine Pommery (5, place du General Gouraud) is a short taxi ride from downtown Reims. If the castle-like chateau strikes you as a touch kitschy, you're not far off. Louise Pommery, the brains behind this bubbly operation in the 19th century, had the chateau built to suggest a English manor house to attract traveling Brits. Tours are offered on weekends in winter. Prices start about $16.40. For details, visit Pommery's Website: pommery.fr.
The sprawling complex that is G.H. Mumm & Cie (34, rue du Champs de Mars) looks more like a Hollywood movie studio.
The tour comes with movies that tell the Champagne story, and the cellars offer a mini-history of how Champagne making has evolved over the centuries. Cellars are open daily except from Christmas to New Year's and Sundays, November through February.
Admission is about $11. mumm.com.
Taittinger (9, place Saint-Nicaise) has named its cellars for St. Nicaise, a 5th century bishop of Reims who, when he found his head cut off by barbarian invaders, simply went on saying his prayers. The tour leads to a huge Roman quarry.
Tours are on weekdays through mid-March. A tour ticket is about $13.70. taittinger.fr.