Today is one of two full days we will spend in Reims and the director for those days is Anne Marie: She has put together a full day of activities that take place in three acts.
Act 1: WWI: Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and the US role
I mentioned yesterday that Anne Marie lived with us for a year and while she was in the United States she worked harder on improving her English than anyone else we had stay with us. She then turned and used that experience to became a tour guide in Reims which she still does to this day. She has a network of friends and arranged with one of them, Christine, to give us a tour of a bit of the WWI battlefields that lie and hour to the East of Reims, as well as the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. At 0815, Anne Marie knocked on our door with bags of croissants in her hand, we piled into her parents car, picked up Christine and headed out of town.
First stop was at a small line of bunkers on top of a hill, preserved from WWI. Originally the bunkers were part of the German line, but the French, early in the war, pushed the them off this particular hill and took over the bunkers. We got the opportunity to walk through and get a small feel for what it must have been like. Small feel because it wasn’t raining, or snowing, artillery shells weren’t bursting all around us, we weren’t wearing gas masks on or have trench foot, and we were there for an hour, not four freaking years.
Next was the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in which there are over 14,000 US service men (and women) buried in green fields. Those service members died in the Meuse-Argonne offensive the results of which ended WWI in 1918. It was a massive battle and undertaking; over 1,000,000 US Soldiers fought in the campaign and this land, captured by the 32d Infantry Division, was provided to the US by France in perpetuity as an expression of their gratitude. When you walk onto the fields of the cemetery, you are walking on American soil–the stars and stripes fly above the chapel. It was amazing and sobering and utterly peaceful. The cemetery is laid out on a long sloping hill and you can stand at the chapel and look down over expanse and really get a feel for how many people sacrificed their lives. It is peaceful because we were the only people there. While I recognize that it is a long way from where most of us live, it is worth a trip to see one of these places at some point in your life. A reminder of the sacrifice that have been made not only for ourselves, but also in support of others.
Then onto the Montfaucon monument which commemorates both the US First Army victory in the Meuse-Argonne offensive from Sep-Nov 1918 as well as the honors the bravery of the French Armies. It is a massive column, in which there are 200+ stairs you can climb to get a fantastic view of the region. Also on the site are ruins of an old monastery and old German defensive positions setup to repel enemy assaults.
We had two more stops at other monuments, one of which was from the state of Pennsylvania and it was huge! There were a number of states that had monuments in the French countryside to commemorate their citizens sacrifice in France.
Then back to the city where we drop off Christene and head to Anne Marie’s for lunch of leftovers from last night. Then we head downtown Reims for:
Act II: Biking through Reims and the Notre Dame de Reims.
My dream post-lunch activity is a nap. Full belly makes me sleepy, but that wasn’t in the cards. We were off to pick up some bikes. We drive to a warehouse someplace in town, are met by a fantastic dude who speaks French to me like I am a small dog and almost makes it possible to understand a word. He provides us each a bike that we then use to follow Anne Marie through town looking at all the major sites. AJ pronounced this (later) as his favorite portion of the day and it was excellent; bikes are a great way to get around the city; we get to share the roads with the cars or the sidewalks with people and, unlike in Germany, it seems that the laws are vaguely enforced, so you can perhaps cheat a little and use crosswalks or go the wrong way if necessary.
We biked along the river through town, checked out a local skate park for kids that was PACKED on this gorgeous, sunny day. Anne Marie pointed out a ton of stuff and we made two stops. The first was at the Cathederal in Reims.
Which is called the Notre Dame de Reims.
I’m about to expose my ignorance, which, as you will see, is not only vast, but deep. Very, very deep. Think Mariana Trench. I knew that there was a Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Heard about it, but haven’t seen it and apparently will have to wait a couple of years before it is possible. I assumed that this was THE Notre Dame Cathedral in the whole wide world. That ‘Notre Dame’ was, like, the name of the place, or the neighborhood or the architect or SOMETHING. In my head it was like Times Square, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State building or the Sears Tower. Turns out (wait for it) I was incorrect. A feeling I have most every day. Notre Dame is (brace yourself), French, for “Our Lady,” referring, of course, to Mary (and I figured THAT piece out on my own, thank you very much). So Notre Dame de Paris is simply ‘Our Lady of Paris.’ And Reims’ cathedral is named Notre Dame de Reims. And I’m an idiot.
We step through the doors of the Notre Dame de Reims and step into a ‘way back’ machine taking us back centuries. We heard a considerable amount of information about the cathedral, usually in comparison to the other cathedral in Paris that may or may not be a bit more famous non-natives. Usually things like ‘ours is taller’ or ‘ours has two roses’ or ‘we coronated kings in our cathedral.’ All of which are true.1 No kidding–they have a list of French kings that got their blessing and it happened in Reims, not Paris. Weird, right? It is a suitably magnificent building which we saw from the outside last night–it is impressive. But inside? Inside it is incredible. It is, as you would probably expect, HUGE. We got the full-on tour of the place which Jan and I enjoyed. AJ was there as well, but he took to wandering off, looking, one assumes, for the TV. One highlight from the place. There are a ton of stained glass windows throughout the chapel. Some old and some new. The newest ones are done in vibrant colors that apparently haven’t been seen in this cathedral and may or may not have caused the bishop to have a (holy) cow. The favorite for Jan and I was a series of three that showed the champagne process as well as the link to the patron saint of wine/champagne. Or bottles. Or grapes. I was unclear on that, but thought it was pretty cool that a cathedral had windows dedicated to fizzy booze. And that there is a patron saint of the grape beverages: St. Thomas
We exit the cathedral, hop back on our bike to go to the second excellent stop of the trip. This on is a bit different than an old church. This is a small park that has been carved out in the city. It is called (I think) Guingette. There is a food truck and another trailer at which you can get food, beer and wine (WINNER!). There are three fenced in boxed that have a game played with heavy silver balls that have a ton of participants and spectators who seem to understand the rules. There are chairs, people eating picnic lunches in the shade. We stop and kick back with everyone else and enjoy a cool drink on a hot day.
We then hop back on our bikes, return them to the warehouse and get ready for…
Act III: Dinner
We have a reservation at 7:30 because who wants to eat early (answer is nobody in France apparently). We head off to dinner at the restaurant that Anne Marie’s brother, Alex, runs. We sit outside looking at the Hotel de Ville2 and no sooner had we sat down than four glasses of champagne appeared at our table. A pre-dinner palate cleanser, as it were. AJ pronounced the champagne ‘fizzy,’ and he doesn’t do ‘fizzy’ so someone else got the extra glass.
Menus all around and we go whole hog. Appetizers and main course. I ordered the duck and as my order was taken Alex asked if I wanted red wine with my duck. I looked up and saw that his head was nodding AND he was giving me the look that said ‘you had better’ so I said slowly ’yessss,’ was rewarded with an immediate nod of approval, and what sounded like “say bon” which I think means good. I’m thankful for the non-verbal queues…I would have ordered a white wine and gotten kicked out of the place. Food was excellent; we covered the protein spectrum from Salmon (Jan) to Pork (AJ) to Lamb (Anne Marie) to Duck (moi). Base on the size of my duck, the bird it came from must have been ostrich sized. Included with the protein were some of the best pommes we have had and, if you chose, some veggies. I chose ‘no’ to veggies.
After dinner we were provided with four glasses of schnapps. Unlike in Austria this was of the sweet, mint variety. Since it had no fizz and it was sweet, AJ pronounced it good and daddy snatched it away and drank it himself. By the time dinner was complete it was after 10pm. Two and a half hours of eating and talking flew by and as we headed back to home there was still a little light left in the sky. It will be a short night because we get up early tomorrow and head towards Paris.
1But they don’t have a dude with a bad back roaming through the tower getting creepy with the lady-folk. Which isn’t EXACTLY how the story goes, but sounds better than ‘falling in love with a lady, saving her from the bad men only to be tricked and giving her to the bad men where upon she dies and then he lays next to her and starves himself to death.’ Oh yeah. Spoiler alert. And can Victor Hugo write a novel that doesn’t end in the hero dying? And while I’m on the Victor Hugo rant, does EVERY town in France have a Victor Hugo Rue?
2 Which, it turns out is not an actual hotel. Anne Marie gave us directions to the restaurant and she said it was by City Hall. We couldn’t find city hall but google kept pointing us to the Hotel de Ville. Isn’t that weird? Turns out that ‘hotel,’ in this context, means ‘building’ or something like that. So the town building. We had gone by the Hotel De Police and naively thought that it was a place to stay with a strangely familiar name. You can stay in the Hotel De Police if you’d like, but it involves committing a crime so isn’t really recommended. Once again, I call into question this whole French language thing. Why do we have to reuse a perfectly good word like hotel for something totally different.
Just did a check and the word hotel comes from, drum roll, French. And in the old days it meant a building that saw frequent visitors. Huh. Again…my ignorance knows virtually no bounds. Loving France!