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Champagne and Alsace


Follow Bill and his wife Helen on the French roads visiting France with their France Rail Pass.

Champagne and Alsace are like bookends of French history. At the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims, King Clovis was baptized in 498 as the first Christian French king. Alsace was independent for centuries, and for the last several hundred years was a tug-of-war prize between France and what is now Germany.     





heritage itinerary




Time 0H45 by TGV
Time 8 trains per day*


If Paris didn’t exist, Reims could be the capital of France. It is the capital of the Champagne department, and Champagne is France’s best-known export. And the Notre Dame cathedral is where most kings were crowned.

When we first talked about Reims for our long weekend, Helen and I didn’t know if it would be for the Champagne tastings or for King Clovis. But we arrived on a Friday morning TGV from the Paris Est station (a 45 minute trip), so the cathedral was the obvious starting point.

Outside, it is drenched with statues. Sculptors were busy in the Middle Ages, making all those saints and imaginary beasts. We had visited Notre Dame in Paris, of course, and where it is an airy gothic, Reims is a solid gothic. Inside, I found the rosette on the floor marking the spot where Clovis was baptized. Sort of. He was baptized in a cathedral that burned down and was replaced by this one in 1211.

We were here in 2011, for the 800th birthday celebration, and we got to see the new stained glass windows by the German artist Imi Knoebel. Frankly, I prefer Marc Chagall’s figurative windows from 1974, but Knoebel’s abstract ones do have a message for me. He’s not the first German to visit. Prime Minister Konrad Adenauer came here in 1962 with Charles De Gaulle to establish a permanent peace and friendship between the two countries. I’m glad.

We walked a mile to the Saint Remi basilica, named for the cleric who baptized Clovis. Helen noted that it would awaken our appetites for lunch and a visit to the Taittinger Champagne cave nearby. We ate nearby, saving our thirst for an aperitif for an afternoon champagne tasting.

Taittinger is only one of many great Champagne names in Reims, like Mumm, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Abelé, or Krug. Chalk tunnels under the city guard millions of bottles of Champagne. Taittinger’s cave alone has 3 million of its most expensive bottles. Our guide said some tunnels were Roman quarries for stone used to build the city above. (Tunnels also made a good hideout when Attila the Hun invaded in the 5th Century.)

After the tour and the tasting, we looked at our guide map. Next door are the caves of Pommery, Ruinart, Drappier and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. We looked at Helen’s watch. We thought about the room awaiting us in Strasbourg.

“Let’s come back soon and go down to Epernay, too,” said Helen, naming the other main town of Champagne producers. That’s a good plan.




France Rail Pass’partner:
- Accommodation: Grand Hôtel Continental 3*
- Restaurants: La Vigneraie, Brasserie Flo
- Tourist Office: Reims Tourist Office



Time 2H15 by regional train/TGV
Time 10 trains per day*


A local train got us to the TGV station out of town from which we rocketed on to Alsace, which is a region that has been both Germanic and French. We had come here once before in December for the Christmas market that occupied half the downtown, but that is a story in itself.

Look at a map. There are more towns around here with German names than French ones, and across the Rhine River is Germany itself. Strasbourg and Alsace were independent and until King Louis XIV appropriated the area for France. Germany took it back after the 1870 Prussian victory. When World War I ended, Alsace-Lorraine declared itself independent, but French troops welded it back onto France. People here speak German and French, and English is a given in public places because this is the home of the European parliament.

We looked at traces of the earliest Roman history in the archeological museum in the basement of the Palais Rohan, and the Musée Alsacien carefully recreates life of days gone by in the later centuries.

In an area called Petit France, we stumbled on the Restaurant Ami Schutz where we ate a wonderful fish choucroute for lunch. The dish was made famous by the Kammerzell House on the cathedral square, which has been around since 1427. You could put on weight here if you didn’t watch out.




  •  Maison Kammerzell, a six hundred year-old restaurant, now one of the most famous dining rooms in Alsace



France Rail Pass’partner:
- Accommodation: Hotel Régent Contades 4*, Hôtel Régent Petite France 4*, Citadines Hôtel Beaucour 3*, Château d’Ill (near Strasbourg)
- Restaurants: Maison Kammerzell, Restaurant Buerehiesel
- Tourist Office: Strasbourg Tourist Office
- Wine Cellar rand tasting session: La cure gourmande




Time 0H30 by regional train
Time 33 trains per day*


Colmar is half an hour to the south. In a way it is a smaller Strasbourg, but it has a strong local identity. The canals that once served butchers and tanners encourage marketing types to call Colmar "little Venice," but you might as well call Venice “big Colmar.”

Europe’s wars and revolutions mainly spared Colmar, and the old central city is a picturesque delight with its medieval half-timbered Tudor buildings. I shopped for a leather jacket in the tanner’s quarter, and Helen bought a handbag. We took lunch at the “House of Heads” on the Rue des Tetes, a must-see street downtown. A wine merchant built the Maison des Tetes in 1609 and had it decorated with 106 sculpted heads. Our lunch was excellent, as was the local white wine.

Our afternoon adventure was going to the Bartholdi museum. The Statue of Liberty was created by a Colmar sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, and his house is full of other statues, drawings and memorabilia. Colmar is small, and we easily made it back to the station it time for the trains to Paris via Strasbourg.



  • Former guardroom (16th century)
  • Museum Bartholdi, former home of Auguste Bartholdi (who created the Statue of Liberty in New York)



France Rail Pass’partner:
- Restaurants: Restaurant Bartholdi, Restaurant Keller
- Tour: Regioscope (Alscace Wine Route)
- Accommodation: Hotel Beauséjour 3*, Château d’Isenbourg
- Fun Parks: Bioscope (Ungersheim), Ecomusée (Ungersheim)





Time 2H50 by TGV
Time 14 trains per day*



* (2011 frequency)

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 December 2011 15:28