Richard Nahem, an ex-New Yorker living in Paris, leads private insider tours showing visitors the Paris most of them never see on their own (www.eyepreferparistours.com), and also writes a popular insider’s blog www.eyepreferparis.com. Here is his take on two recent day trips he took from the City of Light, one less than an hour by rail, the other a scenic three-hour train ride away.
Reims / Champagne
A short hop by rail from Paris, Reims is the gateway city to France’s Champagne region where visitors flock to vineyards, caves and iconic Champagne houses to experience the eponymous drink. Reims also stands on its own as a vibrant city with a rich history, excellent restaurants, formidable architecture and culture.
We took a one-day trip to Reims in October and boarded the TGV 9:28 AM train at Gare de l‘Est station in Paris and arrived 45 minutes later at Reims.
Paris Champagne Tour organizes day trips to Champagne from Paris but also gives walking tours of Reims. We booked a tour for 10 a.m., but the company was kind enough to begin the excursion at 10:30 because our train arrived at 10:14. Our genial guide Stephanie led the two-hour experience.
The Reims Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, was where the kings of France were officially crowned from 1027 to 1825.
The first part of the tour covered the effects of World War I, where 90 percent of the buildings in the city were destroyed. After the war, in the 1920s and ’30s, the local government invited architects and builders from Paris to rebuild the city. Unlike the strict rules they faced under the Haussmann building codes in Paris, architects and builders were given free rein to stretch their imaginations with few restrictions. The result is an impressive array of unique but harmonious buildings making up the center of the city. We loved the architectural details, including the intricate iron and grillwork, ceramic tiles and beautiful doors.
We also visited two other Art Deco masterpieces, The Carnegie Library and Café du Palais. American philanthropist and scion of the Carnegie fortune Andrew Carnegie donated money to rebuild the Reims library in 1928 after it was leveled in WWI. The striking lobby has walls painted with a design of a blue circle pattern along with a spectacular centerpiece of a stained glass chandelier.
Café du Palais is a quirky and popular café in the center of Reims. Opened in 1930 by Louis Millet, his grandson Jean-Louis in the 1960s parlayed his passion for theater, jazz and art, along with his grandmother’s parlor furniture, into an eclectic show place with everything from a Marc Chagall drawing to an Art Deco stained glass ceiling. The café serves a classic menu of French delicacies, including foie gras, pork pate and floating island for dessert.
The tour ended with a visit to the Reims Cathedral. An architectural wonder in the Gothic style, construction on it began in 1221, on the site of a former church from the early 400s, which burned in a fire in 1210. Flying buttresses are prevalent on all sides of the cathedral, giving it a dramatic beauty, and other highlights include 2,300 religious statues, cut limestone arches and a smiling angel. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, Reims Cathedral holds significant historic importance, as it was where the kings of France were officially crowned from 1027 to 1825. Another important feature is the stupendous stained glass windows, beautifully illuminated by bright sunshine the day we visited. Marc Chagall created a series of nine stained glass windows for the cathedral just before his death in 1985, and in 2011, on the cathedral’s 800th anniversary, German artist Imi Knoebel designed six windows, as a friendly alliance between France and Germany.
After a full and informative morning, we headed to the bistro Anna-S. la table amoureuse, which is located in a quiet, residential neighborhood, a five-minute walk from the cathedral. The modern-style bistro was decorated in subtle, warm shades of purple and mauve, with tables spaciously set apart. We savored a starter of a hearty, winter salad of fried Reblochon cheese, bacon bites and sautéed potatoes, followed by a classic duck a l’orange.
Ile de Ré is a low-key, seaside enclave for well-to-do Parisian families. // Photography: Richard Nahem
No visit to Reims would be complete without Champagne, so we did a tour and tasting at Maison Mumm. One of the oldest and most prestigious brands of Champagne, Maison Mumm was started by the Mumm brothers from Germany in 1827. Our one hour and 15 minute visit consisted of a walk through the vast underground caves where the thousands of bottles of Champagne are stored and turned regularly, plus an in-depth account of the many step process by which Champagne is created, from grape to bottle. A flute of Mumm Cordon rouge, a Brut Champagne aged over 20 months with a blend of over 100 crus, was a delicious, bubbly ending to our visit.
We had a little bit of time for shopping for some local merchandise and discovered A L’Iris de Florence, a delightful family-owned shop originally opened in the 1930s. Another Art Deco beauty with wonderful architectural details, A L’Iris de Florence is an art and sculpture gallery, a china and glassware shop and a bridal registry, all under one roof.
We scarcely made the 5:15 p.m. train back to Paris, packing in as much as we could in Reims. Our only regret was we didn’t stay overnight and have time to see many other sites, including Tau Palace, Abbey Saint Remi, Musee Beaux Arts and Villa Demoiselle.
There’s enough to see and do in Reims that you may wish to suggest an overnight stay for your clients. Top accommodations include:
Hotel La Paix, a Best Western Premier property, which is a modern four-star accommodation near the Reims Cathedral. It has a bar, a heated indoor pool, steam room, hammam and sauna, as well as Japanese-inspired garden. The Café de la Paix restaurant is just around the corner.
Grand Hotel des Templiers is a four-star hotel occupying a converted 19th-century neo-gothic mansion. A monumental staircase (as well as a lift) leads to 18 rooms, each with individualized décor. Amenities include a heated pool, sauna, bar and concierge service. Breakfast (not included in the room rate) is served in the Winter Garden, but guests can have it in-room if they choose.
Domaine Les Crayeres, a five-star Relais & Chateaux hotel set in a park, has 20 rooms; Le Parc, a Michelin-star haute cuisine restaurant; Brasserie Le Jardin; and La Rotonde Bar, overlooking the park.
La Rochelle and Ile de Ré
We ventured a little farther from Paris on another autumn trip, to the harbor of La Rochelle and Ile de Ré on France’s west coast. We boarded a 7:22 TGV train at Montparnasse station and arrived three hours later at La Rochelle station. (Note: Trains leave Gare Montparnasse / Montparnasse station to La Rochelle almost every hour.)
It was a crisp, sunny day as we followed the scent of salty sea air to the old harbor surrounded by yachts and sleek sailboats en route to our hotel, which was a 15-minute walk. On a calm residential street with row houses, a subtle, stained glass sign marked the Eden Ouest. Although it’s signified by the city as a B&B, it’s much closer to being a chic, private hotel with individually decorated rooms. The converted early 1800’s home has five rooms in total and each room has a theme and color scheme.
Our accommodation was the Yellow Ochre Suite, with subtle shades and patterns of the soothing mustard-like color. Owner Bertrand Patoureau has curated every room with a collection of art and objects, made by friends who are artists or craftsmen. His wife Lise Humeau is a painter and her works are also featured in the rooms. The most pleasant surprise was a knockout bathroom almost the size of the room, with a carved, wood bathtub / hot tub and a separate shower with a bench. While having breakfast on a long, communal table in the spacious dining room, we chatted with Bertrand about how he started the hotel. He bought the run-down building in 2012 and took two painstaking years to complete the renovation.
Eden Ouest is located in the center of the old city and a stone’s throw from the enclosed, outdoor city food market. Approaching the market was an art installation of rows of hot pink umbrellas hung high above, brilliantly contrasting the sky. We were immediately drawn to the seafood stands selling fresh oysters and, even though it was still morning, we indulged in a tasting. We asked the genial fishmonger to select his best oysters for us and we each downed them quickly, retaining the salt-water taste in our mouths for a few hours.
La Rochelle was one of the most important maritime and port cities in France from the 1200s to the 1400s, so we spent most of the day strolling the cobblestone streets, with rugged stone and half-timber buildings and ancient passageways, and the vast, old marina. Three medieval towers, the only remnants of the fortifications of La Rochelle, were meant to be lived in but were converted into prisons for Huguenots and foreign sailors and, in the 19th century, imprisoned military criminals.
The outdoor city food market in La Rochelle. // Photography: Richard Nahem
Since we were still full from our oyster outing, we had a light lunch at Omelette Delice, a café specializing in omelets prepared with farm-raised eggs. After sharing an omelet stuffed with hummus, arugula and coriander, we had to try the unusual desert omelet, prepared with pine nuts and salted butter caramel.
Leaving Eden Ouest the next morning, we took a 25-minute taxi ride over a long suspension bridge to Ile de Ré, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sometimes compared to Nantucket, RI, Ile de Ré is a low-key, seaside enclave for well-to-do Parisian families.
We arrived in the storybook town square and marina of Saint Martin. Located on a corner of the square is the Hotel de Toiras, a Relais & Chateau property. A former ship owner’s house from the 17th century, it was transformed into a luxury hotel in 2005 by Olivia Le Calvez. In addition to hiring top interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, she also enlisted the best local craftsmen and used the finest French fabrics.
We were given the Madame Sevigné suite, named after an important 17th-century French marquise. The elaborate decoration of satin, chintz, and brocade, as well as the canopied bed, made us feel as though we were in an intimate boudoir. A mahogany desk had such lovely illustrated hotel stationery, we were tempted to write a letter back home.
One of the recommended activities in Ile de Ré is bicycling, so we rented electric bicycles at the You Too bicycle shop. It was a sunny day gusting with strong winds, so the electric bicycles powered us through the uphill stretches. We rode for miles on a well-marked bike path along the beach and shore. Much of the coastline had oyster beds and, later on, salt beds. In fact, the hotel gave us a gift of Ile de Ré salt.
In the afternoon, we took a three-hour boat cruise to view Fort Boyard, a fort built in 1661 under the reign of Louis XIV in the middle of the sea. Time and again the fort was resurrected and abandoned. In recent years it has been used for a location for international versions of the TV game show “Fort Boyard.”
After a long day of bicycling and boating, we relaxed with a glass of Champagne in front of the fireplace in the sumptuous but cozy décor of the hotel lobby. While changing for dinner in our suite, we witnessed a stunning scarlet sunset over the harbor.
Domaine Les Crayeres is a five-star Relais & Chateaux hotel in Reims. // Photography: Richard Nahem
Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant, Le Table d’Olivia, a petite dining room seating only 20 people. From a menu heavy on local seafood specialties by Chef Antonio Sanna, we had a starter of succulent sea scallops with a pumpkin puree and chestnuts, followed by blue lobster cooked in olive oil served with lentils. A steaming Grand Marnier accompanied by cardamom-scented ice cream complemented our seafood dinner.
Hotel de Toiras has a sister hotel a few hundred feet away, Villa Clarisse, which has an outdoor swimming pool. A spa is scheduled to open sometime this year.