Reims is a surprising place. Famed for its links with the French monarchy, it’s crowned by an architectural gem, the truly magnificent Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims. It’s home to some of the world’s most famous champagne houses and, almost beyond cliche, people are to be found sipping glasses of the fizzy stuff at all times of day and night. Thanks to a turbulent history, the town is also a remarkable hodgepodge of architectural styles that makes it unique.
Walk the streets and you’ll pass medieval-looking timber framed buildings next door to 1920s art deco houses, and a myriad of architectural styles in between. At the start of the First World War in 1914, Reims was overrun by German armies. The German’s were forced to retreat from the city but set up camp on the surrounding heights, from where their artillery proceeded to flatten Reims over the next four years.
The city that re-emerged over the next two decades had wide avenues and pleasant public spaces. Desperate to rebuild the city, the authorities encouraged people to build in whatever style they liked. Fabulous Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings rose from the rubble and now make the town a hotspot for architecture enthusiasts. There are a remarkable number of these buildings, including gems like the Halles du Boulingrin, the indoor market, and several nearby bars and restaurants with exquisite Art Deco interiors.
Unfortunately, Reims had the misfortune to be situated in a strategically important place (and not just because it’s at the heart of some of Champagne’s finest vineyards). The city was damaged again during World War Two, although not so seriously as in the earlier war. This devastating history bequeathed Reims its patchwork of architectural styles unlike anywhere I’ve visited. The city may have lost some of its history thanks to the bombs, but it more than compensates in other ways.
This includes the little known (to me at least) role Reims played to bring an end to the Second World War. It was here at 2.41am on May 7, 1945, that Nazi Germany officially surrendered to the Allies. This extraordinary event took place in a fairly anonymous and nondescript school near the railway tracks a short distance from Reims central train station. General Eisenhower moved his Supreme Headquarters here in February 1945 and commanded the Allied advance on the Western Front from this building.
The “little red schoolhouse” where Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht, General Alfred Jodl, signed the unconditional surrender that brought an end to the war in Europe, is today the Musée de la Reddition. It tells the story of the surrender – largely through the use of mannequins. The introductory film was informative, but the real highlight is in the room where the surrender was signed. Here, the original tables and chairs are surrounded by walls covered in maps of the theatre of operations.
Stalin was deeply unimpressed that the surrender was in Western Europe and didn’t officially recognise the Reims surrender. He insisted that a second ceremony was held in recently captured Berlin on the night of May 8th. Photos of the Nazi surrender in the virtually destroyed German capital are some of the most famous images from the war, and Reims’ role in bringing hostilities to an end have largely been overshadowed.
We spent a couple of days in Reims, sampling the relaxed lifestyle, sipping champagne and eating excellent food at outstanding bistros and restaurants. It’s a compact city that is easy to get around on foot. Other than the cathedral and champagne houses, the Musée de Beaux Arts is worth a visit, even when half of it is closed, as it was when we visited. The real pleasure of Reims though, is to wander the streets and hunt out the architectural legacy of its violent history.