Day 30: Rest day. The Smile of Reims.

Champagne is the wine of civilisation and the oil of government.

Winston Churchill

Its not everyday that you get to sit outside the front of Reims Cathedral writing your blog! This wasn’t part of my original plan but what I hadn’t reckoned on, was that France shuts down on Mondays or at least until 2pm. This scuppered my plans to

a) Buy a Topo guidebook covering the Reims to Grand St Bernard Pass section of the Via Francigena

b) Buy a spare pair of walking boots to replace the pair I am wearing when they fall to bits and

c) Buy some surprise champagne themed presents for Olivia, my wife, who has heroically been holding the fort for me in Winterbourne Stoke while I have been gallivanting through France!

Tempting though it was to embark on a gargantuan champagne tasting bender to fill the rest of the day, I decided reluctantly that this wouldn’t be a very clever ploy. So instead I opted to bimble around the centre of Reims for a few hours until the free pilgrim tour of Reims Cathedral commenced at 2pm.

While I was loitering outside the Cathedral looking for somebody to collar to take my photo, I bumped into a lovely chap from Orpington who was on a champagne wine tasting tour of the area with his wife. We exchanged thoughts on Brexit and other such subjects including l’entente cordial and the progress of my fund raising efforts to restore the roof of St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke, about which I had been feeling quite chipper, having chalked up 800km over the last month and made it to Reims without so much as a single blister. However, I was put very much back in my box when my interlocutor divulged that a few years ago his brother had ridden a bike to raise money for his local church. His journey had taken him from Orpngton to Istanbul! Touché as they say in French or maybe he didn’t like the ‘cut of my gib’ and it was just a case of ‘pour épater les bourgeois’

A scrawnier version of the pilgrim who set off a month ago!

As far as I can ascertain Reims is famous for 2 things. It’s cathedral and it’a champagne. In the spirit of fairness, as I already visited quite a few cathedrals on this walk but no vineyards, I had taken the unilateral decision to focus the bulk of today’s blog on the latter rather than the former. As Winston Churchill famously said; “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne.” However, things haven’t quite panned out as planned so there’s going to be more about Reims Cathedral and less about champagne than I had originally planned!

Chamoagne bottle sizes

The day got off to an excellent start. As I was mulling over the 2 hour walk into Reims, a miracle occurred. Without warning a bus appeared outside the abbey doors with the sign ‘ Reims Tram station’ on it’s front. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, £ hopped on board. Twenty minutes later after a nifty switch to the tram and I was standing outside the front of Reims Cathedral. Manna from heaven.

When I reached Reims Cathedral and wandered around the centre of the city it quickly became apparent that France is shut on Monday mornings. Apart from a large group of aged American tourists from New York, not many other people were around. The bookshop where I had hoped to get another guide to the VF, was shut on Mondays and the champagne themed gift shop around the corner from the cathedral was closed until Wednesday. This was a pity as there were some interesting items for sale.

As I wandered around the centre of Reims I soon began feeling ever so slightly silly as I was wearing a bright orange cagoule and by lunch time the mercury had hit 80 degrees! Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid though.They probably just thought I was mildly deranged!

Reims has had a chequered history. According to legend, Reims was founded by Remus, the brother of Romulus who founded ancient Rome.

Romulus and Remus

After the Roman conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, Durocortorum was integrated into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica and became its capital. At its peak the Gallo-roman city was the most populated North of the Alps with 30,000 inhabitants.

Clovis, (who was the first king of the Franks to unite all of the Frankish tribes under one ruler, changing the form of leadership from a group of royal chieftains to rule by a single king and ensuring that the kingship was passed down to his heirs) was baptized by Remi, bishop of Reims on Christmas Day 498 in a baptistery on the site of where Notre-Dame Cathedral now stands.  It is entirely due to Clovis’ baptism that Reims became the seat of the coronation of the kings of France.

Clovis – first King of the Franks

In 816 the first royal coronation of King Louis the Pious took place in Reims Cathedral. However, probably the most famous coronation in Reims Cathedral was that of the Dauphin, Charles VII who was lead into Reims by Joan of Arc on the 17th of July 1429 after she had raised the siege of Orleans by the English.

Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans


In total, 33 French kings have been crowned in Reims, the last of them being Charles X in 1825.


In the Middle Ages, Reims achieved prosperity on the back of its textile exports which were sold as far afield as the Baltic via trade with the Hanseatic League. The increase of champagne exports during the reign of Louis XIV also boosted its prosperity.

The industrial revolution saw the population increase from 30,000 to 120,000. Opulent mansions replaced half-timbered houses and Reims hosted some of the world’s first international air exhibitions, thus making it one of the birthplaces of modern aeronautics.

Tragedy struck Reims with the outbreak of the Great War.

On the 4th of September 1914, a month after the beginning of the war, the German army entered Reims. They were pushed back by French forces but then occupied the fortresses surrounding Reims whence they bombarded the city.

On 19 September 1914, Reims cathedral was hit by German shells, setting wooden scaffolding on fire, melting lead in the roof and causing fire to consume wooden fixtures and pews. It also led to the destruction of perhaps the most famous part of the cathedral – the angel with the iconic smile, known as the smile of Reims.

Fire at Reims Cathedral
The smile of Reims

The Smiling Angel  also known as the Smile of Reims, is a stone sculpture on the west facade of the cathedral which was carved between 1236 and 1245.

The fire caused by German shelling on the 19 September 1914 led to the head of the Smiling Angel statue falling and breaking into several pieces.

The head was collected by abbot Thinot of Reims the day after the fire and stored in the cellars of the Archbishop of Reims to be discovered by the architect Max Sainsaulieu on the 30 November 1915. It became an icon for the French wartime propaganda as a symbol of “French culture destroyed by German barbarity”.

After the war, the original fragments were molded and preserved in the Musée National. The sculpture was finally restored and put back in it’s original position on the 13 February 1926.

All of this was described in meticulous detail by the French guide whose cathedral tour I joined after lunch. It was fascinating although I chose to keep a diplomatic silence when the guide bemoaned the tragic death of Joan of Arc (or Jeanne de Domrémy as she is called in French) who was burned at the stake as a witch in Rouen by the English. The drama of his description of her death was heightened by the sound of Widor’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor being played on the cathedral organ in the background!

Back at the Abbey this evening there was another surprise in store for me in the shape of an English pilgrim called Patrick who was walking the Via Francigena in reverse from Rome to Calais. Over supper he explained that he’d already walked from Canterbury to Rome some years previously and that he’d enjoyed it so much that he’d decided to repeat the entire walk, only this time in reverse!

Over supper it sounded as though Patrick’s experiences on the Via Francigena were equally as colourful and entertaining as my own. This, together with a notification on my Just Giving page that he had generously contributed to the Raise the Roof campaign were enough to put a smile on my face as I turned off the lights in my room and hit the sack,

You could almost say that the ‘Smile of Reims’ had been restored after another great day on the Via Francigena.

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