If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve either visited Paris already, or at least given plenty of thought to your next trip to France. Paris is losing grip on the global spell it has long had on visitors, and upcoming events will probably make things considerably more unpleasant for future tourists. A mere hour away, a far finer, French-er, awaits them.
Paris sliding downhill
If you’ve been to Paris in recent years, the state of the city of lights hasn’t slipped by you. Despite massive tax increases (which Parisians aren’t delighted about), municipal services have been collapsing in recent years. Security issues are on the rise, cleanliness is worse than it has ever been and transport services are nearing the brink of saturation. Of the 14 subway lines, only four are running normally, including two considered to be fully dysfunctional (lines 11 and 12). Long story short, both the city of Paris and the Paris region (two distinct administrative entities) share responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the network and, in a classic case of “everybody’s business is nobody’s business”, each side has been relying on the other to do their job.
The initial idea, launched by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, of creating bike paths to give the city a little bit of its old charm back, sounded picturesque at first, but has quickly devolved into disaster. Town hall first enticed Parisians to use bicycles, and then quickly pressured them to do so, by disrupting automobile traffic as much as possible with inconvenient bike paths and over-extended work sites. Combined with the collapse of public transport, you can imagine what a state Paris is in now. Add to this the fact that trash collection hasn’t occurred in weeks, in Paris, and you’ll picture yourself slaloming on your bike between refuse mountains. But wait, it gets worse.
Paris is merely a year away from the Olympics, and many institutions, including France’s top administrative authority, the Cour des Comptes, have major doubts as to whether France will be ready on time to host the Olympics. The Stade de France riots which occurred in 2022 highlighted Paris’ incapacity to ensure safety for visitors and contain violence. As for transport, the ten million expected visitors should stress five-fold an already-overstretched public transportation network.
So what? Cancel your visit to france? Certainly not: just look a little to the East, and you’ll find something very much worth your visit.
The Reims cathedral
A mere hour away from Paris, with a direct TGV connection, you will find the city of Reims, historically one of the most significant in French history. A major city since the Roman empire, Reims saw its staggeringly beautiful cathedral built in the 13th century - a place of worship where kings were traditionally crowned, during a ghastly 7-hour ceremony, to illustrate their god-given right to rule. Literally tens of millions of hours of work were put into the building of the cathedral, which took over a century to be completed. A week of intense scrutiny and hard study wouldn’t be enough to notice every detail, or memorize the countless historical events which have occurred in or around the masterpiece. Most parts of the cathedral can be visited, gardens and North tower included.
Once you’re done with the cathedral, walk over to the Basilica, another immense piece of religious architecture, which more closely resembles Paris’ Notre-Dame in its style. In between, you can also visit the Palace of Tau, which remained the epicenter of religious authorities for many years in French history. Look into the history of the place and you will not be disappointed: it turns out that the clergy ruled with an iron fist, back in the days, raised crushing taxes on the people and sometimes got into riots with people who were fed up with how long the cathedral was taking to build!
And where will you stay, while wandering from architectural masterpiece to historical jewel? Worry not, there’s everything you need.
The best hotel in town opened in 2019
Built out of a former fire brigade (understandably located right across the cathedral), the Caserne Chanzy is the best choice, by far, for those who wish to enjoy Reims. All services are provided, ranging from restaurant to concierge station, and from basic accommodation to spa sessions, in-house. The interior is exquisitely decorated, with the authentic French charm and taste, which Paris now lacks sorely. Most views will give a breathtaking-view of the cathedral. But what stands out even more than the place itself is the hospitality. Many tourists shy away from Paris after a first visit, as the commercial aspect is egregious in each experience: in the capital city, a tourist is a sales opportunity, never mind the person behind it. Places like the Caserne Chanzy still hold dear the tradition of true hospitality, the apparent awareness that each Frenchman is an ambassador for his country, and that a visitor’s experience will depend on the quality of his or her encounters.
During your stay, therefore, you will probably be greeted, several times, by the general manager who will ensure that your visit is as pleasant as it can possibly be. You will be called by your name, and considered a host, not a walking wallet. Try finding that, nowadays.
Don’t forget the countryside
Last but not least, it would be a shame to visit Reims and forget the region you are in : Champagne. The Champagne region, whence the drink got its name, is famous world-wide for its wine, and synonymous with French “art de vivre”. Napoleon himself praised Champagne as “something wanted when victorious and needed when defeated”. So, before leaving, travel due south from Reims and, just beyond the natural reserve, you will find a gem in the small village of Cramant, in the Grand cru section of the Côte des Blancs. The Voirin Jumel establishment produces one of the finest champagnes you will taste. Don’t try finding it in New York or London, as this type of Champagne sells almost exclusively by word-of-mouth: either you’re in the know, or you’ll drink something more standard. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but one rarely tastes the true French experience from a supermarket shelf. The vineyard has been run by the same family for generations and places more focus on the taste of their wine than on the marketing around it - but you be the judge of that.
As is often the case, whatever is easy quickly turns bland. Very convenient all-in-one travel packs can be purchased by the dozen online, with a pick-up at Charles-de-Gaulle airport, 5 meals included and a visit to the Louvre. Here again, nothing wrong with that - but if you’re looking to experience France in a more authentic way, Paris should be a pit stop, not a destination. In the countryside towns of France, you will sense another environment, deeper-rooted in tradition, and with mores and lore a thousand years old.