Saturday, 29 August 2015

Raiders of the Lost Fromage: Raucousness in Reims

It was time to leave the west of France, the majestic Loire, the charming landscape, delicate foods and gentle wines behind and head east. The robust cuisine, the bold wines and the distinctly northern European feel would be in sharp contrast to my previous destination. Having been to Alsace before, I had an inkling of what to expect, but nothing would prepare me for the welcoming people and, frankly, the pointless hedonism that was to characterise this half of the adventure. 

The sun shone as I left Tour, armed with a good slab of pate, a crusty loaf, some wild strawberries and a half bottle of red. It was a simple lunch but one which suited the long journey I was taking across the breadth of France. As I finished my customary pint of train station beer, I focused my attention on Reims, the legendary capital of Champagne, the next leg of my French tour. 

It was a long journey, with a brief stop in Paris, where I saw the inside of the Metro and Gare L’Est but little else, but I was content having enjoyed that nice, rough and gamey country pate and a light red. An hour later I was in Reims, holding such a significant place in French history, not so much for the famed wine but for its place in confirming the legitimacy of country’s monarch. 

In this relatively, gentle landscape, the cathedral dominated. It’s an imposing structure, more built for pomp and grandeur as opposed to beauty. Whatever your feelings when you see this building, it certainly merit a visit. Who can forget the iconic WW1 image of this bomb battered church, implying as it did a sense of stubborn defiance and fortitude in the midst of the destruction. 

Where the Loire Valley had been sunshine, the weather turned in the north east, shifting to that close, overcast, drizzly sky, unique to the UK, northern France and the low countries. Outside the cathedral it was not a picturesque town, in fact I found it to be quite ordinary and there was a definite malaise in the air, you could see the terrible legacy everywhere of a city which had been at the centre of many of Europe’s most devastating conflicts. 

But enough of bleak history, let’s get down to brass tacks. I got a little diorientated, turning and weaving through these rather uninspiring streets looking for a very unassuming hotel on a very unassuming street.

Hotel Gambetta was finally found after an infuriating series of exchanges with locals who I fear were trying to lead me off on a wild goose chase every step of the way. I arrived, and tried to check in...

“Non monsieur, ne pas le reservation.”
“Excuses moi?!?!”
“Non... desolee’

Fuck that, I’d booked a room at this sodding place and I was tired, it was not a mood to cross me. However, I fixed my most saccharine smile, trying to be civil; there must have been some mistake, an error in the booking?

Apparently not, he said looking through his book of printed off reservations. I was adamant, standing my ground, an angry young man quaking in his little boots (or suede loafers). It’s one of the very few times I have felt confrontational but I had paid for the room so I felt a little aggrieved. 

By this time, knowing he could speak the lingo, I switched back to English. He kept phaffing and then looking through his database for this booking. He was about to cast me out on my arse but, being a nosey bastard, I craned over the desk and there saw my booking which he had overlooked... oh dear. 

There are times to be smug and there are times to think that you might like a room, I chose the latter. Once I had discovered the error it was all smiles and courtesy. I apparently could have the master suite, a privilege, it had just been completed. 

Just completed was an apt description, the paint had barely set on the walls. As the proprietor opened the door to show off this new addition to his portfolio, the smell of freshly laid matt emulsion hit my nostrils. It was quite overpowering, my first impressions were that  I was going to expire this evening in a mixture of paint and alcohol.

“Sir!” he announced in his very good English, “here it is...” 

I surveyed the scene, it was impressive, an eight bedroom apartment, I could’ve had a party in this top-floor cavern. It was not furnished, apart from a single bed and the sockets had not even been adhered to the walls. The paint fumes were almost overwhelming... 

“You could cook in here, have a meal this evening...” Said my landlord, pointing at the Meile unit at one side of the living area, very proud. 
“On what? The floor?!” I retorted, then pointing to the expanse of unfurnished room facing me. 
“Well, it’s yours to do as you like this eve!” He nudged me and gave a disconcerting wink. Creepy as it was, I liked this charlatan who had palmed an unfinished, three room apartment on me to try and make up for an error. I went with it, paint fumes (I soon became accustomed) and all. 

Embracing this rather odd situation, I dumped my bags and headed into Reims. Yes, the Cathedral held a mystical charm as did a neighbouring full of medieval and 19th century artifact, but I was here for the gastronomy and I had been well briefed.

First and foremost, I found a little Champagne bar serving a cheeky Blanc de Blanc, non-descript but gorgeous against some shaved saussicon sec and a few salted almonds. I indulged in my book, occasionally looking up to see couples entwining and businessmen in fervent conversation, a working city. 

Taking my leave of these rather fun people I made my way slowly, stopping at a few watering holes, to another stand out restaurant L’Alembic... I shall cover this in the next post! 

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