Professor John Sweets is Professor Emeritus of History, specializing in the Vichy France era, the French Resistance, and occupied France. He has taught 19th and 20th century European history at the University of Kansas, University College, Dublin (Ireland), The School of International Studies (Fort Bragg, NC), and at the Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon (France). This spring, he led a Smithsonian Journeys group on a tour of France through the ages. See his post below: the perfect day in Paris begins with a glass of champagne and ends with a sunset at the Eiffel Tower.
Our morning begins with an early breakfast before boarding the bus for a trip to the north and east of Paris. A beautiful orange sunrise greets us through the front and right side window of the tour bus as we leave the Circular Boulevard around central Paris and follow the autoroute for a couple of hours. Many of the travelers take advantage of the quiet hum of the motor to catch up on their sleep. Others remark on how quickly we have left the Parisian urban environment and are driving through a rich, green countryside. As we approach Epernay and champagne country, we begin to see the chalky hillsides covered with the three varieties of grapes, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, used to produce the local champagne, which our guide Dominique reminds us is the only wine legally entitled to bear the name Champagne.
At the house of Moet & Chandon we are met by a lovely woman, stylishly attired in a Nina Ricci outfit, who takes us through all of the steps leading to the production of this bubbly gold. We are particularly impressed with how almost every stage of the process is still done by hand, especially for the vintage years which are treated with special care. Our guide tells us that the Imperial Champagne, a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was a good friend of the founder of the house, is the best champagne in the world. After she serves us a full glass of this elixir, no one is inclined to doubt her word, although we do ask each other: “Are we really drinking this fine champagne at 10:30 in the morning?”
From Epernay we make our way to Reims for a quick lunch and then a visit to the extraordinary Cathedral in the center of the town. It is hard to choose which is the most striking, the exterior façade with incredible sculpture at the entry doors and all the way up the front of the cathedral, or the wonderful stained glass windows, seen in all their glory from the interior of the church, and including very old traditional windows, a beautiful Rose Window, and gorgeous modern stained glass by Marc Chagall, who attempted in his panels to recreate the blue color of Chartres Cathedral. We are also reminded by statues of Joan of Arc, both outside and inside the Cathedral, that Reims Cathedral is the place to which most of the French kings were brought for their coronation ceremonies. In July 1429, Joan of Arc led the initially reluctant Dauphin to Reims to be crowned as King Charles VII and stood in her armor at his side (not in a dress as she is now represented by the statue inside the Cathedral).
After a stop and guided tour at the Mumm champagne house in Reims, capped off by a second full glass of champagne, we board our bus for the return trip to Paris and promptly fall asleep under the warm afternoon sun. After leaving the autoroute we merge into the flood of late afternoon traffic in Paris. After a quick stop at our hotel, we proceed to the Eiffel Tower to finish our day with a spectacular view over Paris at sunset. We arrive to find that due to technical problems, only one of the tower’s four elevators is in operation. To our astonishment, our Tour Guide, Francoise, is able to charm one of the attendants at the entry into letting us move up close to the front of the line. We have only a relatively short wait before ascending the tower and ending our day perched above the city trying to locate, in the glow of an unforgettable sunset, various Parisian sights we had visited earlier in the week.
Click here to read more about Journeys’ upcoming “France Through the Ages” tour.