Image: Bullet train
Alain Julien  /  AFP/Getty Images
France's newest train line has made it easier to get from Paris to the eastern part of the country, including the Champagne region.
updated 10/19/2007 8:21:19 PM ET 2007-10-20T00:21:19

After a Paris breakfast of cafe and croissant, how about lunch and a glass of bubbly in France's Champagne region?

Thanks to a new high-speed train line, Reims, the ancient heart of Champagne country is now just 45 minutes from Paris — less time than it takes to cross the French capital during rush hour.

Running at up to 200 mph, France's network of bullet trains — known as the TGV, or Train a Grande Vitesse (high-speed train) — is shrinking the country. Its newest line, the TGV Est, puts eastern France on the daytrippers' map, slashing travel times to the line's 30-plus destinations in eastern France and Germany.

The previous 90-minute trip to Reims has been cut by half. Colmar, a picture postcard town in another famed French wine region — Alsace, on the German border — is now three hours from Paris, down from nearly five hours before.

Shiny and sleek with their pointed, aerodynamic noses, the TGV lives up to its name. As it leaves Paris, the train picks up speed and landscapes dissolve into blurry, impressionistic patches of color. Gliding silently along, you almost feel like you're flying, soaring low over the plains that give way, eastward, to gently rolling hills.

Bubbly is a way of life
Though you can't see the Champagne region's famous vineyards from the train as you arrive in Reims, the drink's enormous influence on the city is immediately palpable: More than an occasional, celebratory beverage, here bubbly is a way of life.

Decorative bunches of stone grapes adorn the stately bourgeois mansions in the historic center, and architectural details on City Hall and even the famous cathedral of Reims — where generations of French monarchs were anointed — pay homage to the sparkling wine.

Reims is the headquarters for many of France's main Champagne houses, including luxury labels Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart and Pommery. Most labels offer tours of their cellars with English-speaking guides several times a day.

Clustered in the residential neighborhoods south of the city center — a good 45-minute walk from the train station — the best way to get to the cellars is by taxi.

I visited Taittinger, founded in 1930 by entrepreneur Pierre-Charles Taittinger. Among the youngest of the major labels, the Taittinger cellar is built on the meandering corridors of a Roman chalk mine and dates from the 4th century. Vestiges of the mine — and an abbey built in the 13th century by Champagne-making monks — can be seen in Taittinger's 66-foot-deep cellar, which holds some 3 million bottles of bubbly.

Cellars and churches
While in the cellar-filled southern part of town, be sure to swing by Saint Remi Basilica, an 11th century church that holds the remains of the city's most celebrated native son, Remi of Reims, a 5th century archbishop credited with converting France to Catholicism.

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It was Remi who baptized the barbarian Clovis, the Franks' first king, around A.D. 498 in Notre Dame de Reims cathedral. For a millennium, nearly all French monarchs followed in Clovis' footsteps, holding their coronation ceremonies in the cathedral.

Rebuilt in the 12th century after a devastating fire, the cathedral represents French Gothic architecture at its riotous, exuberant best, with intricately carved sculptures that cover the inside and out, bursting from the limestone surfaces.

The Germans heavily bombed the cathedral during World War I, knocking hundreds of sculptures off the walls and destroying many of the arched stained-glass windows.

Russian-born French artist Marc Chagall designed replacement panels, depicting Old Testament scenes and the coronation of several French kings in light, bright stained glass. Installed in 1971, Chagall's hallmark dreamy, curling figures never looked so ethereal as in this holy site.

Another panel pays homage to Champagne, depicting workers making the drink, step by laborious step.

Many of the sculptures damaged during WWI found their way to the Palais du Tau, a former archbishop's residence next door that has been converted into a museum. As well as giving a unique, close-up view of the sculptures, it also houses a rich collection of paraphernalia used in regal coronations.

A host of restaurants around the cathedral serve up delectable local dishes like "pied de porc," or pig's foot, a traditional specialty that washes down well with — surprise, surprise — a glass of Champagne.

Faster and faster
France's TGV network dates back more than 20 years. The first line, connecting Paris with Lyon, was inaugurated in 1981. The addition of each of the network's now six main lines has shrunk France, putting destinations like the Mediterranean port city of Marseille and Bordeaux, on the Atlantic coast, nearly in Paris' backyard.

And they keep getting faster. A special train with a 25,000-horsepower engine and special wheels broke the world speed record for conventional rail trains, 357.2 mph, on a stretch of the TGV Est's track.

Stay on the TVG Est beyond Reims and you leave Champagne country and head into sweet white wine territory — Alsace.

Just 12 miles from the German border, the town of Colmar is a picture-perfect hybrid of French and German culture, with typical German half-timbered houses and broad French promenades and parks.

It's about a 20-minute walk from the station into the historic city center. A small tourist bus that stops in front of the station will get you there as well — with running commentary in English, French and German detailing the history of local landmarks.

By bike or by boat
Better yet, rent a bike at a stand in the Champ de Mars park, a 10-minute walk from the station. The bikes — which come with baskets perfect for stashing bread, cheese, sausage and other picnic essentials — cost $7 for half a day and $8.50 for the entire day.

With its light traffic, Colmar is ideal for cyclists, though the old town's cobbled streets make riding here a bumpy affair. Navigation is a cinch: Just head for the towering spires of the Collegiale Saint Martin. The luminous 13th century monument marks the heart of the old city.

Moderately priced cafes radiating out from the cathedral are great stops for invigorating midmorning shots of espresso.

Hop back on your bike for a quick visit to the Unterlinden Museum, housed in a 13th century Dominican monastery. The jewel of the museum's collection is the Issenheim Altarpiece, a triptych with layers of panels depicting the lives of Christ and several saints that unfold like a massive book. The paintings, by 15th century German artist Matthias Grunewald, look like Technicolor dreamscapes: haunting, expressive, disturbing.

Another nearby museum, the Musee Bartholdi, pays homage to sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi — a Colmar native and the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Sketches and clay mock-ups of Lady Liberty make up the core of the collection.

If you're museumed out, head for the Petite Venise, or Little Venice neighborhood — a canal flanked by charming German-style buildings with exposed crossbeams and flower baskets overflowing with geraniums. You can even take a ride in little wooden boats that look like truncated gondolas.

But don't expect to be serenaded.

"We don't do that kind of thing," one boatman told me.

Endless vineyards
Restaurants serving local specialties like a beef, potato and white wine stew called baeckeofe and saumagen, or stuffed pork stomach, line the canal.

Colmar's twice-weekly farmers' market is also a showcase for the region's culinary traditions.

Local vintners hawking crisp local white wines rub shoulders with organic farmers offering homemade sausages, hand-picked berries, yogurts and cheeses. Bakers, drawing from the best of the French and German traditions, sell both crusty baguettes and oversized, doughy pretzels.

Most of the region's vintners are based outside Colmar, amid the endless rows of vineyards that surround the city, but a handful of wine makers do their production in Colmar.

Domaine Karcher is one of them. In a small compound tucked into a side street in old Colmar, Georges Karcher and his family turn chardonnay and pinot noir grapes into seven varieties of wine.

Karcher offers daily tours of his wine cellar, with new stainless steel vats and century-old oak barrels. No visit would be complete, of course, without a tasting. Karcher's fruity Riesling and his sweet Gewurtztraminer — which both run for about $10 a bottle — are not to be missed.

And after sampling half a dozen varieties of Karcher's wines, the high-speed train ride back to Paris ought to go even faster.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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