Reims Cathedral, It’s History Has More Drama Than A Telenovela

When I visited Champagne, I had to stop by and see the cathedral in Reims.  I’d heard so much about it and had to see it in person.  Yeah, from a distance, it might look a lot like many other French cathedrals, but this one is different.  It’s beautiful, light and airy, but that’s only scratching the surface.  It’s fascinating because of its dramatic history.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is considered by many to be the world’s most perfect Gothic church.   Located in eastern France (an hour or so away from the WWI battlefield of Verdun),  it was almost completely destroyed during the First World War.    On September 19-20, 1914, 25 German shells struck the cathedral which then caught on fire, causing massive damage.  It became known as  the “Martyred Cathedral” a symbol of destruction during the Great War and brought out strong emotions in the French.  Strong emotions are an understatement.  Several injured German prisoners found refuge in the cathedral but were killed outraged French.

In 1924, billionaire American John D. Rockefeller, gave money to restore the cathedral.  Fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie kicked in some money too.    Today, it’s mostly restored, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely worth the few million they poured into it.

Reims has been a town since Roman times. In 498, Clovis was baptized as the first Catholic French king at the church.  This was a big deal.  If you don’t believe me, Pope John Paul II visited for the 1500th anniversary of the event.  I can pretty much guarantee that no world leader will mark the 1500th anniversary of anything I have done or anywhere I have been.  Monkey see, monkey do.  All the cool kings wanted to do it like Clovis did and it became the site for coronations of French kings (until the revolution).   Joan of Arc famously knelt in front of Charles VII when he was crowned King of France there.  Today, they have a Gallery of Kings, statues of the famous kings who were crowned there.

Here Saint Remy Baptized Clovis King of France

In 1211, when the existing church burned down, the built a bigger better one on the site of an earlier church (just like Geneva’s Cathedral St. Pierre).  Part of what makes Reims Cathedral such an amazing building is the amount of light inside (particularly in comparison with others constructed around the same time).  The architects designed the windows so that they would let in as much light as possible.

Notre-Dame de Reims did not escape the French Revolution unscathed. Fleur-de-lys and clovers were removed because they had been symbols of the monarchy.   They were replaced during the restoration.  Thanks Mr. Rockefeller.

Large circular windows at the ends of the cathedrals are known as the “Rose Window.”  It took me a few cathedrals to figure that one out.  Luckily, we’ve seen a few this year (Toledo, Milan). The church is known throughout France for its impressive stained glass windows.  During the restoration, some more contemporary have been used.  I like the one depicting Champagne making from the 1950’s.  Who would have thought church windows would depict hooch? The windows designed by Marc Chagall from the 1970’s (above) were my favorites because they were ethereal and dreamy.  You wouldn’t expect something so massive to look so light.   They plan on continuing with the different windows, making it interesting to for visitors compare and contrast the different styles.

By the way, if you go there, hunt out the “Smiling Angel” (also known as  “Smile of Reims”  and “L’Ange au Sourire”).  Decapitated by a burning beam in 1914,, during the fire of September 19, 1914 it the destruction and then with the restoration of the city. 

 
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I Got A Kick From Champagne

“Burgundy makes you think off silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them. Think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them.”

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French gastronome, (1755-1826)

After visits to BurgundyAlsaceCôtes du Rhône, and Bordeaux, how could we not visit this wine French wine region?  Champagne is located in in north-eastern France. Although it is doable as a (long) day trip from Paris (the region starts 120 kilometers/75 miles from the city) , I did it as part of a visit to the World War I battlefield of Verdun.   There were people on some of my tours that were out from Paris for the day.  Trust me when I tell you that with a driver taking them from one producer of Champagne to another, they were having a very, um, fun educational experience.

Champagne has 4 main cities: Reims, Troyes, Chalons en Champagne and Epernay.  Most of the guidebooks recommend either Reims or the smaller Epernay.  I wanted to visit the famous (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) cathedral at Reims, so I chose to go there.  If I’d had more time, I would have done the Champagne Tourist Route.  It covers more than 500 km between Reims, Epernay and the Côte des Bar, and has around 80 welcome centers.  Growers offer tours in personalized settings, but you need to be better organized than I was and arrange them in advance.  Squeezing it in at the last minute meant that I could only tour producers like Tattinger and Pomeroy.

Let me explain.  Like Burgundy, Champagne’s vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Deuxième Cru.  However, in Champagne this does not give an indication of the vineyard’s quality or potential.  It functions more as a means to establish the price a grower gets for his harvest.   The producer or skill of the wine-maker in Champagne means that it is possible to have an outstanding performer in a second classed village and a moderate grower in a higher classed Grand Cru (just like Bordeaux, but different from Burgundy).  Confused yet?