Touring a Special French Terroir: Loire, Burgundy and Champagne

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Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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abstract: In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States of America and spent several months here. The twenty-five year old Frenchman’s command of English was limited; as he wrote to his mother “We speak English with whomever will tolerate our chatter.”  The book de Tocqueville penned on that trip, Democracy in America, has become a classic, often cited as one of the best for understanding the Americans even today, a work informed by “the perspective of a detached social scientist.”  I mention this as a way of soliciting license to write, far less ambitiously, about France which I toured for a few weeks this past October. The shortcomings of not being immersed in the life of a foreign land paradoxically allow a certain distance for objectivity. It might be argued that a broader outlook is possible for seeing the forest as one is not obstructed by the trees. This report does not have grand theoretical pretenses. It aims at detailing a tourist’s experience of France. The best it could hope for are patterns in observations that might have been shared by other travelers: thus it would depict a distinct reflection of France. Further, the report is largely on only a part of France: the loop south of Paris, from the LoireValley to Burgundy and then Champagne. That happens to be a land especially rich both in culture and history of France.

Paris

The lone tour bus parked at the entrance to the visititors’ galleries of Moet & Chandon in Epernay, in the heart of the Champagne country, bore a revealing truth.  On its side in huge letters the bus invited tourists to “Visit Paris (Visitez Paris);” that invitation then continued in much smaller letters, one-fifth that size, “and France ( et France).” France gets more tourists than any other country in the world, about 70 million a year which is about 8 million more than its total population of 64 million. The overwhelming majority of these stay in Paris; few venture out into the country.

I have been to Paris too often to be awed by its apparent glamour but not enough to be able to fully appreciate its culture. I saw people in endless conversation in this town and I could only wonder what engaged them so. The failing is not just linguistic: I am not au courant (up to date). The subjects in the newspaper headlines are remote from my ordinary preoccupation. The dominant topic in these early days of October 2012 was the submission for approval by the Legislature of a “treaty” regarding the European Union by the new Socialist Government. My well-informed friend, a graduate of Paris’ prestigious school of Political Science (Science Po), told me that the political right ridiculed the new President Francois Hollande’s adopting the treaty which had been negotiated by their candidate, former President Nicolas Sarkozy. In the election campaign Holland had vigorously criticized the treaty, maintaining that he could get much better terms from France’s German partners. The change in his position was now seen by the right as surrender to the Germans, forever the rivals. “As we say,” my friend said, “Hollande peed in his frock when he met Chancellor Angela Merkel.”

I did not stay in Paris long enough to attend theaters and movies, to see if I understood and enjoyed the programs. My experiencing the city is impressionistic of a certain type: viewing the familiar as different in yet another glance. So it is that I was surprised at how really large is the number of book stores in the university neighborhoods around Odeon, how constantly the Parisians still smoke, how rarely anyone is obese, how prevalent is the wearing of scarves by both women and men, how most people are brunette and few are blonde, how reliably good is the food, and how they treat you as a guest who can stay as long as he wants not only in outdoor brasseries but also in  restaurants, how you are in constant company of other tourists, how small are the rooms in hotels and how quaint are their facilities, especially their bathrooms, how you feel compelled to visit again the Eiffel Tower, Champs- Elysees, Madeleine, Latin Quarter, Notre Dame and the Louvre, how almost impossible it is to enjoy the big museum, and how it is still necessary to negotiate endless stairs to haul your luggage.

So it was also that even the new special exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay struck me as yet another manifestation of the fascinating self-absorption of this unique city: it matched Paris fashion as setting trends worldwide at the time, in the 19th century, when the Impressionists painters of Paris were the dominant talk of the art world.

Versailles

“All the glories of France,”  however, are officially commemorated in another “Museum,” the  Palace of Versailles, ever since it was so dedicated in 1837 by  Louis-Phillipe, the last “King” of France (not to be confused with Emperor Napoleon III who would serve later as its last “monarch”).  It is a sign of the times that when you step out of the train station at Versailles, this headquarters of France’s Ancien Régime, you face a McDonalds and a Starbucks. Not to worry, as a boulevard with wide pedestrian sides, graced with leafy trees, soon takes you to the bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV  in the Place d’Armes in front of the Palace of Versailles. This was the man who in 1682 moved  the Court and the Seat of Government here, from Paris’s Louvre Palace, and in the process transformed and greatly enlarged what had been a mere brick and stone royal hunting lodge. In the course of his 72 years on the throne, Louis XIV made France the most powerful nation and himself the absolute monarch, famously maintaining that he was indeed the state (L’etat, c’est moi!).  Louis XIV’s direct personal control required that the ministers and major aristocrats and their families all be brought to Versailles. The number of the courtiers swelled to 6,000. Versailles grew to an enormous complex of 700 rooms on 800 hectares of gardens and parks, carefully planned to include the town -later becoming the model for other capitals such as Washington, D.C.

On a day when the sun broke through the fluffy clouds to highlight that special blue that is the color of sky in France, I joined a group from among the 5.3 million visitors who come to Versailles every year. The official brochure was not shy about calling it “the finest and most complete achievement of French art in the 17th century.” We started in the Royal Court and went through the main building, the Palace, also called the Chateau. The State Apartments of the King here were the residence of Louis XIV and his two successors for 100 years.  The King’s apartments consisted of 10 rooms. Often these also functioned as his office. Louis XIV had supper in his bedroom with many state officials attending. We were told that even his rising in the morning and retiring at night would be watched by over 150 courtiers. To impress the visiting foreign leaders, however, the French King would use the dazzling Hall of Mirrors. This largest room was dedicated to commemorate Louis XIV’s successes in wars. Centuries later, it also served as the venue for signing the Treaty of Versailles which finally ended World War I in France’s favor.

We exited the Chateau in Versailles for a long walk through the garden, designed in 1661, which became the standard of excellence for the formal “French garden,” with pools and fountains and many statues, among them that of Apollo, the ancient Sun God, a favorite of  Louis XIV who was called the Sun King. At a far end of the garden the domain of Marie-Antoinette pulls the visitor’s heart. It is not just curiosity about the famous Queen  who sought to recreate the simplicity of her  past Austrian life in this quiet corner,  Marie-Antoinette’s palace of Petit Trianon is endearing because of its diminutive size in this otherwise oversized estate. Also, Marie-Antoinette was the only woman in a world of absolute kings who thus imprinted her personal taste on Versailles. We rode back to the exit gate of Versailles on the quaint tram (petit train), a whimsical vehicle that also transported one’s thoughts to reflecting on the height of the level of fantasy in the art of fine living reached in this place. That fantasy was ruptured by the Revolution of the deprived masses that forced the Queen and the rest of the royal Court of Louis XIV to leave Versailles in October of 1789, most to face the harsh reality vengeful guillotine.

Giverny

Claude Monet succeeded in his fantasy: the garden at Giverny on which he lovingly toiled for over forty years, after buying it in 1895, has blooming flowers every season of the year. In our mid-autumn visit there was an abundance of poppies in many colors. From the many windows of Monet’s simple two story house at the edge of the garden you could see the inspiration for many of his celebrated paintings -he painted some 400 tableaus in Giverny! In the distance was the marshland that fed a canal at the boundary of the property and was the source of the pond  in which Monet grew lilies. We walked around the pond, and over its Japanese bridge , and imagined the many angles from which Monet painted in different lights the mural like canvases of those lilies which now grace the oval-shaped main room of Paris’s Orangerie Museum. They are defiantly soothing and tranquil: most were done during the 1914-1917 War as the rest of France bled.

The hamlet of Giverny was peaceful notwithstanding the onslaught of tourists who descended mostly by bus. Near the entrance we were entertained by the proprietor of a new garden restaurant who teased us in his French English, served us excellent lamb prepared on a wood-fired grill, and was shrewd enough to hand us the web address of TripAdvisor. “Let them know about us if, and only if, you are satisfied,” he said. I was satisfied especially that the venerable institution of chef-owner was surviving, a fact that would be confirmed by my experience also in the LoireValley and Champagne.  That was the reason for the excellence of good French restaurants, my friend, an executive at the Michelin, had offered.

Chartres

It was drizzling when we crossed one of the stone bridges over the EureRiver and ended up parking on a street which was in a riverside parklet of Saint-Andre Collegiate Church. We climbed up toward the old town of Chartres through unique steep medieval passageways and stairways called tertres (mounds) between timber and stone houses. At the tourist office we got directions to the Cathedral and approached its western, royal, portal. We noted the different Romanesque 12th century steeple on our right, and the newer flamboyant Gothic steeple on the left from the 16th century. High above the hill over the flat vast Beauce plain these two have served all those years to beckon the faithful pilgrims. What we came especially to see in this church were the famed 13th century stained glass windows and the West Rose Window, predominantly in blue and red colors, which were resplendent even though not as vivid in the rainy weather. So were still two other rose windows, on the sides of the altar which was in the middle of the church, also from the mid 1200s. Each of these windows told a different part of the Christianity story, as an illustrated book for the illiterate of the Middle Ages.

To the east of the southern Rose Window stood  the 12th century Blue Virgin Window,  dressed in that particular Chartres Blue intense color that was made by adding cobalt oxide into the glass. Mary is, of course, the Notre Dame for which the Cathedral at Chartres is named. The church claims to have a relic, the veil that Mary wore when she gave birth to Jesus. The relic was miraculously saved in the fire of 1194 that destroyed much of the church, and this motivated the town people of Chartres to rebuild Mary’s shrine in such unusually fast pace that the huge Cathedral was completed by 1230. The haste contributed to the uncommon unity of architecture, statuary and stained glass that could not be matched in other large churches that often took centuries to build. One true miracle in Chartres is that it has been spared both modifications and the ravages of war and revolution. That is why it is Europe’s best pure Gothic building.

Loire

 

In contrast to Chartres, the Chateaus in the LoireValley were ransacked in the Revolution of 1789. They were seen as the symbols of the Old Regime. Enough has remained of them, however, to serve as a remarkable repository of the unique examples of the changing grand architecture in France, with evocative hints of the commensurate styles of life.

Chateau Royale d’Amboise

The Chateaus’ prior history also differentiates them from Chartres. They owed their existence to wars, hunting and other secular pursuits. The first Loire Chateaus were built on the ruins of the stone fortifications which began a millennium ago by the Celtic Turones tribe. As I stood on the rocky outcrop overlooking the confluence of the Loire River and it tributary, the Amasse River, where Chateau Royale d’Amboise was constructed, its strategic significance was clearly evident. Great visibility was enhanced by the protection that the wide water below provided. It was the Loire River that slowed down the advance of the Islamic forces of the Caliphate of Spain which had conquered almost all of France before their eventual defeat in 732 by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel.  The Island in the middle of the river facing me was where in 502 Clovis I, King of the Franks and Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, met in face-to-face talks that ended the war between them. Behind me, there were now two flags gently swaying on the Chateau d’Amboise.  One was of France and the other of Brittany. They signify the union created when Charles VIII married Anne of Brittany in 1491, adding her domain to the French kingdom, thus creating modern France.

Charles VIII had been born in this Chateau, in 1470, due to yet another major turn in the history of French monarchy. His grandfather, Charles VII had to retreat to the Loire region when the English control of French territory, during the 100 year war of 1336-1435, extended to Paris. For the next two centuries, from the late 1420s, the French Kings continued to live in the Loire.

Charles VIII ruled from Amboise which he converted from a medieval fortress into a Gothic palace. In fact, almost all the major structures of this Chateau from the 15th and 16th centuries which we could now see are those Charles VIII ordered built: the Gothic royal wings for king and queen, the small St. Hubert chapel and the two cavalry towers. The towers were especially noteworthy for their wide and high-ceilinged spiral ramp for horses and carriages which allowed them to arrive up onto the castle easily, a forerunner of the ramp in today’s parking garages.

Later kings developed the Amboise Chateau further following Italianate taste they acquired during their campaigns in Italy. Some rooms in the Chateau still show the influence of the early Renaissance architecture.  More pronounced, however, is the example of the Renaissance gardens. The traditional medieval closed garden was replaced by the Neapolitan design with open perspectives and new species of Italian plants. The Tuscan landscape we saw, at one time even had melons, artichokes and citrus fruits.  Somewhat incongruously, on one side of this garden there were now also the “OrientalGardens” with the cedar of Lebanon. Designed by an Algerian, this was a monument to the members of the household of an Algerian ruler who died here. The portrait of that ruler, Emir Abd el-Kader, was in one of the rooms on the top floor of the Amboise Chateau which are dated from the 19th century. The Emir’s surrender was a decisive event in France’s colonization of Algeria. He was kept in this Chateau from 1843 to 1852.

A far more famous man brought to the Amboise Chateau was Leonard da Vinci. He came here in 1516 at the invitation of King Francoise I and settled in Chateau Clos-Luce in town, a short walk from the royal Chateau. Da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa painting with him and, for the next three years, was engaged in a busy life of further drawing and teaching, designing canals, urban planning and architecture. After his death on May 2, 1519, he was buried in the church of Saint-Florentine at the Amboise Chateau, as he wished.  We saw da Vinci’s white bust on the site of that church in the Chateau’s grounds. When Saint-Florentine was demolished in the 19th century, da Vinci’s bones were transferred to Saint-Hubert’s Chapel, a few yards away.

Chateau de Chambord

The major architectural footprint of da Vinci’s sojourn in the LoireValley is said to be the double helix staircase in another Chateau, the Chambord. A marvel of design, the staircase links three floors around a hollow central column. As we went up one flight we could see people coming down the other column without running into them. Francois I ordered the construction of Chambord in 1519. As that was the year da Vinci died, he could only be credited with having helped “inspire” the staircase. Much more inspiration came from Francois I’s falling for all things Italian.  Soon after ascending to the throne at age 21 in 1515, Francois set out to re-conquer the Italian provinces which his predecessor had lost. Victorious in that, Francois was in turn captured by the Renaissance culture of Italy. For the French kings and nobles, henceforth, Italian ways became preferred ways – in food, gardens, artists, women and, of course, architecture. At my first glance, Chambord seemed to have much in common with the traditional medieval strongholds of the Loire with a central keep surrounded by large towers and an enclosing wall. But soon I could see well integrated elements of Renaissance architecture such as loggias, terraces and pilasters. It is this synthesis that has made Chambord an excellent example of the French Renaissance architecture.

Chambord’s other claim to fame is that it is by far the largest Chateau in the LoireValley with 426 rooms, 77 staircases, and 282 fireplaces. The fireplaces defined its primary use as a hunting lodge mostly occupied in winter when hunters could see best after leaves fell. On this day, from the terraces of Chambord I could see the heavily treed Chambord estate which at 5440 hectares in walls that run 32 kilometers is  Europe’s largest enclosed forest park with boar and deer and other animals living in the wild. The second floor of the Chateau is a virtual museum of hunting, showing different types of the sport in the 16th century and depicting great classical hunting myths on its many tapestries.

The grand size of Chambord was Francois I’s device to show his might; he often invited important persons as guests here who were thus duly impressed. He spent only 72 days in Chambord, but he left his signature on the carving of the vaulted ceilings which combine his monogram with his emblem, the salamander as a mythical creature able to live in fire. “Like salamander,” Francois proclaimed, “I feed (on good fire) and I extinguish (bad fire).”

Another royal who has left his mark in Chambord was the Comte de Chambord who owned the Chateau from 1821 until his death in 1883. As the last of the Bourbons, he was called to the French throne in 1871 but refused the conditions of the offer. Instead, France proclaimed the ThirdRepublic. The Comte lived in Chambord only 3 days, but seven rooms of the first floor of this Chateau are now the museum of his artifacts, including a coronation outfit that he did not come to wear.

Chateau de Chenonceau

 Chambord was not big enough for Francois I; in 1525 he moved the royal court to the even bigger palace he built at Fontainebleau with its over 1500 rooms. In contrast, Catherine de Medici ruled France from 1560 to 1574 as the regent of her minor son, King Charles IX, from a small room in another much more modest Loire Chateau, Chenonceau. It was in this Green Room which I was now visiting, that she received the officials of her realm. Catherine de Medici’s initials were on the doors and the ceiling here, and in her bedroom, as though marking her turf. After all this was the Chateau from which she had evicted Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s favorite mistress.

Originally a fortified castle and a mill with a round tower, which are still standing, the construction of the main building of the Chenonceau Chateau began in 1515 under the general direction of Catherine Brinconnet, the wife of a court minister. That couple’s initials are also on the ceilings of the rooms. The 16th century Renaissance is manifest in architectural details of the Chateau, as well as in its tapestries and paintings. The building’s distinctive feature is the staircase to the first floor, one of the earliest built in France on the Italian model. In the thirteen years that Diane de Poitiers lived here she added another landmark, a bridge over the river Cher, connecting the Chateau to the 70-hectare hunting ground on the other side.  Furthermore, she built a spectacular and modern (for that time) garden in front, thus turning Chenonceau into one of the first great pleasure palaces in the Loire.

Catherine de Medici completed that task by adding her own garden on the other side of the main entrance and an Italian maze in the grounds which you see on the left as you approach the Chateau on an exquisite tree-canopied path [24]. Finally, she built a 60 meter- long window-lined high-ceiling Grande Gallery upon Diane’s bridge and turned it into a busy ball room. On the day I was there this gallery hosted an exhibit on Jean Jacques Rousseau. He spent long and happy  times here as a guest of Chenonceau’s owner in the 18th century, Madame Dupin, daughter of Louis XIV, whose salon in the Chateau was also attended by Voltaire and Montesquieu. Dupin is credited with saving Chenonceau from the wrath of the Revolutionaries by turning its chapel into a wood storage, thus hiding its religious character. As the brochure guide to Chenonceau says, it aptly has the reputation of having been “The Ladies’ Chateau.”

Chateau de Cheverny

When Diane de Poitiers was ousted from Chenonceau by Catherine de Medici, she bought the nearby Chateau de Cheverny while waiting for her new residence, Castle of Chaumont sur Loire, to be renovated. Aside from that short period in the 16th century and another interruption in the 18th century, Cheverny has the distinction of having stayed in the same family of commoners ever since 1500. The current owners in fact celebrated their wedding here and live in an apartment in the right wing.

Of the original forest of this estate only vestiges remain and the same can be said about the original castle. The present Chateau was built in 1624-1640 by the financier to the king of France, Henri Hurault and his wife Marguerite. I saw their interwoven initials H and M  in many places as, remarkably, the building has hardly been altered. It was even spared the excesses of the Revolution due to the negotiating skills of the owner who was an experienced diplomat. As a result this Chateau stands as a rare early example of perfectly proportioned Classic French architecture, with its domed corner pavilions and horizontal lines of stones carved as decoration. The interior shows the Italian influence of the time in its straight staircase with landing, as well as the many wooden panels that compete for attention with the numerous portraits of the family going back to Henri’s father.

As though to prove its authenticity as a hunting lodge, Cheverny houses about 100 pedigreed French pointer and English foxhounds which are still used by the owners. As I passed the kennels at the entrance to the estate, I noticed that many visitors had come to see the hounds as much as the Chateau. There is also an orangery here that gained fame during World War II, not for keeping the orange trees under shelter in winter as originally intended, but as a refuge for da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which had since traveled to the Louvre.

Life in the Valley

The glamour of the Chateaus in the Loire almost overshadows the majesty of the Valley’s natural beauty. We were determined to discover it, and in the process also had a glimpse of some of the people who now live in the Loire Valley. They were, of course, those most likely for tourists to encounter. We drove on the roads that cut through forests with thin trees and small leaves, their grounds covered by plants of much bigger leaves. Where the forests were cleared farmlands replaced them, but there were also vineyards, with their vine leaves just beginning to turn colors. Shaded rivers intersected the earth, vital conduits here both for irrigation and transportation. Among all these signs of ongoing life the dead were not forgotten. At Cher River, near Chateau Chenonceau which was the battle demarcation line in World War II, I noticed a commemorating stone for those soldiers who fell here at two times, tellingly four years apart, distanced by the German occupation: June 20, 1940 and August 27, 1944. The name of a sole American was added on a separate stone: “a pilot officer” who crashed here on July 31, 1944.

The road which we took in the LoireValley twisted through the alleys of old villages. We could not have done it without the help of the car’s TomTom navigator. The device failed us, however, at the crucial time when in the dark we were looking for our own little chateau in the forest at which we had a reservation for that night. The TomTom did not recognize the name of the obscure road where the Inn was located. We ended up in the center of Contres, the small town nearby. I came out of the car to ask directions. The place was deserted in the drizzle. The only place open was a small grocery store. Approaching it, I found a man who, alas, was more incoherent than even me in my French. We would later affectionately dub him as the village drunk. Neither could the two women in the store help me. Driving around, we finally saw a sign for a hotel. As our American cell phone did not work in France, the manager, a petit woman of authority, called our Inn for us. The Inn keeper said he would personally come to fetch us. When he arrived, with a big smile on his face, he sheepishly divulged that, in fact, he had no room for us as, by some mistake, he had over-booked for that night. As consolation, however, he had arranged accommodations for us in another Inn. He now led us to that place.

Manor

The place turned out to be a substantial building which the owners, accordingly, called a Manor. We walked up the wide several steps to the entrance. A tall thin woman with a husky voice and a faint English accent greeted us at the foyer -she was pleased when I said that she looked like Lauren Bacall. She was helpfully welcoming. She said “just leave your car in the driveway and we will take care of your luggage later.” It was pleasantly lighted and warming inside. To our left I saw a large living room with comfortable chairs and directly facing me a shelf full of liquors. The guests were in the smaller dining room to the right. Our hostess did not ask for any passport, names or registration. Instead, she led us to our room, in a tiny elevator. She warned us that we should not touch any buttons once inside as that would make the old style elevator stop in midway.

Our experience of what I came to imagine as the Loire hospitality continued. The hostess asked us if we wanted to have dinner. She had set up a comfortable table for us in the dinning room facing the other guests who nodded greetings. There was a group of eight and, at another table, one woman alone. She turned out to be the sister-in-law of our hostess, visiting for a few days. The husband was the chef. The meal was great and Victor came out and had a long conversation with us. He had worked in restaurants for several decades, mostly in Paris. He said he wanted to open a restaurant in the U.S., “because that is where businesses thrives.” He changed that plan when his wife got sick. “We have a very good health care program in France. We could not make it in America,” he said. They had started this hotel and restaurant in the Manor recently. Being late guests, when we finished our meal, served in the typical unhurried French way, we were the only ones left in the dining room. We decided to have an after dinner drink in the living room. Our hostess had already retired and when we lingered a bit, it was even time for the young man who had served us to go home too. Shyly, he approached us and put his palms together under his ear to sign that he wanted to go home to sleep: “se coucher,” he said, and asked us to please turn off the light when we left the room.

We did not get a chance to talk to any guests that night, but we liked this restaurant so much that two nights later we came to dine here again. This time we had a French Canadian couple as our neighbors. When we told them about our travail of being lost and “abandoned” the first night, they put us to shame by relating how they had been traveling in Europe without any prior reservations at hotels. He said he brushed off the problems and inconveniences by the mantra of “La vie est belle.” Later in the Paris airport we caught that slogan under the picture of a brightly smiling Julia Roberts advertising a fragrance. In all appearance, she could certainly say life was beautiful!

In the meantime, we had moved to our originally intended Inn. It was smack in the middle of what seemed to be a remaining portion of a forest -the clearing which in part had been turned into farmland.. Our favorite guidebook to Inns had publicized this as a place completely built by the owner. This was confirmed by him and his wife who ran the place.  It was pushing the charming to the limits when we were given a cottage  outside the main building which at least felt a bit like a small lodge with a roaring fire in a big fireplace and comfortable chairs. That was too much seclusion; the cottage in the forest was too dark with its dim lights in the continuing bad weather.

At breakfast our companions were a young French couple who had come there to attend the wedding of a friend. The Inn-keepers told us that their own daughter had been married in this house too but then, coincidentally, lived in my town of San Francisco for some time before returning with her husband to France.

We went to the main nearby town, Blois, to do our laundry in an all automated Laundromat. A vending machine took money to dispense soap and to run the various washing machines and dryers.  We were lucky that two local men and a woman had come to do their laundry at the same time. They helped us learn how the whole unfamiliar operation worked. Sitting on the outside steps of the little store, one of them started the conversation with me by saying that he had friends in Ohio. He told me that he had met them during the first Gulf War.

In the Loire Valley, reminders of America seemed to find us everywhere. This was not unusual. To understand foreign reality the tourist welcomes a familiar context. That, indeed, shapes the distinctive narrative of his visit. It is in that same vein that the few locals with whom the visitor can communicate in compensation for his language and cultural inadequacies become crucial interpreters of the scene.  Like de Tocqueville we appreciated it when the French patiently listened to our “chatter” in their language. We were even more grateful for their English, as that proved to be the better conduit for information.


                                                       Geographic Center

Vichy

 

On our way from the Loire to Vichy in central France we passed one of the seven locations claiming to be the geographic center of the country. The heavily treed terrain on the two sides of Autoroute  D976 accented the impression that this was not a heavily populated area. Vichy is not in the usual guidebooks on France. Ordinary tourists do not go there, but people still come to Vichy “to take the water.” A covered passageway over the street connected our hotel on the third floor to a main center for bathing in the town’s hot spring water. The hotel celebrated water! Remarkable for France where hotels often do not have a real shower – we needed to hold a shower head in hand while standing in a bath tub- in Vichy not only was there a separate shower room but, in fact, it had two fixed shower heads, one faced you and the other aimed at your back. What is more there was a splendid pool on the top floor which was mostly inside but also stretched outside. Swimming there with a view of a pink sunset and rainbow in the sudden clearing after the rain was a highlight of our stay in Vichy. Equally memorable was a walk around the modest town’s center.

Vichy appeared to be what one imagines a mid-size French town to have been between the two World Wars. Graceful, old , large  buildings  lined the residential streets that were on the bank of the Allier River. The main street of downtown, tellingly, was named President Wilson, iconic in the inter-war years. There was a long covered gallery on one side of the street allowing for leisurely stroll by the park next to it even in the rain. In the park itself, there was a covered pavilion around a thermal spring where water has flowed for ages. On the afternoon we passed by there was a tea dance (thé dansant) here, complete with a live band. The dancers were mostly past their sixties. There were tables and chairs for them to rest in between dances.  Anyone could join. There was no charge.

When we came back a couple of hours later the crowd was gone and the musicians were packing their instruments. The tables and chairs were already removed.  In the meantime we had wandered toward the imposing city hall with a wide boulevard emanating from it. A more modest current opera house was a block away. I asked a woman who was sitting on the steps of the city hall if the building also served as the seat of Marshal Philippe Petin’s (“collaborative”) government during the Second World War. She had no clue. Her excuse was that she was too young to remember.

Lyon

In a day visit to Lyon we found the new part vibrant and busy while the old town was quaint, crowded with tourists at ancient restaurants serving the signature salade lyonnaise . The intrusion of the likes of the sandwich shop Subway  and souvenir stores threatened to turn this culinary heart of France into kitsch.  We still managed to see one of the Renaissance courtyards  on a side street and that was a special treat.

Burgundy

Mont-Saint-Jean

We made it to the mountain top but it was not easy. Fog, rain, overcast sky had been dogging us. Occasionally, the clouds would break and we would see the translucent sky of western Burgundy -glorious! But now at night on the road to our hotel it poured buckets, making it almost impossible to find Mont-Saint-Jean, a hamlet so small that our detailed AAA map had ignored it. A local map we picked up in the town of Beaune showed our intended destination as a speck on country roads some 30 miles away. By some miracle we avoided the tractors and other implements of a farming community and negotiated the several sharp curves on the road and followed the tiny signs which in the dark all seemed to refer to the same, hard to pronounce, unfamiliar French names and, voila, we were in this village square that was ancient with walls half fallen and a water well long ago abandoned.

There was a flickering light beckoning at one corner from a café but no one seemed to be inside; no one to be seen anywhere indeed. Incredibly, however, on the next wall we noticed two signs. One said golf and the other said tennis. We now faced a narrow dirt road sloping down. We gathered our remaining courage, took a deep breath and drove down, hoping that our small car would avoid scraping the stone walls -we had already lost a hub cap. We survived and around the bend found the open gate to a stately building with a sign presenting it as Les Roches, our accommodation for that night.

It called itself Chateau, but in fact, we learned, it had a more modest pedigree. It was a big country house built in 1901 by a judge whose job regularly made him motor between Paris and Lyon; the original medieval lord’s Chateau in the village was destroyed by the Duke of Burgundy so as to assert his centralized power. Our house did have a grand staircase dominating the entrance which has been a signature of every chateau worth its ramparts ever since Francois I built his in the Chambord. I counted the steps to the first floor where our room was located: twenty-eight is a good number to keep you above the dampness of any marshland. On the top of a mountain some 1500 feet above sea level it translated more into too many for hauling your own luggage over them after a long day’s  trip. The view from our twelve- feet ceiling room over the sweeping valley the next morning, however, made the effort worth it.

Lords

The drive through this part of Burgundy, better known as a wine country, took us through forests and verdant fields  spotted with farming hamlets , and only occasional vineyards. The eye catching attraction was the white charolois cows  in grazing pastures ; they produce France’s best beef. The landmark that stood out was Chateauneuf (New Castle)-en-Auxois which was built in the 12th century on a rocky spur of a high hill at the order of the local lord for his son.  With other structures and defensive walls later added to protect both the lord’s family and the villagers, Chateauneuf is one of the last remaining 14th century Burgundian military architectures, an era when the Dukes here controlled a vast country stretching all the way to Holland. The New Castle dominates the plain below  with the Burgundy Canal -which has a special path just for cyclists – running through parts of it.  Traces of the original foundation of the castle could still be seen. The square in the still inhabited hamlet also dates from medieval times. It now hosts cafes for tourists. We walked on a hiking trail at the back of the village which goes for miles.

Hotel Dieu

Then we went to meet the mighty Duke of Burgundy in a contemporary portrait of him made in 1443. This was in Beaune’s Hotel Dieu (House of God), a hospice for the poor, established by the Duke’s Chancellor. At 25,000, Beune is the big city in Burgundy’s south. The Chancellor, Nicholas Rolin, and his wife were also featured in that stained glass portrait.. She wore a nun’s habit only to show her devotion. Real nuns had run the place. A room is still kept to show their lives there. The biggest room in the hospice was the ward where the poor patients were kept to die. Later, the hospice set up a smaller ward for the wealthy patients who could afford better care. For them this became a hospital where they could actually hope to survive. In fact, the place eventually became more a hospital than hospice, funded through auctioning the wine from the lands donated by grateful former rich patients. This lasted until 1971 before Hotel Dieu became a museum. One whole room was the pharmacy, still full of jars. The biggest jar was for the most commonly used medicine called theriaca which literally meant panacea or cure all: it was syrup of wines, opium and herbs.

Hotel Dieu is known for its inner courtyard which has glazed tile roofs, a style recognized as typically Burgundian. The tiles, fired three times – to harden, burn in the color and glaze- are said to last 300 years. The present ones, however, were redone in 1982.

Fontenay

Western Burgundy also has France’s best preserved medieval abbey, Fontenay. We walked on a path soaked in the rain to reach the Abbey established in the isolation of the forest. This was once a marshland, and Cistercian monks -whose name is derived from cisterna (marshy ground)- chose it in 1118 to create “a horrible vast solitude,” where they could live like the desert fathers of the Old Testament. This was these monks’ protest against the excesses of Benedictine abbeys. Here they sought to recapture the simplicity and poverty of the early Christians. Their Romanesque church of Fontenay has no fancy stained glass, it has unadorned columns. Nothing to distract from prayer. There is only one statue, the 13th century Virgin of Fontenay, a reminder that the church was dedicated to Mary.

We took the stairs near the statue up to a large 16th century dormitory where the monks used to sleep on thin mats. A stark cloister down below was where they read, exercised, washed, and did their other chores. A hall here was the general- purpose room, we imagined, often busy with monks hunched over tables copying sacred texts which was a major task of abbeys. On another side of the cloister was the refectory, the monks dining hall.

Crossing the gardens we saw a huge forge. In the 13th century, the monks here ran a metalworking plant. Iron ore was melted down in ovens and the tools made were sold for profit. The hydraulic hammer, the basis of industrial manufacturing of iron, was first used here. Outside, one could see the stream that had been diverted to power the wheels which operated the forge. The pond in the garden had been a fish farm. To separate from the world required industrious self-sufficiency and the monks of Fontenay proved especially adept at that.  Their abbey flourished. A 14th century proverb said, “Wherever the wind blows, to Fontenay the money flows.” Fontenay continued as a prosperous “mini-city” for nearly 700 years, until the French Revolution, when it became the property of the nation. It was eventually sold. The private owner, the family of a Lyon art collector, Eduoard Aynard, whose goal was to restore it, now runs Fontenay as a museum.

Vezelay

The monks’ culture dominated France in the middle ages. In 1200, there were more than 500 monasteries and abbeys in this country. Only a short distance from Fontenay in northwest Burgundy is another such abbey at Vezelay. Its church, like Fontenay, has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Built a little later (1120 to 1250), its architecture spans the transition from the Romanesque (round barrel arches like the ancient Romans’ buildings, thick walls, small windows) to Gothic (pointed arches, flying buttresses, high nave, lots of stained glass). It blends the elements of both styles.  Inside, rows and rows of arches make the simple vast nave a tunnel at the end of which a bright light radiates from the altar area. The effect is dramatic.

This monastery’s history also has been full of drama. Benedictine monks built the church after earlier convents at the site were pillaged by the Moors and, later, burned by Norman raiders.  In its prime during the 12th century Vezelay was a major gathering place for the medieval masses. The legend had spread that the relics of Mary Magdalene was kept here. The abbot of Vezelay heavily marketed the notion and the Pope authenticated it in 1058. It was believed that Mary had traveled to Provence, where she died, and her bones were then brought here by monks to save them from Muslim pirates. The church, which was in fact called Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, became a site for pilgrimage. Soon Vezelay was a place to rendezvous for marching to yet another depository of relics, St. James’, Santiago de Compostela in Spain. What is more, this location was found most appropriate from which to launch three of the Crusades, in 1146, 1190 and 1248. Vezelay’s fortune changed dramatically soon thereafter, however, when King Charles of Anjou announced, in the middle of the 13th century,  that Mary Magdalene’s body was not in Vezelay but elsewhere. Pilgrims stopped coming. The church fell into disrepair.

The church’s alleged relics of Mary Magdalene were later damaged and scattered by anti-Catholic Huguenots in the16th century and the anti-religion Revolutionaries in the 18th century. A few pieces were claimed left, however, to attract some faithful now that the church has been restored. Unique among Europeans, the French continue to have a special affection for Mary Magdalene, La Madeleine, to whom they have dedicated several churches including the one in Paris. In the right transept of the church stands a statue of Mary Magdalene in white marble. We picked up a picture of that statue on a card, with this at the bottom: “Sainte Marie-Madeleine priez pour nous (St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us).” On the back was the name of the sponsor “Fraternites monastique de Jerusalem(The Jerusalem Monastic Brotherhood).”Many more come to Vezelay for its sheer natural beauty as a tourist town. Vezelay is on the apex of a hill overlooking the Cure River Valley. Its old buildings andtwisting  alleyways  are exceptionally picturesque. High-end shops and restaurants line the main street  where the “Visiter’s [sic] Centre” invites you to come in if “Keen to understand the meaning of what you see.”

Dijon

For elegant secular medieval buildings in Burgundy one must go to Dijon. Still the biggest town here, Dijon was where the Dukes of Burgundy held court in its glory days. The most impressive is the monumental Palace of Dukes and States of Burgundy which was the home to the Dukes. Its facade has since been given a neoclassical look in the renovations of the 17th and 18th centuries. It remains the focal point of town, anchoring the semicircular Place de la Liberation, a generous space to begin exploring the lively town on foot. On the day of our visit, the streets of Dijon were festooned with flags of many colors, creating in one’s imagination a scene from the Renaissance times. It helped that the vast Covered Market (Les Halles) was teeming with shoppers for fresh produce and food.

Cote d’Or

The trademarked Dijon mustard sold in the town’s venerable specialty stores are not necessarily produced in Dijon anymore; they are just made by a recipe for making an especially strong mustard developed here. The famed red Burgundy wines, however, do come from vineyards just a few minutes outside of Dijon. South of Dijon, a gentle slope on the east of a range of hills runs for some forty miles. This is called Cote d’Or (Golden Hillside), a term which started as Cote d’Orient (Eastern Hillside) but was “abbreviated” to call attention to the color of the vines in autumn. We could vouch for that claim as we drove down the tertiary route D122  in this mid-October. That road has its own name: Route des Grands Crus (Road of Great Growth).  The area through which the first twelve miles of this Route and its side roads wend has a still different and distinct designation: Cote de Nuits (after the village of Nuits St George). It is this stretch which the locals call the Champs-Elysees of Burgundy; from its terroirs (terrains each with such physical homogeneity as to give a distinct character to its grapevines) come the fruit for the best wines of Cote d’Or.

Cote de Nuits is rarely more than one kilometer wide. As we drove amidst villages mostly built of stones, we saw acres of vineyards on our west and forested cliffs on the east.  Between Vosne-Romanee and Gevrey-Chambertain you pass the 24 Grand Cru wineries of Cote de Nuits. We stopped at the village of Gevrey-Chambertin, attracted by its many flowers. At the tourist office we were told that this village centered around an area that produced 9 out of the 32 Grand Cru wines from all of Burgundy. The brochure they gave us included a map which showed three color coded types of vineyards for this and several neighboring villages. The area that was close to the road and flat was marked with the legend A.O.C. Communale, the more elevated was marked with the legend “Premier Cru,” and the third area, a bit higher in the foothill was marked as “Grand Cru.” Some of the villages only had one or two of these types of areas. As the people at the tourist office explained to us, A.O.C. (appellation dorigine contrôlée) denoted the wine that comes from a defined geographic region with strict rules in regard to the grape variety. That applied to all the three types: the Communale (Village) which was the “third level,” Premier Cru, the second, and Grand Cru, the best category.

The brochure  then described the wines with the prestigious appellations of Gevrey-Chambertin: “The Gevrey-Chambertin are high-colored, rich in aroma of blackcurrant and black and red fruits, animal notes of musk, fur and often liquorice when the wine gets older.” It named eleven wines that could use that appellation. In contrast, the brochure said, the red wines of Hautes-Cotes de Nuits which according to the map was the highest on the hills had “fruit aromas when young, an agreeable nose in maturity and certain firmness.”

We were eager to learn more about Burgundy’s wine because it has been so important to the culture and history of this land. Grapevines were planted here as early as the 1st century. We had recommendations to go wine tasting in Le Caveau des Musigny at the village of Chambolle-Musigny, just south of Gevrey-Chambertin. There the legendary Paulo was to educate us while serving from among the wines of many producers he knew. Paulo was no longer there, replaced by a woman who led us to a vaulted tasting room where we sat across a table from her as she poured from some of the 40 winemakers the Caveau represented. We were her sole customers and she indulged us with a detailed introduction for the uninitiated.

In a smart black pants-suit and with amusing French coquettish gestures pleasing in smiles, she began by telling us that the wines of Cote d’Or were almost all from the Pinot Noir grapes. This was not accidental. In the 14th century, Duke Philippe le Hardi ordered that the other varieties, such as Gamay, be banned because he found that this terroir with its brown limestone was ideal for the aromas of Pinot Noire: “cherry, blackcurrant and blackberry in its youth, then over time, spicy nuances …, sometimes reminiscent of leather. ” Then our hostess pulled out a large piece of paper and drew a rough map of the region’s wine areas, delineating the importance of elevation in determining the “complexity” of nourishment received by the grapes on the vine, mostly depending on the slope of the land. That was the distinctive hallmark of different terroirs, she said: the more complex – the more stressful for the roots of the grapes in obtaining nourishment from the earth- the better.

She said, of course, the best wines come from the “un-grafted vines,” but there is doubtful if any exists. After the pest phylloxera destroyed France’s grape vines in the late 19th century, practically all of the Pinot Noir grapes in Burgundy have been grafted onto a disease resistant variety of American rootstock.

Chablis

Wine making was introduced to Burgundy in the Gallo-Roman times through an area called Golden Gates in the northwest. Our map of Burgundy marked this region with branches of grapes around the small town of Chablis. The monks of the nearby Pontigny Abbey developed the Chablis vineyard from 1130 on. At the time the vines provided a communion wine. Burgundy’s white is called Chablis, an appellation for production stretching across around 20 villages. The grapes are Chardonnay.

This region does not offer a glamorous outing for foreign tourists. In fact, it was not easy to find a wine tasting place.  The neon sign of one establishment blinked as the most promising. It was a warehouse that called itself a cave (cellar). Ours became the only car parked in its small parking area, in between two huge farming tractors. A young girl hurriedly welcomed us with a bonjour and went inside her house to call the English speaking member of the family. The young lad ran out of the building pulling his hoody down.

His few words of English and our limited French were far inadequate for an enlightening introduction to the white wines of Burgundy. The ones that receive the Chablis appellation, we understood, are then classified into Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru in the ascending order of their quality.  We sampled three, trying to look serious in assaying the acidity caused on our taste buds by the dry wine while our server stared at us curiously. Occasionally, we looked over to a group of young men and women next to us at the counter who were served by the woman who must have been the mother in the cave’s family. They were engaged in animated discussion which was not always smooth, judging by the frequent mais no (but no) we heard. The group had been there when we entered and stayed after we left. We wondered if they would buy any bottle to make our hosts’ time worthwhile – the tasting was free.

Champagne

Epernay

We pulled into the chic cobble stoned courtyard and with some hesitation parked our lowly Renault next to the huge Mercedeses that occupied the other spaces. This 19th century mansion used to be the residence of a major family of Champagne barons, the Merciers. Named after the patriarch, Eugene Mercier, who established the winery by that name in 1858, it has been turned into a luxury Inn in Epernay. La Villa Eugene advertised itself as “the ideal place to relax and regain your zest for life.” For the discount price we paid, we were commensurately relegated to what seemed to have been the attic. The walls angled and the windows were small and beyond easy reach. We ducked the wooden planks diagonally connecting the corners when we walked around the room. They were left exposed by some creative interior designer. We went to the house’s “conservatory” for breakfast. The spacious dinning room also accommodated an eighty- year old bougainvillea plant, with tired pale flowers. Alternatively, we could look out onto a back garden freshly washed with rain.

As in Loire and Burgundy, we had chosen this place in Champagne for the experience of residing in a “home” rather than a modern hotel. Admittedly, unlike the two other places, the host did not live here any longer. Furthermore, all three were “staged” to appeal to the guest. Such modification, on the other hand, gave them a certain authenticity. As tourists we could really only expect the reflection of the actual French residential life. It is that which needed to be described in this report. (In the sense of the shadows in Plato’s simile of the cave, that reflection was no less real.)

La Villa Eugene was located at Avenue de Champagne, the fashionable street where the various barons had built their mansions in Epernay at the heart of the Champagne region. The Avenue had wide sidewalks and trees lined it. Banners hung from its lamp poles campaigned for the UNESCO heritage of the world status for Epernay, well-deserved if aesthetic proportions of this one elegant street was the test. Its appeal for a promenade down the whole length of a mile was irresistible.  As the wet sky denied us that pleasure, we drove straight to the domain of the lord of all Champagne chiefs down the street: Moët & Chandon. We took a tour of its caves where we learned about the illustrious history of the Moet family. This was more than simple wine tasting. Like other visiting couples we were assigned our individual guide by the house, after we paid a princely admission fee. The guide came formally dressed in a suit and measured language.

Our first stop was a gallery of the pictures of the four major figures in the life of the winery: the founder Claude Moet, his son, grandson, and the latter’s son-in-law and “business partner,” Pierre-Gabriel Chandon, “who had been an established businessman in his own right.” The three international offshoots of the winery, indeed, carry his name, like the Domain Chandon we knew in NapaValley. (“Theirs is a good sparkling wine but,” our guide reminded us, “it can not be called Champagne.”) The gentlemen of this gallery were not ordinary citizens. The founder’s grandson, Jean-Rémy,  also served as the Mayor of Epernay and was Napoleon Bonaparte’s  pal, often hosting him in Epernay in the Moet family residence which  has been since been donated to Epernay as its  city hall .

From the gallery at Moët & Chandon we could see the statue of Dom Perignon in the courtyard. He “invented” Champagne, in the language of our guide, and then spent years “learning its chemistry and perfecting that wine in his monastery.” Moët & Chandon not only owns the Dom Perignon label and the vineyards around the monk’s abode up on the hills, but indeed most of the buildings connected to that monastery.

As we descended into the caves of Moët & Chandon, our guide said there were some 24 kilometers of these underground cellars right here, constructed in some places at three levels.  “During World War II some resistance fighters hid here.” There were maps on the walls indicating escape routs in case of emergency. But there had never been an emergency, our guide assured us, except when someone happened to have a “normal” sickness. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary in a niche. Our guide said that the winemakers had put it there not to ensure their safety but to pray that she would make “the wine good.” The guide touched the walls of the cave and said it was made of chalk rock “which is the key to making the wine as it maintains the required humidity.” The temperature in the caves remained constant, he said.  He then told us about the stages in the champagne-making process: the blending, bottling, and remouage (riddling). That last one was the turning of the bottles around at regular intervals, every day for several weeks, to help the settling of sediments.  As our guide explained Champagne is made entirely in those wine cellars where first the grapes “must” is placed in vats. During the first fermentation sugar is transformed into alcohol. After several months the cuvee (content of the vat) is given naturally occurring Champagne yeast. It is then bottled where a second fermentation takes place at a much slower pace when gradually the still wine becomes sparkling.

There were bottles full of wine stacked against the walls of the caves, being aged.  “There are millions of bottles here,” our guide said. “Some are for the Dom Perignon Champagne,” he pointed out. Nowadays, the guide added, “one bottle of Champagne is opened every two seconds somewhere in the world.” Moët & Chandon uses only one grape for its Champagne, the Pinot Noir; there are other Champagne-makers that blend more than one grape. All the Champaign produced by Moët & Chandon are called simply Champagne, except some select ones which become Vintage. That selection is up to the winemaker, who is called le maitres de chais (the cellar master). “We don’t know when the next vintage champagne will be released,” our guide said solemnly. The last ones were in 2004 and 2002. The Vintage Champagne is graded into Premier Cru and Grand Cru which is the best.

We were now at a room, still in the caves, where a table was set with several bottles of Champagne. This is where we would be given a taste of the Moët & Chandon Champagne.  Two other employees joined us, but we were still being attended to exclusively. These were also formally dressed. One was a woman. It was the man who poured a glass for us. As I tasted the Champagne in my glass, I read the brochure I was given: “Admire the shades of its light golden, grey gold or old gold colour. Observe the light, intense and generous bubbles. Slowly smell the champagne and make out the aromas of fruit, cinnamon, spices and brioche.”

Champagne Route

In Epernay we did not run into any “winemakers.”  It was only in our visit to Reims, a city a few miles north that we saw a huge portray of riddling winemakers, in front of the city’s public library, next to a sculpture of Andrew Carnegie who had donated the classical looking building of the library. I also met two grape-pickers in the vineyards of Epernay. I chatted with them briefly. The vineyard’s grapes had already been harvested. They were there to collect the metal clips on the branches that had been missed. One of them cut a bunch of grapes on a branch that had also been missed. He gave it to me and said “gardez (keep it)!” The grapes were Pinot Noir, black and small.

This was on the Champagne Route , well marked on a map for a tour of the four directions around Epernay where the various vineyard are located. We climbed up the roads on the spacious slopes. The vineyards were on these terraced slopes, none on the flat land. Down in the Cubry valley we could see the river Marne and a canal next to it. When the sun shone the landscape came alive with colors of the turning vine leaves [95]. More often, the overcast sky gave it a dreamy  appearance . Rain was a frequent companion. It rains more than 200 days a year in Epernay. I asked a local how many inches of rain they had here in a year. He answered, half-joking, “Not inches; we measure our rain in yards.”

We drove through little hamlets which were no more than a cluster of homes . There were no stores in most of them. You would think that the residents were self-sufficient or bartered for goods. Shopping, such as was done in this region, took place in the town. Epernay had many stores. They were stuffed with merchandise but we saw hardly any customers in them.

In the village of Hautervillers we passed by a woman who was sweeping the front of her house to reach the alley named after the Benedictine monks who shared the Hautervillers St. Peter’s Abbey with Dom Perignon. The abbey itself was closed to us but we went to the church  where Dom Pierre Perignon is buried in front of the altar . He had no raised tombstone, only a marked stone on the ground .

Next to cemeteries in some villages there were memorials to the soldiers who died in battle for France . Curiously, they all seemed to commemorate only one war, World War I. In Epernay itself, however, the tall stele in Place De La Republique commemorates World War II, and another major square, Place Pierre Mendes France, is named after the Prime Minister who ended the last major French war, the one in Indochina, in 1954.

Along with the churches and abbeys of the past, there were statues of Mary where the Champagne Route took us. The biggest one was on a hill. We saw many cars going into a parking lot with a great view of that statue. We found this curious in a country that makes much of its secularism. It turned out that the cars were here because parents had come to pick up their children from the big school next door.

Reims

Epernay calls itself the Capital of Champagne. For five hundred years until the 10th century, however, it belonged to the archbishops of Reims, a city which also has a similar claim as the most important center of Champagne production.  With a population of 25,000, Epernay is dwarfed by Reims which is almost four times that size. Furthermore, Reims is known for its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which we visited, the Romanesque and early Gothic Basilica of St. Remi, and the far more famous Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims . It was at the site of that Cathedral  that the first Christian king of France, Clovis was baptized. That set a tradition which was followed by some 30 succeeding kings of France being crowned here: all of the country’s monarchs before the Revolution, except two.

The Reims Cathedral is also renowned for its stained windows. The old ones date to as early as 1230. A display in the Cathedral offers that: “Gothic architecture is an art of light. The Reims window is not a mere opening in a wall but the abolition of the wall itself”. Equally celebrated are the Cathedral’s new windows, done in 1971 by Marc Chagall.

As we paced the hushed vast nave of the Cathedral in Reims it became apparent that this was an appropriate place to conclude our visit to the heartland of French culture and history. The signs on the walls of the Cathedral remind you that beginning from the inception it has continuously played host to important events of this country. In our times, notably, it was here that on 8th July 1962 “General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer set the seal of reconciliation” between France and Germany, its long-standing historic adversary.

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