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A Lesson in Optimism, or Why the Angel Smiles

La Champagne and le Champagne: a single letter distinguishes the province and its product, the nurturing land and its ebullient offspring. It was in the late 1600s, at the abbey of Hautvillers (a charming spot you can still visit today) that a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon invented the sparkling wine known as Champagne, using grape juice from vineyards that Celtic Gauls may have planted before the birth of Christ. If we had to choose just one product to symbolize France—and the lively effervescence of French wit—it would surely be le Champagne. And if a single region were to sum up the history and traditions of this complex country, no part of France could do it better than la Champagne.

The Roman legions that marched into Gaul around 50 BC brought with them the building blocks of a highly advanced civilization. They introduced their architecture, agricultural methods, even their taste for thermal spas. More than other regions of Gaul, Champagne prospered under the pax romana. Inevitably, the province's wealth excited envy among its neighbors. Wave after wave of Germanic invaders had to be repelled: Vandals, Alamans, Huns.... The latter, under the terrible Attila, were beaten back in 451 at the Battle of Châlons (today's Châlons-sur-Marne).

Champagne was the scene of crucial events in French history. Here Clovis, king of the Franks, was baptized in Reims by Bishop Remi (later Saint Remi) in 496. Clovis's conversion to Christianity was a political act of supreme importance: it marked the birth of the French state. Across the ages, 25 French kings and emperors were anointed at Reims. Over centuries and at the cost of much bloodshed, France gradually came under control of a single, central authority. That process of nation-building began 1500 years ago, with the baptism of the Frankish king.

The sublime cathedral of Reims is illuminated by the pure and radiant expression of its famous Smiling Angel, a masterpiece of French Gothic sculpture. The vertiginous spires, glowing stained glass and lacy stonework of Champagne's cathedrals (Soissons, Laon, Troyes, and Châlons-sur-Marne in addition to Reims) are testaments not only to an enduring Christian faith, but also to a common will to assert France's unique place in the world, through its art, its technical mastery, its political, military, and financial might—in other words, all the elements required to build a modern state. This resolve, initiated by kings and bishops, relayed to the common people by their priests, flowed through the land, giving rise to churches, abbeys, and monasteries: signs of the spiritual continuity and political cohesion that ultimately extended to all of France. Painfully, painstakingly, the French nation was constructed on this alliance of Catholic spirituality and monarchical policy, mocked by free-thinkers as the union of the “saber and the censer,” the Army and the Church. The alliance ignited the fratricidal Wars of Religion and provoked the cruel persecutions of religious dissenters from Cathars and Templars to Huguenots and Camisards. These conflicts of belief ripped apart the nation's social and economic fabric; they fueled violent anti-clerical reactions as well, especially during the Revolution. Now that its national unity is unquestioned, the alliance is no longer necessary to France's survival. The twentieth century saw the official separation of Church and State, the end of the tumultuous marriage that began with Clovis and endured for fifteen centuries.

Breaking the Soissons Vase

Reflections like these come to mind as we contemplate the gallery of kings on the façade of Notre-Dame de Reims or as we wander in the nearby basilica of Saint-Remi; as we admire the spectacular stained glass of Troyes's cathedral or the intricate rood screen in the church of Sainte-Madeleine; as we visit Châlons-sur-Marne's cathedral and the basilica of Notre-Dame-de-l'Épine. Along the way, we also spot headless statues of saints: victims of rebels lashing out blindly against the symbols of Church authority.
Clovis's first capital was Soissons, northwest of Reims. In their very first history book, every French child learns the story of the Soissons Vase. Clovis, one day, ordered a soldier to give him a vase taken as booty from a church. The soldier broke the vase rather than return it. A year later, spying the disobedient soldier, Clovis split open his head saying: “There! I've done to you what you did to the Soissons Vase.” Nothing more is known of that vessel, but visitors to Soissons can view the ancient abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes and an imposing Gothic cathedral (look inside for Rubens's Adoration of the Shepherds).

Laon, a fortress town moored on an isolated hill that dominates a billowing ocean of wheat fields, claims one of France's earliest Gothic cathedrals. This many-towered sanctuary is the jewel of Laon's beautifully preserved upper town, a rare ensemble of intact medieval streets and structures. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, Champagne showed uncommonly strong spiritual aspirations, and the monastic movement flourished. One of the most celebrated abbeys (of which only a small part survives) is the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, founded by the abbot Bernard—the future Saint Bernard—in 1115. As one travels through this deeply religious region, it is easier to understand the pivotal role that France, “eldest daughter of the church,” with its saints, popes, and crusaders, has played in the history of Catholicism.

Like the rest of France, Champagne suffered abominably during the Hundred Years' War. At Troyes, in 1420, Queen Isabelle disinherited the Dauphin and handed over the French Crown to England's Henry V. From the North, Henry marched triumphant into Champagne. But it was also from Champagne that the reconquest began nine years later, when Joan of Arc had the Dauphin crowned at Reims. Pillaged, burned, ravaged: despite the mayhem, Champagne's rich resources were never totally exhausted. Since the tenth century, the region had been wisely administered and enriched by the Counts of Champagne—counts in name, but closer to sovereigns in power.

They shrewdly took advantage of the flow of trade between Flanders and Italy and organized fairs in Troyes, Provins, and Bar-sur-Aube. Merchants from the north and south, and buyers from just about everywhere thronged to these fairs for spices, fabrics, furs, wines, and foodstuffs. Lombard bankers facilitated the exchange of currencies among foreigners at these ancestors of the Common Market.

A Red Rose for the King of England

Troyes's more recent claim to fame is as France's hosiery capital, but competition from cheaper imported wares has taking a toll on that industry. The city has found a different commercial niche with factory outlets: the low prices draw consumers to Troyes just as the medieval trade fairs did! Art lovers will find in Troyes a restored historic center chockablock with half-timbered houses, the ancient churches we noted above, and a surprising modern art museum with pictures by Derain, Vlaminck and Van Dongen.
Provins, too, closer to Paris, preserves a fabulous heritage from its medieval heyday, not least of which is a very special rose garden. Thibault IV, crusader and Count of Champagne, introduced roses to France from the Middle East. Legend has it that a member of England's House of Lancaster, who was seigneur of the town, chose a red rose from Provins as his emblem. In the famous War of the Roses, it opposed the white rose of York.

The Seine, the Marne, the Aube, and the Meuse spring to life in the Langres plateau which dominates southeastern Champagne. The walled town of Langres, poised on a rocky promontory and curiously untouched by time, has changed little since the days of Diderot, the eminent philosopher born there in 1713.

At the opposite end of the province, Champagne is bordered by the densely wooded Ardennes, whose somber dwellings contrast with the whiteness of lower Champagne's limestone. The climate is harsher here and the terrain more rugged. As it rushes toward Belgium and the North Sea, the River Meuse has carved fantastic landscapes out of the rock. This scenic and little-traveled area is ideal for a relaxing holiday in the open air. The Meuse nearly encircles the town of Revin before crossing Sedan and Charleville-Mézières—birthplace of the visionary poet, Arthur Rimbaud—before flowing out of France at Givet.

In 1814 Champagne was the scene of Napoléon's final battles, at Montmirail, Brienne, and Nogent-sur-Seine, and the defeat that precipitated his abdication at Fontainebleau. In 1871 his nephew, Emperor Napoléon III, was routed by the Prussians at Sedan in the Ardennes. Champagne witnessed two turning points of the Great War, at the battles of the Marne: the first, in 1914, saw France spring resolutely into action; the second, in 1918 marked the Allies' ultimate victory. Germany invaded France through the Ardennes in 1940, and it was across Champagne that the Allies pushed the Nazis back in 1944. Echoes of all the conflicts and crises that France has endured still resound in Champagne. While that history is reason enough to make a pilgrimage to this province, there are other reasons, too. Like Champagne, for instance.

The Route du Champagne lies within a triangle formed by Reims, Châlons and Épernay and rambles through the vineyards of the Montagne de Reims, the Côte des Blancs and the Marne Valley. Champagne buffs (and who isn't?) can stop for a tour of Moët & Chandon's impressive cellars or those of Mercier in Épernay. At Pommery's remarkable cellars in Reims, you'll see a gigantic 75,000-liter cask carved by the Art Nouveau master, Gallé, and underground galleries adorned with statues. A constant, cool temperature, perfect for holding Champagne, prevails in these crayères (from craie, or chalky limestone), dug far back in Gallo-Roman times. Equally spectacular are Taittinger's and Ruinart's cellars. Champagne is the sparkling expression of an elegant way of life, which is also mirrored in the local cuisine (ah! those creamy Champagne sauces). Soft, bloomy Chaource cheese hails from Champagne, as does the triple-crème cheese called Pierre-Robert. And it is said that the king's soldiers lost a battle at Troyes for having indulged too freely in that city's celebrated andouillette sausages—instead of fighting, with full bellies they fell into a satisfied sleep!

Since an excellent autoroute puts Paris within two hours of Reims, it is a simple matter to savor those specialties and more on their home turf. As you sit, for example, at the splendiferous Château des Crayères in Reims, and sip a flûte of “Comtes de Champagne,” “Dom Pérignon,” “Dom Ruinart” (a colleague of Dom Pérignon's), Gosset (mayor of Aÿ in 1584), Roederer (that the czars of Russia liked so much) or Mumm, you can also drink in the rich history of Champagne, and understand why such firms as Taittinger, Moët & Chandon, Ruinart, Gosset, Roederer or Mumm pay homage to the men who built the region's wealth and glory, by naming the finest Champagnes in their honor.
A tour of Champagne is a lesson in optimism. In spite of the ordeals the region has survived, it retains its gentle aspect and patiently rebuilds its resources. An example: barely 50 years ago la Champagne Pouilleuse, an arid, chalky district in the center of the province, seemed doomed to permanent poverty. Today that “flea-ridden” land is one of France's richest grain-bearing regions, thanks to improved farming technology. It's just one more reason never to give up hope. And that, perhaps, is why, on Reims cathedral, the Angel smiles for all eternity.

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