The French stage: Reims and Troyes

Once we crossed the Channel, it was smooth sailing to Reims although the scenery wasn’t very exciting. I chose to stop at Reims because I wanted to see the cathedral. Actually, I wanted to see the angels.

The present cathedral, a fine example of Gothic architecture, celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2011. It was where many French kings were crowned, including Charles VII in 1429, with Joan of Arc in the audience. Its 2,303 sculptures, together with its stained-glass windows, tell stories from the Bible for the benefit of those who couldn’t read or write.

Notre-Dame de Reims is the third temple to be built on this site. The previous churches had been built  in 401 and 852. 852
Notre-Dame de Reims is the third temple to be built on this site. The previous churches had been built in 401 and 852. 852

My favourite statues were the Archangel Gabriel with its impish smile, high cheekbones and wavy hair, and the Smiling Angel. His smile is somewhat mysterious, like that of the Mona Lisa. This sculpture was destroyed by a bomb in September, 1914 but thankfully was restored later.

Archangel Gabriel
Archangel Gabriel
The Smiling Angel
The Smiling Angel

Among the original medieval stained glass windows are those created by Marc Chagall. Installed in 1974, they depict scenes from the Bible. Chagall combined modern lines with traditional medieval colours.

The Chagall windows
The Chagall windows

Once I had my fix of medieval stuff, we set off for Troyes. Although it was easy to find the city, finding the hotel proved quite tricky. Out GPS sent us on a wild goose chase. We were looking for the Ibis Troyes hotel. We stopped outside an Ibis Budget to ask at reception, except there was no reception but an ATM-looking machine. And then the car wouldn’t start. Sean opened the bonnet and we settled to wait for it to cool down. I’m not sure how long it took because I took a nap.

We eventually managed to find the proper Ibis hotel. After checking in we went out in search for a nice place to eat. And find it we did in a 16th century house located in the historic centre. We had a wonderful meal that included duck breast and custard napoleon (millefeuille)

Lovely half-timbered houses in Troyes
Lovely half-timbered houses in Troyes

Troyes was a nice surprise. The lopsided half-timbered houses are beautiful, as is the cathedral, where Joan of Arc rallied the townspeople in support of their rightful king. I had a stroll around the historic centre, enjoying the marvelous medieval architecture, narrow cobbled streets and the sense of history. It amazes me to think that many on the houses and buildings were there before my side of the world (i.e. the Americas) was discovered by the Europeans (of course there were incredible civilizations already there who did not appreciate the intrusion, to say the least.)

A random corner in Troyes
A random corner in Troyes

Next stop: Geneva

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 Read the start of the journey here:

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  • The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims is open every day from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm and the admission is free.
  • Hotel Ibis: rue Camille Claudel – 10000 TROYES €73.20 a night including breakfast
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Travel Memory Mondays: drive from London to Southwestern France

Back in August 2006, Sean and I were due to fly to London and then drive to France the day after the liquid bomb plot was foiled.  My parents called to persuade us to cancel the trip. I understood their concern but thought that airports would be the safest places on earth that weekend. As it happened, I was right. Dallas-Fort Worth airport was eerily empty, there were security guards and police officers absolutely everywhere and there were practically no queues as many passengers did cancel their tickets.

Sean’s cousin picked us up from Heathrow and drove us to his place in Tunbridge Wells, where we picked up the Yellow Peril, Sean’s 1965 Alvis. Our plan was to cross the Channel and drive to his brother’s house in Bourg-de-Visa, in the Tarn-et-Garonne department in southwest France. It looked feasible on paper. The actual deed was another matter.

Ready to cross the Channel

We set off immediately to Folkestone, where, after some delays, we got on the train to Coquelles and then drove south. Our first stop was Limoges, where we spent the night. The eight-hour drive was brutal. We didn’t factor in the exhaustion after an overnight flight when we planned this road trip. We nodded off quite a few times on the autoroute and were lucky not to have crashed!

The bright yellow Alvis got a lot of attention. Entire families would wave at us on the autoroute, men would ask what make and model it was and, best of all, it was easy to find in big parking lots.

The Yellow Peril at Bourg-de-Visa

Refreshed after a good night’s sleep, a shower and a delicious breakfast of café au lait and croissants, we left for Bourg-de-Visa. We didn’t have a GPS at the time and had to rely on maps. And on good luck. We decided it would be fun to take a detour –I think we mistakenly called it shortcut- across country. We drove along winding country lanes, past vineyards and fields and fruit orchards and ended up in the charming little town of Castelnau-Montratier, where we stopped to get our bearings.

Castelnau Montratier

We finally made it Bourg-de-Visa, right after Sunday market finished. The balmy air of that après-midi in the French countryside held the promise of roses in full bloom, freshly picked fruit, lazy afternoons lying in the sun, visits to medieval bastides, freshly baked baguettes and delicate pastries and, above all, great memories.

Bourg-de-Visa
View of Bourg-de-Visa from afar
Vineyards in the lovely countryside

 

Of graveyards and stories

This gray, rainy Sunday made me think of graveyards, I’m not sure why. I have this love-hate relationship with them, you see. I hate to think about the degradation of the flesh and that sort of thing, but, on the other hand, I’m drawn to the names and dates on the headstones.

Who were they? What kind of life did they live? What happened to them? Were they happy? I like to romanticize what I read about the deceased. But I can only do that with old graves; the older, the better. One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to visit old churches, which usually have a graveyard attached. I enjoy the peace and quiet and they are generally surrounded by beautiful gardens.

When we lived in Jersey (as in the Channel Islands, not “Joisy” in the US), I would visit each parish church and read the headstones. There were wives who outlived their husbands, beloved husbands who perished at sea, maiden aunts who died in the prime of youth, brave sons who died in battle. All this happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, which made me feel comfortable reading, I think, because it put more distance between us. I don’t think I can do it with recent graves.

St. Brelade (Jersey CI) Most headstones were too weather-beaten to read

Visiting cemeteries can also become a learning experience. A couple of years ago, my parents and I visited the town of Capilla del Señor, about one and a half hours northwest of Buenos Aires (Argentina). The oldest part of the local cemetery has graves that date back to the 1860s. Interestingly, many of the headstones were written in English or in French because of the many Irish and French settlers in the area. There were also reminders of the terrible yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the country in the early 1870s: a whole family was buried there who died in the span of one week and a mass grave of the fever’s victims.

Capilla del Señor Cemetery

Another learning experience for me was visiting the Anglican church at Millbrook (St. Helier, Jersey). This church is surrounded by gorgeous gardens. From a distance, I saw what I thought was a garden feature made with rocks. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a four thousand year old Neolithic passage grave. How fantastic is it that I was able to see something I’d only read about in books! My inner nerd was doing cartwheels.

Neolithic passage grave (Jersey CI)

So far, the most moving experience I’ve had in a cemetery (outside of funerals I’ve attended) was visiting the American War Cemetery in Omaha Beach, Normandy (France). Although I have no ties with World War II since neither my country nor my ancestors took part in it, the endless sea of white crosses was a sobering sight that brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t help mourning the monumental waste of young lives (it was necessary, I know, but still). On a frivolous note, this is where the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was shot.

American War Cemetery - Omaha Beach (Normandy, France)

Do you like to visit old or historic cemeteries as well?