History and fine wine share an affinity for time. The longer each is preserved, the more fragrant it becomes. At the moment you drink it, you capture the effervescence of meaning — its flavour lingering long after you’ve tasted it.
Few travel destinations embody the mystique and splendour of both history and viticulture like the Champagne region of France. Its cast of characters, political agendas, Gothic cathedrals and grape varietals have aged gently together since medieval times.
The two-hour road trip on the A4 autoroute provides an opportunity to slowly relish in the beauty of the countryside. Rolling hills are planted with rows of low-slung trestled vines, bearing Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes. Families have lovingly tended to them for centuries, crafting the world’s most famous bubbly — champagne, which bears the region’s name.
Though other regions produce sparkling wines, only the vino from this region can be called champagne — a symbol of extravagance, class and elegance. Originally, it was considered a mishap when effervescent bubbles were discovered in the bottled wine. A chilly winter had temporarily stopped the fermentation process, but a warmer spring reawakened the fermentation creating an excess of carbon dioxide and plenty of fizz. The Royal Court at Versailles developed a fancy for the novel beverage, and to meet its demand, the scientific alchemy was perfected to a science.
Knowing there’s a maze of champagne cellars underfoot, I’m tempted to have a sip. Its whiff alone is said to be like the overture to an opera, and its flavours rising as a crescendo from wildflowers and honey to its vanilla finish. But this must wait, as the city of Reims lies before me — the city of coronations!
I’ve been told if I visit just one cathedral in France, let it be the Notre-Dame de Reims — which now rises in great proportions before me. The architectural harmony, glorious stained glass windows and remarkable statuary of this 13th-century building make it a masterpiece of Gothic art. Decorated with imposing statues of angels with opened wings, it’s worthy of being called Cathedral of Angels.
This sacred destination has significant meaning in French history. Clovis, the first king of the Franks was baptized here by Saint Remi, bishop of Reims in AD 496, making Reims the chosen city to crown kings. Since then this has been the site of coronation for 33 kings of France from 816 to 1825. When Hugh Capet was crowned King of France in 986, he started a tradition that brought successive monarchs to the region, with the local wine on prominent display at the coronation banquets.
Most famous of coronations was of Charles VII, “Le Dauphin,” who went from being disparagingly called the “King of Bourges” to “Victorious,” supported by Joan of Arc. Remembered in history as “the teenager who saved her country,” Joan responded to a supernatural calling to deliver France from the invading English and establish Charles VII, the uncrowned heir to the throne, as France’s rightful king in 1429.
Built under the direction of four different architects, the church was designed on a grand scale with two massive early Gothic towers with slender spires that soar into the sky, and doors adorned with fine limestone carvings, surmounted by a row of figures depicting Old Testament kings. The east-end windows have stained glass by Marc Chagall and Imi Knoebel, and above the north portal of the west facade hovers the Smiling Angel, a delightful eight-foot-tall statue whose famous grin has become a symbol of Reims, seen on postcards, key chains and even champagne bottles.
Today the majestic cathedral wears its scars, having been struck by war between 1914 and 1918, yet lovingly restored with funds from vineyard owners and champagne manufacturers to rebuild the stained glass, the choir clock and sculptures, for its 800th anniversary in 2011. Despite the havoc that rose in her midst, the statue of Joan of Arc stands with confidence beside the cathedral. For a lady of 600, she looks fabulous, dressed in armour and bearing the blue, white and red military flag of France on her back. She represents the country’s aristocratic and revolutionary history and is an inspiration to live by faith.
At sunset, the cathedral shows her most beautiful profile, cast in golden light — a sacred symbol of strength and human diligence to preserve and restore one of the world’s true wonders.
Chinese Text by Rui Chen
English Text by Janine Mackie
Produced by Peggy Liu