But when dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soap-suds drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a moment and then—phut—vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing.
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
Every two seconds on average a bottle of champagne is opened somewhere in the world. They obviously all come from the same region. The canals of Châlons-en-Champagne and their proximity to the Houses of Champagne have earned it the name, “La Venise Pétillante” – “Sparkling Venice”.
I’ve been to Venice a few times as well as a number of other European cities with Venetian soubriquets including Amiens, Amsterdam, Annecy, Bornholm, Bruges, Copenhagen and Stockholm! But Châlons en Champagne, known to the locals as ‘La Venise Pétillante’ was a new one for me. It’s a lovely city, but I sense the Venetian moniker may be a smart marketing ploy by the local tourist board. At least they didn’t try and call Châlons en Champagne ‘ Le plus serein’!
Châlons, like most cities in the region which lies close to the German border, has a lot of history! This was brought home to me when I passed a street sign in the centre of town named the Voie Agrippa, a Roman road which ran from Milan to Boulogne.
Originally built by the Roman’s in the 1st century after Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, Châlons became an important regional administrative centre in the Roman Empire. The tourist pamphlets I picked up from the tourist office, don’t make any mention of it, but is for the Battle of Châlons or the Catelaunian Plains in 451AD that Chalons should be forever remembered. It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the battle sealed the fate of western civilisation according to some historians.
The Battle of Châlons saw the allied forces of the Western Roman Empire under the patrician Flavius Aetius and the Visigoths under Theoderic I face off against the army of invading Huns under Attila. Advancing in three columns through modern-day Belgium, the Huns spread terror and destruction. Town after town was destroyed, including Metz, Cambrai, Strasbourg, Rheims, Amiens and Worms. Paris was saved only because the Huns considered it too small to be worth the trouble of a siege.
The Battle of Châlons was fierce, with some contemporary chroniclers estimating the number of dead at 30,000 including Theoderic I, the Visigoth king. But after many hours the battle eventually turned in favour of Flavius Aetius and Attila and his routed forces were sent packing. Although Attila invaded Gaul again the following year, the myth of invincibility, which had cloaked him for 20 years, had been shattered. Two years later in 453 AD he died of a nasal haemorrage in the arms of his young wife and the Hunnite army fell apart riven by family disc
As the English historian, John Julius Norwich commented: ‘It should never be forgotten that in the summer of 451 and again in 452, the whole fate of western civilization hung in the balance. Had the Hunnish army not been halted in these two successive campaigns, had its leader toppled Valentinian from his throne and set up his own capital at Ravenna or Rome, there is little doubt that both Gaul and Italy would have been reduced to spiritual and cultural deserts.
I spent much of the morning looking around 2 churches – the Collégiale Notre-Dame-en-Vaux and the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne. The stained glass windows were quite magnificent and I ended up taking quite a few photos of them!
It is difficult to under estimate the impact the stained glass windows must have had on the congregation in the Middle Ages during a time when most of them would have been illiterate. Lying on the nexus of two major pilgrim routes to Rome and Santiago de Compostella, many of the congregation would have been pilgrims.
The parks or ‘Jards’ are another lovely feature of Châlons. Originally owned by the bishops of Châlons, the ‘Jards’ were regularly flooded by the River Marne which contributed to their fertility. During the middle ages, towns folk were allowed to graze their sheep in the parks which also would have been where itinerant pilgrims spent time. Some things don’t change over time!
The ‘Jards’ are a haven for wildlife. I saw a red squirrel making ready for winter in the ‘Petit Jard’ as well as an iridescent blue kingfisher skimming over the water in the ‘Grand Jard’ in front of the cathedral.
Another feature of Châlons are the plethora of half timbered houses which give the entire city a feeling a bit like Stratford on Avon!
And then of course there are the canals themselves which criss cross the town. In the middle ages, water from the River Marne formed part of the city fortifications. Later the waterways provided the the means for oak to be transported to the town where it was used to build houses. Now the canals and the parks give Châlons a light and airy feel, almost as if you are in the countryside.
At lunch time I wandered up to a small park near the city Gate of St Jean, sat down on a bench in the sun and promptly fell asleep! Maybe it was the cumulative toll of the last month’s walking finally catching up with me. I reckon I have chalked up nearly 900km since leaving Winterbourne Stoke with Olivia on the 22 August. It sometimes feels like I’ve been walking for months. At other times it feels like I left home yesterday!
As I started walking back into the centre of town I passed the church of St James. It wasn’t open, but the sun dial on its walls caught my eye. The inscription in French read ‘Craignez celle qui soif’. What did it mean exactly I wondered? ‘Craignez’ presumably means ‘fear’ while ‘celle qui soif’ means those who are metaphorically thirsty or seek God. Was it a riddle and why was it inscribed on a sundial?
The biggest surprise for me in Châlons was the Musée des Beaux Arts et d’Archaelogie or more precisely the room in the museum which housed the Jean-Louis Dorin bird collection. I made a bee line for the collection as soon as the museum doors opened at 2pm.
Jean-Louis Dorin was born in the year the French Revolution took place (1789) and died 93 years later in 1882. During his life he personally shot and stuffed nearly 3,000 birds, most of which are now in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Chalons.
In the museum collection are 448 European bird species as well as 313 species from outside Europe. The collection also includes a staggering 287 birds which haven’t been identified – presumably because they are now extinct, their demise no doubt hastened by Monsieur Dorin! It’s probably fair to say, that if he were alive today, Monsieur Dorin wouldn’t be on David Attenborough’s Christmas card list!
The entire collection was pretty mind blowing, none more so than the collection of estrildid finches some of which were the size of half of my forefinger. I must have spent a good 2 hours gazing at the fascinating ( if slightly grisly) collection. I wonder what Charles Darwin would have made of the collection or whether, indeed, he corresponded with Monsieur Dorin about finches! They were,after all, both scientists with similar interests and surnames!
Emerging from the Musée des Beaux Arts feeling slightly shell shocked, I wondered where Flaubert’s parrot is currently housed!
The time I had spent looking around the stuffed bird collection had flown by and it was time to return to my lodgings at ‘Le Pavot Bleu’. I was intrigued to find out from my host, Elisabeth Lesoeur, why she had chosen to name her Gite d’Étape after the Himalayan poppy.
When I returned, Mme Lesoeur was chatting with her husband Jean-Paul and another friend. The sun was still shining brightly and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I enquired about the Himalayan poppy which doesn’t grow in France and derives its brilliant blue colour from the Himalayan conditions in which it grows..
Mme Leseour explained that the Himalayan poppy (meconopsis betonicifolia) isn’t a true poppy at all. The climate and conditions have to be just right to grow them successfully, and even then it can be challenging. The best results are seen in areas that are cool and moist with excellent drainage and soil that is slightly acidic. In a nutshell Châlons en Champagne isn’t the ideal habitat to grow them.
So why then did she name her Gite after the flower? “I love its brilliant vibrant colours”, Mme Lesoeur explained “but more than that I love the fact that it is such a short lived flower, almost ephemeral. No soon have its leaves unfurled than they are being shed. It is a metaphor for our life and how important it is to live that life with passion and purpose.”
The Himalayan poppy is a bit like a champagne bubble, I thought to myself as I retired to my room for supper. One moment it is there, rising inexorably to the surface of your glass and then, ‘phut’ it has burst and disappeared into the ether forever. Le Pavot Bleu – a fitting name for a gite in ‘La Venise Pétillante’, a sparkling city in the heart of Champagne country!