Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ruins, Rains, Reims

Paris was once named Lutetia. Aqueducts like the Pont du Gard crossed rivers and ran for thousands of pedes across the proto-French countryside, and water bubbled up in stone-tamed thermal springs for baths in Arelate (Arles), Cassinomagus (Chassenon), and Nemausus (Nîmes). The amphitheatre in Arausio hosted entertainment for soldiers and civilians 2,000 years ago; the same structure in Orange is home to a summer opera festival today. Blocks of stone carved by the remote ancestors of today's French citizens are lying scattered in their public parks, incorporated into their homes and garden walls, or still placed and piled where they were two millenia ago, scarred by weather and war. I get shivers when I run my hand over these old stones, or walk the narrow cobbled streets between them, thinking of the millions who have been there before me, and wondering how many millions more are still to come.

On our way driving north out of Provence we stopped briefly to see some of the monuments at the site called Glanum, though we didn't go into the archaeological site where they've been excavating the ruins of the old town. The arch and mausoleum were impressive enough, and it was spitting rain, and we had a long way to go. But it would be an interesting spot to wander through, some day.

There are ruins in Reims as well, and there was rain. Mom and John had both packed full rain gear, jackets and pants, and it was a good thing they did. I borrowed John's rain pants so that I didn't get too cold and soaked while leaping about the boat with ropes, and it was cold and rainy in Reims that afternoon. We caught a local bus from Sillery and were dropped off right by the cathedral.

The cathedral in Orléans is taller and Notre Dame in Paris has nicer bells but for sheer Gothic splendor the cathedral in Reims takes the highly-decorated cake. Intricately carved stone pillars support thousands of saints and angels and gargoyles that look out in all directions over the city; they're being cleaned and restored section by section, and the newly-redone quarter of one tower shines white in contrast to the age- and smoke-stained dark grey stone of the rest. Mom and I disagreed as to whether restoration is a good thing; I liked the sense of history the old façade gives, but she argued that it would have been white and clean in the beginning, so they're just restoring what was once the normal appearance of the structure. Clean or dirty, it's just beautiful.

There was an art exhibit featuring different representations of Joan of Arc, with whom this cathedral is closely linked. She brought Charles VII to Reims to be crowned in 1429 after beating back both the English and Burgundian armies, a triumph that lasted less than two years for the future saint. We're in Rouen right now, where she was tried and executed, poor thing. One of the older statues inside the cathedral is a lovely thing, with her calm face carved of ivory. I forgot to write down the sculptor's name, but remember reading that this was the last work he created, because he refused any more commissions.

Some of the stained glass windows are new, some are older, some are original. The church took down many of the windows before World War I so that they wouldn't get destroyed in the bombing raids. Four of the windows were done in the grisaille style by local artist Brigitte Simon in the 1970s and look like ice; the German artist Imi Knoebel added six more two years ago in fiery colors of yellow and red; and Marc Chagall's fluid watery blue windows frame the three sides of the rear chapel space. I liked those the best.

The stone-walled bays that were once Roman market stalls stick out from underneath a new paved shopping area. Short straight and longer winding streets thread between buildings constructed during the last four or five centuries, with half-timbered houses leaning up against modern concrete apartment buildings. There are champagne houses here, too, but they're all the big ones, and thronged with tour groups. When I went into the tourist office to pick up a city map, a German group was headed out and the flag-waving leader of a Japanese group just coming in.

Reims, which was known as Durocortorum back in Roman times, was the capital of the northern province of Gaul and was at one point the second-largest city in the Roman Empire, just behind Rome itself. All roads might have led to Rome, but the Via Agrippa also led to Reims, terminating in the Gate of Mars, which is still standing at the edge of a large park, across from the modern train station.

Andrew Carnegie added to the monuments with his donation of the Carnegie Library of Reims, built in the 1920s. We didn't go into the book stacks or the garden, but instead admired the architecture and the art deco stylings of the light fixtures and the mosaics on the walls of the entrance hall.

Mom poked her head into the reading room, and said that everyone there was reading on a computer. Old school library function was retained in the catalog room across the way, however, with two stories of card-filled pull-out drawers done in oak. Do you remember when you had to use these to find things in your local library? I do. I used to volunteer at the public library in Ashland, and type up new cards to put in the catalogs, and I remember how annoying it was to pull the long central rod out of the drawer to put the new card in its proper place, because it was so hard to get the rod to go back through all the holes in the cards afterwards. Technology is a wonderful thing - but someone needs to remember the Dewey Decimal System, just in case.

We had been told that the bus back to Sillery left at 5:30pm but when it arrived, the driver wouldn't let us on. Apparently it was a school bus at that time, and only open to school-card-carrying kids, though I did see an older woman get on. We had to wait - in the cold and the wind and the rain - for another hour until the 6:30pm bus arrived. A girl who showed up to wait for the same bus explained that yes, the schedule indicated that the 5:30pm bus was available, but that they couldn't be precise on the schedule whether it would be for school transport or not. We did not exactly understand this explanation, but chalked it up to another idiosyncrasy of the French government. We shivered back to our boat and cranked up the space heater, bundled in all our sweaters and coats, and warmed up with another bottle of cold champagne.

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