In early February, after several months in London and with very itchy feet we once again loaded the car and drove off for a few months of wandering. Our first stop was a week in a small renovated, ivy covered, stone cottage in the village of St Agnans in the heart of the Champagne district. From there we had easy access to the surrounding vineyard covered countryside and the cities of Reims, Laon and Soissons.
Reims has two large and interesting churches; the Notre Dam Cathedral and the Abbey of Saint Remi. The Reims Notre Dam is, like most others, a large, spectacular building with an impressive interior. The highlight of which is the stained glass windows in the apse designed by Marc Chagall in 1974. The Abbey of St Remi is
another large church with a fascinating history and interior. The church holds the relics of St Remi housed in an ornate 6th century crypt. Adjoining the Abbey is a wonderful museum that traces the history of the area from paleolithic times.
In nearby Soissons the church of interest was the Abbey St Jean de Vignes, an 11th century building on the city outskirts. The church is largely in ruins, as it was systematically torn down following the French Revolution, m
erely because it’s architectural style went out of fashion. In the centre of the city, the Soissons Cathedral, modelled on Notre Dam de Paris was also worth a visit.
Leon, also nearby, is a medieval walled hilltop town, that has another large and impressive Cathedral Notre Dam, rising majestically above the ramparts and dominating the small old town centre – both well worth a visit.
As well as the several churches and the obvious necessity to imbibe Champagne’s tipple of choice and sample the fabulous local pate, there are also strong connections to the WWII French Resistance movement. We spent some time in Tergnier, which houses the Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation de Picardie , which documents the history of occupation and resistance in the area. In Reims, we visited the Musee de la Reddition (Museum of the Siurrender), where the Germans signed the surrender to the Allied Forces on 7 May 1945.
Both museums, along with the many war-graves littering the countryside, hold poignant and powerful reminders of the horror that engulfed the country for several years. I find it difficult to comprehend the reality although in many ways I am thankful that I can’t.
The countryside of northern France will always hold it’s own unique charm for me but the constant reminders of the devastation of the past will inevitably fill me with sadness.