Friday, June 18, 2010

Towns in the Champagne Region

On our way back from Rheims to Metz, to collect our luggage and head home to the USA, Susie and I visited two towns in the Champagne region, Chalons-en-Champagne and l'Epine.

Chalons-en-Champagne, with its twin rivers, the Mau and Nau, has a great deal of charm and a very helpful tourist office. The main square has sidewalk restaurants, half-timbered buildings, and a hotel that, as noted by a plaque, hosted Joan of Arc and her retinue. We ate a nice lunch at one of the restaurants.

The city's covered market looks like it's new, but the traditional vendors are still there in force. Note the fancy way the cauliflowers are displayed.

Chalons also has a nice synagogue. We didn't get to visit the interior, but the exterior is in the Moorish style that characterizes many of the synagogues of the region. Chalons's synagogue was designed by a local architect, Alexis Vagny, and built in 1874-1875 as part of the great wave of synagogue construction that followed the granting of full citizenship to French Jews by the Crémieux decrees of 1870. Chalons still has an active Jewish community, and the synagogue is in use.

A little further along the road toward Metz, we stopped at the village of l'Epine, whose chief claim to fame is its basilica, Notre Dame de l'Epine. This interesting church has a couple of notable contrasts. First, from afar, it looks huge, like the cathedral in Rheims. You can see the basilica from miles away, its towers standing tall on the horizon. Up close, it's more like a scaled-down version of a cathedral, with all the trappings but just smaller. Second, the basilica combines some of the most graceful and luminous Gothic architecture with other windows that are dark and heavy.

The town is named for a thorn bush, in which shepherds apparently found a statue of the Virgin Mary. Construction on the basilica started in 1406 and was completed around 1527. The basilica houses numerous works of religious art and notable 16th-Century pipe organ. The facade is ornate, but the rest of the church is simpler. The flying buttresses are particularly graceful and light; compare these buttresses to those the St-Remi basilica, for instance.

The interior is relatively simple, with a unity of style of that recalls churches of a century or two before the basilica's construction. Thus Notre Dame de l'Epine combines the lightness of late Gothic architecture with the simplicity of early Gothic.

Most of the basilica's stained glass was lost over the years. Here are the remnants of the original 16th-Century glass.

In contrast to the lightness of the nave, with great bright windows made possible by those elegant buttresses, the rose window of the west front harkens back to an early Gothic style, with solid and resolute stone framing that's centuries removed from the rose windows of, say, the cathedral and basilica in Rheims.

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