Stories about destruction and reconstruction hide in plain sight in northern France. Such as these places along our road trip itinerary:

  • Although we joke about ABC (Another Bloody Cathedral), the great cathedral of Reims impresses and inspires. 
  • We walk behind our guide in the subterranean champagne chambers, blinded a bit by hundreds of thousands of bottles of bubbly.
  • The small city of Arras, near Lille, offers two tidy town squares with chattering cafés, busy Saturday markets, and, inevitably, parking. It’s all yummy for us travelers.

Right there, plain to see, are the wounds.

We were touristing through northern France while Russian forces are reducing Ukrainian towns and cities to bloody dust.

First stop was Reims, home to the champagne industry and to one of medieval France’s most magnificent cathedrals.

At Veuve Clicquot, our guide explained that during World War I, like many many towns and cities in Europe, Reims was bombarded to rubble by the Germans. Many residents fled underground into the crayères (limestone caverns) for protection. As best as they could, they recreated their town underground. Many people lived like this for four years while their homes and town were obliterated. Our guide showed us some of their graffiti carved into the limestone walls. 

Reims after the bombardment:

Today, Reims Cathedral stops you in your tracks, and it looks complete and intact. It is an architectural, engineering and cultural marvel from the Middle Ages. It is among the largest and tallest gothic churches in the world. Imagine medieval and renaissance Reims: the vast majority houses and commercial buildings were no more than two stories tall, say eight meters or so. The cathedral reaches 81 meters into the sky. Awe inspiring, in the literal sense, even to us jaded modern folk. 

But signs that something isn’t quite right show up as you stroll through the soaring nave of the cathedral.

We expect fine red, blue, gold and white medieval stained glass windows. But in the cathedral of Reims, none of the tall windows glow and shimmer with medieval stained glass that tell stories from the Bible and about Catholic saints. 

Instead, we find some of the windows in the nave filled with just clear and white glass. 

However, in some of the chapels of the apse, we find beautiful rich colors. But these are modern designs, by Marc Chagall (1971)…

and Imi Knoebel (2011).

These windows are beautiful, if a bit jarring, when we expect medieval designs.

The reason for the white and the modern windows is that the cathedral was blown up in World War I. 

During World War One, Reims Cathedral suffered tremendous damage from shelling, and was reduced to little more than ruins. The cathedral (and Reims itself) were first bombed on 4th September 1914, shortly before the German army besieged the city. After the French took back Reims, the German shelling resumed. A shell fell onto the north tower of Reims Cathedral on September 19th, causing a fire to break out and engulf the entirety of the building.

Among the damage, the lead roof melted, causing molten lead to pour through the mouths of the cathedral’s gargoyles. (These can be viewed at the Palais du Tau museum next door to the cathedral). This attack also beheaded the Smiling Angel statue, which had stood near the front entrance, and destroyed many glass windows. After much debate over whether or not the cathedral should be left as ruins, reconstruction began in 1919, and the cathedral was reopened to the public in 1938. The Smiling Angel was also repaired and returned to her place. (source)

The Imi Knoebel windows contribute to healing century-old war wounds. Even after many generations, healing is necessary.

A century after the destruction of the cathedral of Rheims during the German bombing of September 1914, the Art Foundation of the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia sponsors, with the support of the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the creation of three stained glass windows by Imi Knoebel for the Joan of Arc chapel. A powerful symbolic gesture, in the midst of commemorating the centenary of the First World War. For this creation, Imi Knoebel donates his fees. (source)

So, passion for this cathedral means that we can enjoy its reconstructed majesty today. But the quiet or unexpected glass windows don’t let us forget the horrific violence inflicted here not that long ago.

A few days later, we stopped for a night in the town of Arras, midway between Amsterdam and Granville in Normandy (where two of our friends live). Arras is about the size of Carcassonne, which means, not very large; only about 40,000 people. I’d seen a few photos of nice Flemish-looking street fronts, so thought Arras would be a nice change from the southern French towns we’re accustomed to. We weren’t disappointed. We found two large squares, lined with tall slim houses a bit reminiscent of what we’d just been enjoying in Amsterdam and Bruges. And an impressive town hall with a shouting belfry tower. The lines of houses were like soldiers in uniform at attention: a tiny bit of personal distinction, but mostly regimented uniformity. A tidy French sensibility.

We learned that all these houses of character are reconstructions. Like Reims, Arras was decimated in the First World War, this time by the British. 

Arras, in northern France, became a strategic position on the frontline early on in the war. Between April and May 1917, British troops launched a major attack on German defences nearby. This photograph shows the heavy damage suffered by the city over the course of the battle, due mainly to the three million shells used by the British. (source)

The town chose to rebuild, faithful to the destroyed originals. If we hadn’t stood Googling in the squares, we’d have never known that we were being seduced by copies. The silent serious houses now look tearful.

None of this is news to millions of people who live their lives in places decimated and rebuilt after the wars. But this was the first time that we’ve visited these places and taken the time to consider this awful history. While we watch it happening right now in Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv…

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