Sunday, September 09, 2007

La Rue De La Coronation

Travelling through northern France one is immediately struck by the utter monotony of the countryside - large, bare, flat fields stretching to the horizon under a low, grey sky laden with drizzle. This is trench territory where some of the bloodiest, most pointless, battles of human history were fought. Ypres, Verdun, la Somme. At the latter some 300,000 soldiers lost their lives to advance about 3km, a gain of about 1cm per life lost. The countryside is understandably littered with memorials and vast graveyards, monuments t the diplomatic folly that achieved nothing but misery. The region really had a tough time of it during the first half of the 20th century as it got battered a second time in WWII as the Germans came streaming across the Ardennes in 1940. It was also here, in Reims, hat the war officially ended in Europe with the German surrender in early May 1945.

The city of Reims holds a special place in French history and culture being, as it is, the home of two symbols of Frenchness. The first Frankish king, Clovis, was both baptised and crowned in Reims cathedral in 496 AD a tradition which remained unbroken until the abolition of the monarchy during the French revolution some 1300 years later. And although royalty is no longer the order of the day there is another type of nobility that lies much closer to the average French heat (literally only a few centimetres) and that is the nobility of wine. It is no secret that the French are more than slightly choosy when it comes to wine and there is little doubt among them that Champagne is head and shoulders above the rest. As the commercial capital of the Champagne region it is difficult to walk around Reims without stumbling across at least one grande maison. The first one I cam across was Pommery (apparently a big fish in the Champagne business but heretofore unknown to me) and so I decided to take a peek inside. The tour was quite informative and I learned about all the extra steps required to make a wine sparkling, all rather unnecessary if yo ask me as I personally don't particularly like the stuff (luckily for me I'm no gourmand and have simple tastes as some of the bottles of he vintage stuff were on sale for upward of 500 euros).

From Reims it was further north and west to the town of Amiens. Its main attraction is its huge Gothic cathedral replete with buttresses aflying, innumerable statues and gargoyles and all sorts of decorative spiky bits. By the way, wen I say huge that is no understatement, the entire Notre Dame de Paris cathedral could fit inside it two times over. But otherwise the town is rather nondescript (to give you an impression of how bland it is the second major tourist attraction is a part of the city full of allotments). What did strike me, however, about the town is the difference, architecturally, from other French towns I know, where houses are often detached, with high ceilings, wooden shutters and panted beige, whereas here I was reminded more of a northern English town. Entire streets are made up of long blocks of small, terraced brick houses, the sort that used to house workers and their families in Lancashire industrial owns - certainly far more Coronation Street than Champs Elysees. I did also try and get out to the museum and memorials at the Somme battlefield just 30km away but was thwarted in my attempt when I arrived at the train station in the morning (around 8:30am) and asked when the next train to the town was due. The lady informed me that it would be leaving at 4:12pm. I indicated to her that she must be joking, to which she replied that she was a fonctionnaire (civil servant) and therefore didn't have a sense of humour.


And that leads me to today's musings about France and Germany. Now I'm not one to overly stereotype nationalities in broad brush strokes and plus I've already mentioned how I thought that we as Europeans have much more in common than we have differences but I do believe there is a big difference between countries, not in their people and the way they think, but in how things get done (or not, as the case may be). The train situation (or that of public transport in general) is a case in point. The French are able to build the fastest trains in the world, but when it comes to getting people from A to B over small distances they are pretty useless and so people are forced to drive everywhere. In Germany, on the other hand, the local connections are impeccable and frequent which means that many Germans get by with only a bicycle (for which there are dense networks of cycle lanes throughout the country). Another possible reason for the French dependence on the car might be that they need more time to eat. Even the most humble meals in France seem to consist of an aperitif, an entree, the main course followed by cheese and dessert. Despite being familiar with the idea I still have trouble with it as I stuff myself with entree and am ten unable to give proper credit to the main meal, let alone the dessert. It seems that despite the last two centuries of mutual wars and invasions ad lately political raprochement the two European giants still seem poles apart when it comes to many things.

1 comment:

Yann said...

Connaissant bien les deux pays, je confirme pour les trains...