A Tour Upon Wheels in 1886 (chapter VII)

Chapter VII

There are other things to be seen at Rheims besides the cathedral. There is the archbishop’s palace, with its great banqueting hall used for coronations, far inferior to our own Hall at Westminster or to the Romer at Frankfurt. There are the suite of rooms in which the king resided during his coronation, and which still retain the decorations made for Charles X. He must have had strange recollections of his brother’s crowning fifty years before! There is the abbey of St Remi, in which the holy oil was always preserved till it was brought to the cathedral just in time for use. This church was shorn of its splendour in the Revolution, but the tomb of St Remi still exists, guarded by the twelve peers of France, six lay and six clerical. There is the site of the abbey of St Nicaise, sold at the Revolution to Santerre, the Paris brewer, and pulled down— a site better known now by the champagne-vaults of Messrs Pommery and Messrs Ruinart. There is also the great square, with the statue of Louis XV., the Well-Beloved, and the fair-proportioned buildings of the eighteenth century. We had seen the sights of Rheims, and were preparing to ride along the level road which separates that town from Chalonssur-Marne, when a continuance of torrential rain made the roads impassable, and forced us to travel by train. It has been hitherto our experience that the inhabitants of one French, provincial town never speak well of any other. When we expressed our intention of visiting a place as next in our programme, we have always been told that it was a little town, and that there was nothing to see: there might be one inn where we could lodge for the night, but that was all. Chalons was no exception to this rule, If we had listened to our friends, we should certainly not have gone there; and yet no place we visited gave us greater pleasure. Chalons is situated on three rivers and a canal. The Marne, the Mau, and the Nau, here join their forces, and form the prettiest combinations in doing so. The Marne is a wide river like the Oise and the Aisne, with which we were already acquainted. The Nau flows through the middle of the former, and is partly arched over. There are no less than twenty-two bridges to facilitate communications. Between the stretches of these waters lie deliciously green ramparts and open spaces, which form delightful promenades. The town is bright and cheerful, with a strong flavour of the country. There are two open squares, one in front of the Hotel de Ville, and another now called the Place de la Republique, but formerly the corn-market. It was once surrounded by arcades like the rows of Chester, but only a few of them remain. Our hotel was a model of cleanliness, comfort, and hospitality. It rejoiced in the singular name of the Haute Mere Dieu, and was once the town office of a convent in the country, Chalons, like so many other French towns, has a great cathedral and another great church besides. The cathedral has so constantly suffered from fire, restoration, and other accidents, that what is left is not particularly striking. Still it has the remains of grandeur. Notre Dame, on the other hand, is worthy of the best days of French architecture. Its twin spires rise with magnificent effect. Its central and southern portals are rich with varied sculpture. The interior contains three huge galleries of stone under the triforium, which are such striking features at Laon and St Remi, and might be imitated with advantage in modern buildings. The windows, if they lack the gem-like colour of the fourteenth century, which is the date of the completion of the church, are worthy specimens of the art and piety of the sixteenth century. The life of the Virgin from the Golden legion, the touching story of Joachim and Anna, the rejection of the sacrifice, the meeting at the Golden Gate, recall many well – known masterpieces of Italian art. It would, indeed, seem not improbable that the design was of Italian origin. Besides the cathedral and Notre Dame, there are the interesting old churches of St Alpin, a local saint, and of St Jean, on the ramparts. The church of Notre Dame was full of worshippers at the morning service. Here and elsewhere we were struck by the vigour of the French clergy in restoring their churches, and maintaining reverent and impressive services. The French church appeared to us to be full of life, the clergy to be well educated, courteous, and intelligent. Chalons had recently sent a deputation to a pilgrimage at Lourdes, with the object of planting there a larger cross, made of olive-wood, from the Convent of Olive. A young priest of striking appearance mounted the pulpit, and told in eloquent and touching language the story of his mission, of what he had seen at Lourdes. We heard that a procession would be held in the evening at the Convent of St Joseph in honour of the same event, and we determined to be present. The little chapel of the convent was full to overflowing. After a service of litanies and hymns, candles were distributed to the congregation, and they began to file out of the church. Two and two they marched into the cloister—the women first, the men following. After making the circuit of the cloister, the line of worshippers passed into the garden — the different walks of which were arranged like a labyrinth. Here the scene was indeed impressive. The large orchard was full of slowly moving forms—two thousand people, we heard, were present: countless candles lighted up the starless sky, and the ceaseless chant of Ave Maria rose through the summer air. Only a few soldiers were to be seen. There are at present only two living forces in France — the Church and the Army. These are now opposed face to face, but some day may find them united.

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