France has no shortage of churches and cathedrals. The most well-known is, of course, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but if you look outside of the metropolitan and fashion mecca, you will find incredible Gothic architecture that will rival Paris any day. Continuing on our Northern France holiday, we stopped and saw three of the top cathedrals in the country: Reims, Amiens, and Rouen.
The city of Reims sits in the Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine region of France with less than 500,000 inhabitants. The small city was founded in 80 BC and served as the capital city for the Remi tribe. When Julius Caesar went to battle against Gaul, the Remi served under him and therefore received special favor with the Romans. Christianity came to the city in 260 AD, not without problems, and the area was a constant battlefield for the next several hundred years including a battle with Attila the Hun.
In 496 AD, the King of Salian Franks, Clovis I, was baptized by the Bishop of Reims, Remigius using a sacred phial that, legend says, was brought from heaven by a dove. I thought this was interesting considering the Abbey of Saint Peter in Hautvillers was also built on a spot dictated by a heavenly sent dove. But this moment in history and gesture by heaven became a symbol continuously used by the monarchy to claim “divine right to rule” and throughout time, Reims Cathedral was where French monarchy was crowned.
During both world wars, Reims Cathedral sustained significant damage. The beloved church, turned war hospital, was so damaged during WWI that the image of the rubble became the image for anti-German propaganda. The city also did sustain a lot of damage during WWII, but it was while in Reims on May 7, 1945, General Eisenhower and the Allies received the note of surrender from the Germans. It may be a small town in comparison to Paris, but its historical significance is no less important to France.
During our quick visit to the city, after we enjoyed some fantastic meals, we made our way to the famous Notre Dame de Reims. The current church [completed in 1275] stands on top of fire-destroyed ruins of the first church, which was much smaller. The interior is 138.75 meters long and 30 meters wide in the nave. Its highest point is about 38.1 meters straight up into some really gorgeous rafters and domes. The two towers are 81 meters tall, but, interestingly, were originally designed to reach 120 meters.
Jeff and I have had a recurring theme in all of our travels. Everything we see is usually covered in scaffolding. It never fails! I guess it’s because we like to see historical buildings and structures, but it never seems to end. Our first encounter with historic scaffolding was our first trip in Europe to Rome when the Coliseum was half draped in white sheets and metal bars. So, when we turned the corner to get the first view of this church, I burst out laughing because half of it was covered in those familiar sheets.
It was quite disappointing, but we understand that nothing lasts forever, especially a war-torn church that in 2011 celebrated its 800th anniversary.
After we said goodbye to Hautvillers and Reims, we continued on our French adventure to Amiens. We were heading toward Normandy for the third part of our visit to Northern France, but Amiens and its famous Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens was priority number one on the road trip. Situated not two hours north and then west from Reims, Amiens is a much smaller town to Reims with about 150,000 inhabitants and sits in the heart of the Somme (which I will talk about in a forthcoming blog).
In 1918, the Battle of Amiens was the opening “phase” of the Hundred Days Offensive, which was the beginning of the end of the war. The town was also heavily bombed during WWII by the Royal Air Force, so the city had a very new and modern feel to it, with the glorious exception to the gorgeous, and massive church.
It is the tallest of the Gothic churches of the 13th century, and the largest in France. You can fit the famous Paris Notre Dame Cathedral inside the walls. It is so big because the builders wanted to maximize the amount of light that could come in, but also, they wanted to get as high as they could to the heavens reaching as high as 42.30 meters. The only church that is taller than this is the Beauvais Cathedral, but it is still incomplete after having begun construction in 1225.
What made the Amiens Cathedral so incredibly special to us was as we walked through the courtyard, we could hear a flood of music. I ran inside to see what was going on, and a small, student orchestra was putting on a concert. Mind you, this was the middle of the day on a Monday, so it was not heavily crowded. It felt like a concert was put on for us, and it truly made the experience magical. The acoustics were astounding as the melodies (and mild screeches from the beginners) bounced off the walls.
Inside the walls of this church are several memorials to the armed forces and their sacrifices during the Great War, and also, tucked the back corner, is the supposed head of St. John the Baptist. While we did not see the skull ourselves, we did see a photograph of it. I scratched my head at this considering we have seen countless relics throughout our European travels, but we never saw something quite as monumental as the head of St. John. It was supposedly brought by Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
Another fun fact for the cathedral is that the facade was in fact originally painted in color. During a cleaning job in the 1990s, this was discovered and is now emphasized during summer celebrations and Christmas time with a sort of light show. While we did not see this for ourselves, pictures online have interesting reconstructions and images that give the idyllic image.
This was no two-headed snake that would be typically found in country road trips, but this “France’s Largest Church” attraction was worth the diversion, and I highly recommend taking the time to visit it.
Note for Parking in Amiens: When finding parking in the small town, it is best to just follow signs for parking garages. We decided to follow someone in hopes of finding a spot, but instead, we had followed a delivery car right through the front walkway of the cathedral. A massive faux pas. But when parking in said garage, bring your ticket with you. The code to get back into the garage without following the drive way, is printed on the piece of paper, and you can pay on street level before exiting.
The city of Rouen deserves its own blog post, so stay tuned for it in the coming weeks for more on Joan of Arc and her influence on the small, French town. But because I’ve dedicated this post to the famous and gorgeous cathedrals of France, I would be remiss to not mention the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Rouen. From where we stayed in Normandy (Villers-sur-Mer), it was an easy day trip to plan. At just around 2 hours drive, we arrived in Rouen and spied the famous spire before we even got close to city center.
This massive church began construction in 1202, but it was only completed in 1880. Previous to its current structure, a church was on the ground, but it was destroyed during a Viking raid in the 9th century. A new church was being constructed by the offspring of the famous Vikings, but it was struck by lightning in 1110. Construction began again to only be stalled with a fire in 1200. Despite its false starts and uphill struggles in getting the building complete, it finally was complete and decorated with stained glass and glorious chapels. But the feeling of accomplishment was quickly dashed as it was struck by lightning again in 1284. Then, as it began its repairs, the spire was blown down in 1353.
These “small” problems persisted during the continued building and repairing of the existing church: another fire broke out in 1514 destroying the spire again, and it was again struck by lightning in 1625 and 1642. A hurricane did significant damage in 1683, and the famous bell broke in 1786. Lightning came again to its favorite spot in 1822, and it was finally decided they should replace the spire with cast iron instead of wood.
In 1880, when construction was complete, it was named the tallest building in the world, but that did not last long, and neither did the damage-free period in time. With WWII, the church sustained significant damage by the British Royal Air Force in 1944. Seven bombs fell on the building destroying two rose windows and the entire south aisle. A second bombing by the U.S. damaged the oldest tower and melted the bells into molten metal on the church floor. It was painstakingly rebuilt after the war and preserved to then be taken down again by a tornado in 1999. A turret, weighing 26 tons, broke and destroyed the choir.
As we walked in, you would never know the church had undergone such destruction besides the mismatching colored tiles up and down the massive walls. The freezing air was intense as we desperately tried to stay warm in the stone walls, but it was impossible without jumping up and down. We silently embraced the temperature and giggled at our visible breath.
We made the rounds in this fabulous and gorgeous church when we came upon some legendary names and tombstones. Richard the Lionheart’s heart is housed inside this cathedral. It is said his bowels are probably buried elsewhere, but the famous heart sits under the effigy. And situated next to him was one of his ancestors, Rollo, who was the founder and first leader of the Vikings of Normandy.
What makes the Rouen Cathedral also so famous is Claude Monet’s series of works featuring the structure. He painted more than 30 versions of the church in different times of day and in different weather conditions. But I will talk more about Monet and his artistic influence in France later this week with our visit to Giverny.
In our travels, we have seen more churches and cathedrals than we ever could have imagined, but France certainly has some of the most extraordinary buildings and history to go along with it. Out of the three, I admire Rouen the most for overcoming such damaging circumstances and still sitting tall and picturesque against the French skyline. A true must for anyone traveling around Northern France.
Stay tuned later this week for more on Claude Monet, Giverny, and the city of Vernon.
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Resources: Europe Up Close by Marilyn McFarlane, 2014.