Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sites in Reims

Reims is a small city, but in physical appearance, it looks a lot like Paris—broad avenues, Haussman-style buildings in white stone, et cetera. It’s an elegant, if someone austere city. You could kill some time walking the Avenue de Vesle (a pedestrian street between the Hotel de Ville and the river) and looking at the shops, but if you’ve been to Paris (or even to Bordeaux), it will look very familiar and very French.

I stayed in Reims for three days, which I have to say was probably a mistake. There is, quite simply, not that much to do here besides drink champagne--- and doing multiple champagne tours gets expensive and repetitive. (Plus the “It’s 11 a.m. and I’ve had three glasses of champagne on an empty stomach” is only fun once.) However, that is not to say that there aren’t some neat things to see!

Musée de la Reddition (Museum of the Surrender): Before anyone starts snickering about France having a surrender museum, let me point out that this is a museum about the German surrender to the Allied Powers during the Second World War. (Yes, I know. There’s still a French joke to be made there.)

Located in an annex of the Roosevelt High School near the train station, the Musée de la Reddition is actually really interesting. In 1945, this high school was the headquarters for the Allied Forces in France as they continued to push the Germans back out of France. It was also where, at 2:41 a.m. on May 7th, General Alfred Jodl, chief of staff of the German High Command, signed the document of unconditional surrender of all German forces. This was later eclipsed by the much grander signing done in Berlin at Stalin’s request a day later, but it was actually here that the Western front came to an end.

The museum is small, with the “Room of the Surrender” as its main attraction. It’s been preserved entirely as it was, including the maps covering the walls that the Allied generals used to plan their strategy. For me, that was the most fascinating part. Often, history tells you a narrative without really allowing you to see it. It lacks immediacy.

Being able to look at the map and see the assignment of each air force division, the supplies that were being sent to each and potential targets is fascinating. There’s a map showing the supply depots scattered throughout France and another one showing troop movements. As for the actual moment of surrender, well, there’s a table in the room. That’s’ the table they sat at. Each chair is labeled with the name of the person who was sitting there. It’s only interesting because Eisenhower, despite being present in the building, was not present in the surrender negotiations, because there was no one of equivalent rank to represent the German side.

The rest of the museum has vintage uniforms, some weapons and scrap metal from airplanes, as well as a small collection of newspapers from May 8th, announcing the surrender. The newspapers once again gave that sense of immediacy—this is how people actually lived World War II.

Overall, for three euros (which is actually a Reims Museum Pass, so it gets into the Fine Art Museum as well as a few other places), the Musée de la Reddition is definitely worth going to.

Cathedrale de Reims

It’s almost hidden behind the Hotel de Ville, but when you come around onto the Parvis, the square just in front, it’s as impressive as every cathedral. Plus, the Reims cathedral has played a very special role in French history for quite a while. The coronation of the Kings of France took place here. (Also, the presence of the champagne bottle sign in the bottom left of this picture amuses me to no end.)

Inside, the Cathedral is surprisingly quiet for a tourist attraction (which is a good thing. See my post “Candles” for my reaction to people being obnoxious in old churches) and very airy. Scattered around the walkway are signs describing the procedure of the coronation (which has twelve steps) and outlining various architectural features, including the “Champagne window.” The bubbly industry boomed even in the Renaissance, apparently, and the manufacturers of champagne showed their gratitude to the grape by installing a stained glass window showing how champagne was made.

Besides that, the two other main attractions of the Reims Cathedral are the “Smiling Angel,” a statue in the leftmost entryway that was taken to epitomize the will of Reims to recover after the destruction of World War II. At this point, however, weather and pollution have taken a serious toll on the smile and it’s starting to fade away.

(for those of you who watch Doctor Who, are you having trouble looking away? Because I am. Remember, anything that carries the image of an angel becomes an angel. (: )

There is also a set of stained glass windows by Marc Chagal. They are very blue and very abstract, and thus didn’t show up particularly well when I tried to take a picture. I’m sure it would have been easier if I had used flash, but being that I was inside the Cathedral, I wasn’t going to disturb everyone (including the people praying just one chapel over) by doing so.

There are other things to see in Reims: the Foujita Chapel, the Basilica Saint-Remy and the Museum of Fine Arts. The Basilica was a hell of a walk, so I didn’t end up going. I did go to the Museum of Fine Arts and…

Let me tell you about the Museum of Fine Arts. Every French city has one. You will start by looking at tattered medieval tapestries and crude wooden crosses, then work your way through the Renaissance and the Baroque period, then the Neoclassical. Gustave Courbet will be inevitably be there—the man must have made a painting a day. There will be still lifes. Then you will move on to Impressionism. There will be fuzzy lilies and the obligatory pointillist painting. Then you will go back downstairs through the modern art exhibit and you will understand nothing. Then you will leave, with a headache.

I have a limited tolerance for art museums. There need to be pieces I recognize or a guide to show things to me, because art is not something I have studied a lot. I don't "get" it in the same way I do literature. I don't know why painting deserves to be a museum and another doesn't besides "Well, that's one's pretty," and my artistic vocabulary stops somewhere between chiaroscuro and foreground. Apologies to my art major friends and roommates-- you tried!

1 comment:

  1. take it from your art minor friend -- what's in a museum and what's in a bargain bin largely comes down to the establishment. if there is something particularly unexpected in the technique (like the invention of a whole new style) and the right person notices, that's good. I understand why Andy Warhol is famous -- he basically invented pop art. I don't understand why the Mona Lisa is the most recognizable painting in the world when it's a fairly bland (and quite small) painting of a woman smiling.