Consecrations and hideous footwear


A handful of medieval buildings remain in Reims and a few vestiges of the Roman occupation still stand, but in the main the architecture is predominantly early 20th century, a consequence of the city having to be almost entirely rebuilt after WWI. Over the four years of the war, the Germans slowly and systematically destroyed the cathedral with their heavy artillery.
It was an act of vandalism that shocked the world: the deliberate destruction of one of Europe’s greatest architectural jewels and France’s most sacred church. If it was a tactic designed to crush the morale of the Remois, it failed. The townspeople continued going about their daily lives with determination and good humour. I remembered reading somewhere that out of 40,000 houses only 40 remained when hostilities ended, and the champagne house of Pommery was hit by 200,000 shells. When the war ended, thousands of German prisoners were put to work clearing the rubble and rebuilding the city for its citizens.
During the Second World War Reims was targeted again by the enemy, although the cathedral was spared. And the city had its revenge when it witnessed the signing of the German capitulation at 02.41 hours on 7th May 1945, behind the railway station in the building that had served as the Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
We weaved our way through the mob towards the cathedral and walked down the wide, tree-lined Rue Libergier for several hundred yards to approach the great church as the French kings would have done on their way to their consecrations, and see it through their eyes. Over thirteen centuries, nearly every French monarch had been crowned there. I tried to imagine the emotions, scenes and sounds that this street had witnessed over the centuries: jostling, cheering crowds, soldiers and courtiers and horses surging around. Surely everybody must have been be stunned then, and must still be stunned today, at the first sight of this beautiful, magnificent church, whose stonework truly deserves the description of "stone lace." The good old New York Times carried an article in 1916 describing the ruined church as beyond restoration after the damage inflicted by the Germans. Happily, the reporter was quite wrong; although it took over four decades and generous donations from the Rockefeller family, the cathedral rose again to its original glory.
Notre Dame of Reims is famous for its historical significance, beauty and for the jolly, beaming smile on the face of the curly-headed angel at the door of the cathedral, which made me want to hug it. This is the funniest angel I've ever seen and it's hard to believe that during WWI, the Germans shot its head off. Just like the Mona Lisa, the reason for the angel's enigmatic smile has intrigued people over the ages. I'm pretty sure that I have found the answer. If you look, you'll notice that with one hand it is pulling its cloak across its tummy. Poking out of the cloak is the stump of its other arm, which has no hand and looks like the barrel of a large calibre gun. The angel is clearly saying, "Stick 'em up!" And that's why it's laughing.
Terry wandered off with his camera, while I just stood gazing around, and thinking of the sights and sounds these stones had soaked up in their long history: choirs and sermons; chanting and hymns; the voices of bishops, and of the kings of France making their vows; cheers and jeers; and the roar of gunfire and crackle of flames. The walls were home to so many ghosts, and what emotions must lie within them: pride, joy, jealousy, sorrow, triumph, defeat, love and hate.
During the ceremony of the sacre du roi – the consecration – the kings swore their allegiance firstly to the Christian church, and secondly to the kingdom of France. They were regarded not only as monarchs but also as gods, which gave them supreme power over their subjects. The cathedral is reputed to be built upon the site where Clovis, first king of a unified France converted to Catholicism in the fifth century, following victory in battle that he believed was due to Christ's help. Becoming a Catholic Christian was a clever political move, strengthening his ties with Catholic Rome and winning him powerful allies. He was anointed with a magical holy oil from an ampoule supposedly delivered by a dove directly from Heaven, and which was safeguarded for centuries.
The miraculous qualities attributed to the holy oil were not sufficiently powerful to protect the Sainte Ampoule from the fury of the Revolution, when the flask was broken. However some of the contents and fragments were apparently saved, and the repaired ampoule lives on in the cathedral.
Tomorrow the date would be Sunday June 11th, the date on which Louis XVI was blessed in 1775, by the grace of God, most Christian King of France. The Gazette of France reported his arrival in Reims on 9th June in a ceremonial coach. 
"After the Duke of Bourbon, Governor of Champagne, gave him the keys of the city, the King entered Reims escorted by the troops of the royal household and made his way through a people intoxicated with joy - which did not decrease but rather intensified as the procession moved along. The next day, the King listened to the first Vespers in the Cathedral, and on Sunday, June 11th, around seven o'clock, His Majesty - with the greatest pomp - went back to the same Church and was crowned in the usual ways."
The consecration ceremony was a lengthy one, with many changes of clothing, much anointing, plenty of praying and speeches, Mass and rituals involving various regalia. I thought it quite likely that at the time of his consecration Louis would have been more interested in what he'd be having for dinner than in the ceremonial. Queen consorts attended the ceremony purely as spectators, so Marie-Antoinette had no role to play, but wrote to her mother saying that she’d been moved to tears by the acclamation of the crowds, who had forgotten for a while the national shortage of bread and rejoiced at the sight of their new sovereigns. The people of France, with all their problems, had been able to put aside their miseries and show their pleasure. This would make her, and the King, work ever harder to bring them happiness, and if she should live to be a hundred, she would never forget the day of her husband's consecration.
Reims was one of very few places we visited where the royals had not passed during their flight. Ironically, they had avoided the city because Louis feared that he might be recognised by the subjects who had welcomed him so warmly sixteen years previously. Their route had taken them instead to Châlons, where he was recognised anyway.
After the Revolution, with the French monarchy temporarily restored, Charles X, Louis XVI’s brother was the last French monarch to be consecrated in Reims. Watching that ceremony and accompanying jubilation, Chateaubriand wondered whether Charles remembered that the sacred oil hadn’t done much to protect his brother from the disapproval of the people. It wouldn’t do much for Charles, either. Five years later he’d be fleeing for his life to the safety of England.
As I walked around there was muted, or occasionally loud speech in a dozen languages, the fall of hundreds of footsteps and the click and flash of cameras. A small child crawled around on the floor in the aisle; the ubiquitous Japanese tourists listened intently to their guide; a group of handicapped people rolled along the aisles in wheelchairs; a band of schoolchildren craned their heads to follow a teacher's hand pointing to the vaulted ceiling 100 feet above them.
Just as it had in Châlons the afternoon sunlight projected rainbow patterns from the stained glass onto the flagged floor. The oddest thing happened: I found I was crying. Not the irritating drips from my afflicted eyes, but from somewhere deep down inside; hot, heavy tears welled up and flooded down my cheeks, and then sobs began climbing into my throat and heaving my shoulders, and it felt as if at any moment I might break into a noisy and embarrassing display. I went and stood in a dark corner and stared into the shadows until I had recovered my habitual sang froid, and wondered what had caused this very unusual emotion. I wished I had a tissue as my nose came out in sympathy with my eyes. I've visited many historic buildings in various countries, but they have mostly left me unmoved. Here in Reims something had happened which I could not explain. It was a deeply spiritual experience that did not have anything to do with Christianity. I did not want to take Holy Orders or read the bible from start to finish, nor go to Mass or indeed to any church service. But standing there had touched something right in the depth of my soul, and it left me feeling both euphoric and mystified. I wiped my arms over my wet face, and went outside to find Terry.
Like Epernay, beneath the streets of Reims lies a network of crayères – deep subterranean pits left by the Romans quarrying limestone. The constant damp and cool atmosphere provides a perfect storage environment for the bottles of the great champagne houses of Reims - Krug, Veuve-Clicquot, Tattinger and Mumm but I found it slightly disconcerting to know that much of the city was standing on top of a honeycomb of caves and tunnels.
After we had walked around in the heat for several hours my feet had grown three sizes larger than my trainers. Back at our hotel I settled down in the bath for a second long soak. When you have missed the luxury of lying full length in warm water for so long, you must snatch every opportunity that comes your way.
I emerged from the bath with an even redder face, frizzed up purplish hair and huge feet that looked as if they belonged to somebody else. I put the cycling helmet on for half an hour to squash the hair flat, and jammed on my trainers with the laces undone and my toes tightly curled. Looking at my reflection in the mirror I felt like hurling myself from the window.
There were two things I needed: some green face powder to camouflage the red, and a pair of shoes that could accommodate my feet. It was after 5.30 pm, and the shops were preparing to close. Sales assistants looked at me with open ridicule when I asked for green face powder; clearly Remoise ladies never had red faces. I had to settle for a thick foundation instead. There were probably more shoe shops in the city than any other kind of shop, but they were all very expensive and I didn’t plan on spending a fortune on a pair of size 8 shoes that I would only wear once. By 6.30 pm desperation had set in, and I was reduced to buying the ugliest footwear I’d ever seen. They were that type of sandal with very flat, thick soles, two Velcro fastening straps over the foot, and a similar one round the heel. Globetrotters wear this style of footwear, and on long slim legs and slender feet with a healthy tan they can look attractive, on a beach or trekking across deserts. Teamed with sunburned legs and inflated feet, they were indescribable. Every strap was cumbersome; they were filled in at the outer edges so that from the outer sides they looked like a peep-toed shoe, and from the inner sides like a sandal; and they were grey. Terry remarked that they looked like correctional footwear. But they were cheap, and they were blissfully comfortable. They were also our final option, so we bought them, and went back to the hotel to dress for dinner.