On our tour of champagne country, we ventured off the beaten path in search of the arts and crafts of the region. There were disappointments and delights along the way but the delights far outweighed the few disappointments.
In this, part two of my champagne adventures, our small breakaway party moves on to Chaumont, once the seat of the Counts of Champagne.
If you plan your trip for 2018, you could witness a rare local pilgrimage festival that won’t happen again until 2019. (Read Part 1 here)
After the glamour of Reims and the long sleepy drive that followed, Chaumont in windy, wet February was shaping up to be a damp squib. The promising looking market, in its belle epoque cage of blue cast iron and glass, was closed;
so also the art and history museum in the remains of the chateau, the donjon; the extensive, strategic views below the stronghold of the Counts of Champagne was obscured by wintry mist, and the new cultural centre that had drawn us here was empty, its exhibition taken down the day before we arrived.
On rue Saint-Jean, sheltering and shivering under the Gothic portal of the 14th century Basilique Saint Jean-Baptiste, I’m sure some of us wondered why we had come to this town, so late in the day, at this unpromising time of year. Then our guide invited us inside.
I could have sworn I heard someone say, “Well at least it will be warm in there.”
Serendipity in the Basilica
Well, not so much. Inside it was cold and dark – so cold and so dark that clouds of our own breath obscured most of what we could see. Puddles of condensation collected in the grooves of the well worn floor. The swirling shapes of baroque angels and saints loomed out of the gloom. (Jean-Baptiste Bouchardon, a 17th and 18th century sculptor and architect, settled here and filled the basilica with his works in wood and stone.)
But the real art treasure here is the 15th century Entombment of Christ, a startling collection of life-sized, polychromed figures in the crypt. The Renaissance figures, gathered in grief around a figure of Christ in an open coffin, are illuminated and separated from the main body of the church by an iron grill just a few feet lower than the floor of the nave.
The entombment figures are so lifelike that, if you’re not prepared, you could easily imagine you’d stumbled upon a private funeral.
Elsewhere, in a side chapel, the Jesse Tree, or Rod of Jesse, is a rare bas relief dating from about 1530. Based on a prophesy in Isaiah, it traces the descent of Christ from Jesse, the father of David, through all the kings of Judah. If you look carefully, you can see the head of Goliath on the lower left, with David in a branch above it, playing his lyre.
The Jesse Tree in Chaumont, © Ferne Arfin
A Rare Chance to Share the Grand Pardon
The Basilique Saint Jean-Baptist is at the center of a pilgrimage festival that has been celebrated – on a rather eccentric schedule but almost without interruption (World War II excepted) for nearly 550 years.
Back in the late 15th century, local boy made good, Jean de Montmirel, became a bishop and then confidante and aide to Pope Sixtus IV. In gratitude for his service, the pope granted his native village of Chaumont, a special papal indulgence – or Grand Pardon.
The indulgence – a medieval papal pardon of sins – was granted to anyone who attended confession and took communion in the basilica when the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24) fell on a Sunday. That happens at intervals of 5, 6, 5 and 11 years. The next celebration will be 24 June 2018. During the Festival of the Grand Pardon the streets are decorated with paper flowers and people pour into the town for the religious observance and a jolly good time to follow.
While we were there: I stayed at the local IBIS Styles hotel on rue Toupot de Beveaux, (Tel: +33 3 25 03 01 11). This was my first chance to sample an IBIS Styles since the French ACCOR Group launched this moderately priced, design-led brand. Thumbs up for a comfortable sleep in a well-equipped and colourful room, plus free wifi and a decent breakfast included.
In the interests of full disclosure: I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube and Haute-Marne and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.