Troyes

Champagne
  East and southeast of the Ile de France, the traditional birthplace of French monarchy and nation, lies a country of gentle rolling hillocks almost monotonous but sensually undulating, which encompasses Reims, Troyes, and land stretching to the Vosges forests, where the chalky soil supports the growth of species of grapes from which a drink is made that is synonymous with celebration, festivities, joy, in short, joie de vivre par excellence: champagne.
 The name conjures up more than the popular image of celebration, ship christening, and the like. Once you got past the foaming bottles, thunderous laughter, and tipsy heads there is the art of making the regal sparkling wine. If man had not invented it, God would have, for few earthly amenities could relieve the harshness of the banishment from Eden as champagne can.
 In 1668 a priest by the name of Pierre Perignon was placed in charge of the domain and the cellar at his Hautvillers abbey in Champagne. Dom Perigon was not credited with inventing the champagne. The Champenois had since Roman times brewed a vivacious sizzling drink from grapes. But he refined it. He experimented by mixing several grapes from different terroirs, including pinot noir and pinot meunier, composed the bouquet much as perfume makers compose their perfume, and developed the technique of drawing the juice while it was crystal clear to store it in bottles. In time the bottles were made strong enough to withstand the internal pressure of fermentation. Following a mid-eighteenth century practice the bottles were then placed in racks upside down at a 45-degree angle where they are turned a quarter turn every day to allow sediments to settle at the mouths. The fermentation continued from two to five years (for champagne brut) in the large caves dug deep into the soft chalky soil, where the air is naturally maintained at a constant temperature of 11 to 12 degrees centigrade. Unlike wine, champagne should not be allowed to age beyond eight years. When the champagne is ready for the market, the bottles are opened to eliminate the sediments, and replenished with like quality champagne to compensate for the resulting loss.
 During the Revolution the land owned by Dom Perigon's abbey was sold in small lots to merchants who continued to produce the many varieties of the wine bearing the names of their domains. Now a proliferation of champagne domains populates the rich landscape of the champagne market, giving the world such names as Moët et Chandon, Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Epernay, Taittinger among others.
  In anticipation of the Year 2000 celebrations, champagne production has risen yet could barely keep up with demand. Just six days before the new century dawns, Paris, where the millennium countdown takes place at the Eiffel Tower, and parts of western Europe were hard hit by high winds and storms reaching 95 mph in Paris. Thousands of trees were uprooted in Paris and Versailles. Loss of lives amounted to over sixty in France. The French government estimated damage to be between 65 and 75 million dollars. Germany, Italy, and Switzerland also suffered material damage, and loss of life. In spite of the damage the new millennium was ushered in with a stunning fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower, and the well-heeled paid a small fortune for the gala taking place at the Versailles palace. Around the world a festive atmosphere permeated in country after country, and the much-feared Y2K bug was unable to surface or dampen the spirits of the revelers.
The Middle Ages
  After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, a complete breakdown of the social, political, economic order ensued, and Europe was plunged into cataclysmic upheavals in the wake of which a new order, feudalism, gradually took hold. There was no longer a central authority to which the populace owed allegiance. Where Pax Romana used to enforce peace among the various regions of the empire, Gaul's countryside became the locus of activities for powerful families, who saw economic, and, by extension, political, opportunities in landholding. Freemen, serfs, slaves began to place themselves under the protection of these families, who, as the nobility, now formed the power structure of the new order. Churches too began to amass great economic and political power, and became a social force to reckon with. In time feudalism became the political and economic paradigm of most of Western Europe for a thousand years.
  Exploitation, brigandage, warfare, famine, disease, invasions, serfdom, and civil strife were the scourge that oppressed the population. The powerful local families that rose to dominate the landscape carved out their own spheres of influence. The most powerful of them, by force of arms, treachery, and other means, eventually acquired sufficient military, political, though not necessarily economic, power to found a dynasty. The king then exacted fealty from the less powerful, who became his vassals. The vassals constituted the nobility upon which the monarchy depended for its own existence. The nobility supplied the king with manpower and finances in times of war, and political and economic support in times of peace. Having owed allegiance to their suzerain the king, the noblemen now demanded the same loyalty from even lesser men, so that in the end everyone was bound to someone else either as a vassal or as a lord. Soon ambition, greed, belligerence, or just personal animosity among the king, dukes, counts, and barons became the driving force of the political process. Shifting alliances were forged to advance the cause of power prosecuted with the fierceness of men's temperament, resulting in continual warfare among the unruly dukes, counts and barons. The most exalted profession was that of the warrior. And among the ruling class the male's martial virtue was extolled, learned, and practiced as a means of conquest and survival. The price of defeat was the extinction of the clan as ruler in its fiefdom. The efflorescence of the Italian Renaissance saw the disappearance of the counts of Champagne, who had so distinguished themselves during the earlier Crusades, and Champagne was placed under the direct governance of King Charles VII. In time one by one the powerful dukes, counts, and barons lost their rule and fiefdoms with the expansion of royal power as a consequence.
 If you distilled the Middle Ages, you would find the ugly aspects of life sinking to the bottom. A thousand years is a long time in human history, and it is impossible to evoke the dark side of this long period without at the same time recognizing the fine achievements that laid the foundations for the flowering of the Renaissance. The early Middle Ages were the formative era, the time of great migrations, invasions and settlements. It took four centuries for the forces of migration and settlement to play themselves out before Europe began to see what was known as the Carolingian Renaissance, the first attempt to bridge the gap between the Classical world and the contemporary world. After its architect Charlemagne left the scene, his empire broke up among his three children, and more migrations by the Norsemen shortly followed. By the time of the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 Europe had enough time to stabilize, and from the ensuing consolidation of political and economic strength a confident Western Europe could now undertake the Crusades, which were the first campaigns outside its confines. Much of what accounts for the charm and beauty of Europe is medieval in origin. The abbeys, the monasteries, the Gothic cathedrals, the belltowers, the steeples, the chaotic layout of the towns, their wood frame houses built along narrow streets, the forts, the castles, and their ruins are eloquent witnesses of the esthetic sense of ten centuries. It is these relics of Europe's tormented past that have such a powerful grip on the modern man's imagination.
 Back in those days, however, the towns were built without thought of livability or planning, where cottage industry began to take shape. Where industry went so did commerce. Streets, without sidewalks, were narrow alleyways meandering aimlessly, but serving as convenient locales for the congregation of artisans of the same craft. Besides being arteries of transportation they were garbage dumps, sewers and anything else in between. They would be crowded, noisy, and smelly. Garbage heaps would remain on the streets for months until the impending passage of a prince or some sort of communal event forced the townspeople to remove them. Cemeteries, crowded around churches, gave off a foul odor. Scarcely did a street corner exist that did not have a pillory or the gallows where severe punishment was meted out in public.
  Houses and buildings in the towns followed no set standards, encroached on the streets when they could, and on the higher floors protruded from the front to gain the space they did not have on the ground level. They almost touched one another over the streets, and had few comforts. Sanitation and health care were minimal so that an epidemic could be devastating. Fires, when they broke out as they frequently did, could destroy large sections of the town. In 1118 a huge conflagration reduced most of Troyes to an ashy wasteland. In 1524 Troyes lost more than 1000 houses to a 28-hour fire that spared almost nothing, even the churches, and the castles of the counts that had been built of stone. In one day 3000 persons went from affluence to utter destitution.
  Churches were erected to fill a spiritual need dictated by the harsh conditions of life. In time or in the wake of destruction by natural or man-made disasters, many new churches rose from the foundations of old ones. Throughout this era churches were the most enduring institutions, providing what stability and continuity there were, especially in times of social upheavals, civil wars, invasions, and other calamities. With the wealth bestowed by donations and bequests from the affluent and the general public, the Church was able to build magnificent cathedrals and basilicas, and, more so in Italy than elsewhere, commission art works to enliven their interiors on a scale still unrivaled to this day.
  The Gothic cathedral is one of the most significant contributions of the Middle Ages to the European experience. Built of stone, the Gothic cathedral, debuted in France toward the mid-1100's, rises as high as men could make it, and introduces architectural and structural techniques of proven durability and viability. To support the weight of the soaring vaults, which tend to push outward, the builders added the flying buttresses. To bring light to the interior, the clerestory was relieved by stained glass windows, which served the additional purpose of recounting Biblical stories. Gone are the rounded Romanesque arches. In their place, the more graceful ogival arches now dominated in portals and windows. Being made from stone, a material ill-suited to fresco paintings, the Gothic cathedral had to deliver its didactic effects through the medium of stone carvings. So the exterior of the cathedral provides an excellent opportunity for Biblical lessons to be taught. For that purpose, the archivolts, the niches, the pillars, the façades were pressed into service. Stylistic variations, such as the rayonnant and the flamboyant, developed over the years fulfilled the esthetic imperatives. Where a Romanesque church interior sparkles with frescoes from floor to ceiling, a Gothic cathedral interior typically exudes the austerity of stone with little more adornment than the carvings, the statues and the stained glass windows. Where one exhibits the exuberance of its religious art, the other derives its statement from its massive construction, vertical sweep, and height. Where one depends on interior braces to insure structural stability, the other achieves strength and robustness by adding external supports that could serve artistic and religious purposes. Where one exults in God through a profusion of paintings created with sophisticated techniques, the other exalts His name by soaring to stupendous heights. Where one may be hidden from the eye from afar, the other asserts its presence by towering over the landscape. Each approach complements the other and enriches the medieval experience.
  At the threshold of the new millennium it is easy to fantasize about a period centuries removed, just as it is easy to belittle the role it plays in shaping the world of today. The modern world stands on the shoulders of previous worlds and builds on the experience amassed over the centuries. The fast pace of progress over the past century, frightening as it may be, could not have been realized without the collective, cumulative wisdom and knowledge of earlier times and peoples, so that a serious look back at the past is a good antidote to an ahistorical view. It is important when contemplating earlier times to remember that the twentieth century has not been an unmixed blessing. The two world wars, the holocaust, the arms race, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the regional conflicts, the deepening gulf between the haves and have-nots, the rise of religious fundamentalism should remind us that scientific and technological achievements as well as material progress are no guarantees of peace and happiness on earth.

The brisk clear autumn air this afternoon might be astir around our car, but inside our Parisian friends and we were enjoying the warm comfort and a smooth ride on our long-awaited journey to Troyes, a famed medieval town about 180 kilometers southeast of Paris. Earlier this morning our friends had whisked us from the Charles de Gaulle International Airport to their Paris home for a quick lunch, and now barely three hours of arrival we were whizzing along on a ribbon of asphalt toward this city farther upstream on the Seine.

Our destination is a historic town in the south Champagne region, one awash in champagne, replete with the relics of times long gone, and its inevitable medieval churches overflowing with quiet charm, a town nestled in a rolling country of vineyards and sugar beets sitting astride the placid River Seine.

Troyes has a history as turbulent as any town in France except perhaps Paris. In Roman times, this region once desolate and sometimes arid was given the Latin designation of Campania (the country of plains), which evokes the picturesque and fertile plains on the Gulf of Naples. But as one local historian, Gustave Carré, notes in his 1881 Popular History of Troyes and of the Department of Aube, this region was uninspiring for its monotonous and drab undulations, its discordant colors, its slow-moving rivers dragging their whitish waters among frail poplars and chalky hills, whose meager grass barely hides their sterility. If such a description is not enough to turn away even the most inveterate nature lover, its history is a litany of wars, invasion, exploitation, poverty, ruin, devastation, epidemic, and famine, but of glory as well.

At the outset of the fifth century, when barbarian Germanic assaults on the Roman Empire were unleashed with unprecedented fury, Gaul, which had been organized into 17 provinces and 114 cities, bore the brunt of the invasion of the Vandals, who left a trail of destruction everywhere. In the Champagne region, archaeological finds tell the horror story of these devastations in the remains of its hapless Gallo-Roman defenders. Rome under attack was unable to come to the rescue of its provinces. The political and administrative structure the Romans had painstakingly built in Gaul crumbled. Now the task of leading the populace was largely left to the Catholic church. Its bishops and archbishops had to double as administrators, magistrates, men of God, and, when necessary, men of war.

When Attila's hordes were defeated before Orléans in 451, he retreated to defenseless Troyes. These Huns, who were fearful in appearance, were known for their even more fearful skills and lifestyle. Superb horsemen who practically lived in their saddles, they drank sour milk, ate meat that they "cooked" by placing it between the horse's back and their saddle, and could shoot arrows backward and forward on the gallop with deadly accuracy. They had on their bodies one set of coarse clothes that they wore to tatters before replacing them. Their supplies came from the lands they subjugated. Their horses like themselves could subsist on a sparse diet. Their discipline and stamina were unsurpassed. Their military exploits had brought them from the steppes of Asia to the far reaches of continental Europe, leaving behind large swaths of defeated peoples and ruined lands. No resistance was strong enough to stop this invincible and highly mobile war machine. Now for the first time, it had run out of steam. Still its formidable reputation had struck terror in the hearts of men. The bishop of Troyes sent forth a peace-making delegation consisting of a church deacon and other clerics, whom Attila quickly executed because their white garments frightened his horses. The bishop and his clergy had no choice but to confront the Huns themselves with no more lethal weapons than their pontifical vestments and the aura emanating from such a group of churchmen. Attila was mollified, spared the town, and simply demanded an escort to the Rhine River.

Under the Merovingians of the sixth century, with the Franks battling mercilessly among themselves, monasteries appeared in the country for the first time, initially as refuges of the monks against the savagery of the times. Over the centuries these monasteries became veritable educational and economic centers. Three monasteries, including the Abbey of Saint-Loup erected in honor of the prelate who had saved the town from the Huns, were founded in Troyes. In the great social upheavals of the seventh and eighth centuries, Troyes also had the misfortune of having men with no sacerdotal inclination and plenty of bellicosity at the helm of its episcopal see, although in this respect it was not alone.

Then in the ninth century, Troyes was jolted by another wave of invasion, this time from the redoubtable Vikings, who had landed in what was to be known as Normandy and burned and pillaged with impunity all the way to the heart of Champagne. So far from their homeland, the Normans recruited the dregs of society, criminals, murderers, convicts, beggars, vagabonds, the down-and-outs, down to the unemployed, wherever they went to swell their ranks with hardy, fierce warriors. Troyes even supplied one of the Normans' best leaders in the person of Hastings. Still from 888 to 925 the Normans continued to ravage Champagne. They put Troyes to the sword and the torch. In 925 as the local population had become fed up with so much destruction and misery, the bishop of Troyes mounted a stiff resistance in alliance with the bishop of Langres, and the Counts of Sens and of Dijon, which succeeded in ridding the region of the Normans once and for all.

As a testimony to the people's resilience and spirit, only barely a century later, the counts of Champagne with Troyes as their center of power took a prominent part in the Crusades. The Order of the Templars was founded by a Champagne lord, Hughes de Paynes, in 1118. Champagne began to produce a succession of valorous Crusade leaders, who distinguished themselves in the Holy Land, and helped to shape the history of the Byzantine Empire. The count of Champagne Henri II became King of Jerusalem. During the twelfth century Troyes grew in stature and national importance having made great strides in agriculture, commerce, and industry. More importantly Troyes had given to Christendom Pope Urban IV, who was one of the great popes of the Middle Ages.

It was during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that French literature saw its flowering, and Champagne with Troyes as its capital led the way. The trouvère Chrétien de Troyes writing in the langue d'oïl, whose dialects were spoken in the Northern regions of France, composed the best Romances of the Round Table. For the first time French literature had escaped the harsh themes of the Chansons de gestes. From the old Chansons de gestes, which reflected the savage nature of feudal society, Chrétien de Troyes had lifted the spirit of the times to the best ideals of chivalry and courtly love, the mitigating catalyst for taming the barbaric and fierce temperament of men.

A signal contribution to France's literature was made by her first prose writer and chronicler, Geoffroy de Villehardouin, Marshall of Champagne, author of the History of the Conquest of Constantinople, who accompanied the Fourth Crusade (1204), which was launched as much, perhaps even less so, for religious purposes as for the fabulous treasures that previous Crusaders had observed in this city. Some of the looted relics now enrich the St. Peter's church in Troyes. The Count of Champagne Thibaut IV was as good a poet as he was a bad politician. Jean de Joinville, who had been raised in the elegant court of the Count of Champagne Thibaut IV, where he later became Seneschal, accompanied King Louis IX in the Seventh Crusade, and wrote his History of St. Louis in homage to his revered suzerain.

Gothic architecture came to Troyes during this time in all its glory in the St. Peter's cathedral, which, rising in 1208 from the remains of earlier churches, took 432 years to complete. The cathedral was a celebration of the august glorification of Redemption. Another more remarkable edifice still was the church of St. Urbain, which was constructed during the thirteenth century at about the same time as the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with which it was often compared. St. Urbain was lighter and bolder than Sainte-Chapelle, according to Gustave Carré. Its graceful svelte flying buttresses, its finely carved archivolts around the windows of the clerestory, and the relatively slender composite pillars that support the vertiginous ribbed vaults with exquisite grace are features that distinguish it from the Sainte-Chapelle. Yet it is a quirk of history that the Sainte-Chapelle received more attention than the St. Urbain, perhaps because the Kings of France, whose capital was Paris, had worshipped in it.

Toward the end of the Hundred Years War (1338-1453), English forces under King Henry V, who had, after their decisive victory at Agincourt (1415), imposed the humiliating Treaty of Troyes (1420) on the French King Charles VI making Henry Heir of France after Charles's death, and their Burgundian allies occupied Champagne and Troyes, levied taxes and labor for the fabrication of the weapons of war, the maintenance of their garrisons, and the supply of provisions. They even impressed skilled local archers into their ranks to wage war against neighboring comtés. Amidst utter despair and despondency, from a strip of land in the eastern reaches of Champagne called Domrémy, emerged a humble shepherdess whose leadership and prowess were destined to change the course of French and English histories forever. Jeanne d'Arc, inspired by God according to story, convinced King Charles VII and his council, and rallied the country. Mounted on her stallion in a knight's armor, the maiden led her people to heights of glory where no man could. In her successful rescue mission at Orléans in 1429 and successive victories her forces forever cast doubt on the English reputation of invincibility acquired so brilliantly at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), where the longbow had decimated the crème of French chivalry. In changing the fortunes of war, Joan of Arc and her men heralded the end of the English presence in France. In 1430, however, she was captured by the Burgundians before Compiègne, and delivered to the English. The bishop of Beauvais and the theologians of Paris, seizing upon her insistence that she had heard the voice of God, put her on trial for heresy, and condemned her to be burned at the stake. The flames rose around Joan of Arc at the Rouen marketplace on May 29, 1431, without King Charles trying to intervene. Her martyrdom however continued to inspire her countrymen. With French national feelings inflamed in the aftermath, the reign of King Charles VII finally mustered enough national will, and military strength, bolstered by the new artillery invented by the Bureau brothers of Troyes, to spell the demise of the English longbow, and the defeat of English forces, compelling them in 1453 forever to renounce their ambitions in France. This artillery was later employed with skill by King Louis XI to dismantle the feudal system, which had been relying on the fortified castles as impregnable defenses against archers, cavalry, and foot soldiers alike.

During the centuries in which the Italian Renaissance flourished Troyes was plunged into the depths of war, famine, and pestilence. Town and country folks alike suffered grievously. The medieval age, which had never been easy on life, unleashed its gloom for the last time before the Renaissance spread its revival of Classical ideals northward and ushered in an era of gentler customs and mores.

Today memories of these trying times have been relegated to the pages of history, and what remains has been sublimated into a romantic view that glows with charm. One such relic is the irresistible Troyes. It is this Troyes that, tempered by its tormented past, now breathes with ease and happiness, freed at last from the bad old days. It is with grace and gentleness that the Champagne town, in the crisp autumn air of this gorgeous sun-soaked afternoon, cheerfully greeted us at the approach of the new millennium. We couldn't have asked for a better day.

On a quiet street of Troyes's adjacent community of St. André Les Vergers stood a tidy castle-like home, with a peaked roof among several piercing the serene sky like a flèche, and its gabled windows overlooking a neat little garden. There in a harmonious blend of town and country, we were met by our friends' brother Jacques, who is the chief psychiatrist at the Troyes Medical Center, and his cheerful Parisian friend Martine. This nineteenth-century abode, fit for Troyes's upper crust, boasted a wine cellar full of vintage wines and Methuselah-size bottles of champagne, a back yard where apple and pear trees ruled, and a front yard adorned by a persimmon tree, ornamental grasses, and a flowerbed ablaze with colors. As we walked towards the door, the crushing sound of gravel punctuating our every step, the pervasive quiet and beauty of the place caressed us in its subtle embrace.

A few steps up and we crossed the threshold to a cozy living room, where original paintings from French artists greeted us, some with the delicate touch of local color and some with exotic flavor. During World War II some artists from Reims had fled its destruction to the relative security of Troyes, and created here a lively art scene. Some of the paintings were works given in appreciation by artist friends.

Over champagne and wine we admired Jacques's collection of antique objets d'art he had collected during his many trips to the Orient and Vietnam. Jacques, besides being a renowned psychiatrist, is a wine connoisseur of note, a champagne devotee, an art lover and collector, a history buff, a golf enthusiast, and an antique car aficionado. These varied interests made his conversation lively and captivating for any one with a modicum of curiosity about aspects of a cultured life. The day we arrived Jacques was preparing for an interview with a British radio station about an article on mood disorders he had published in a European journal of psychiatry. Martine, on the other hand, is an independent-minded free-thinker in search of a way of life more agreeable to her temperament and ideals, has refined taste, loves chamber music, especially cello concerti, and cooks with a Gallic flair.

Jacques showed us a Troyes that only an insider could. Here the wood frame medieval houses bordering narrow cobblestone streets devoid of sidewalks vied with the centuries old corbeled storefronts and homes on deserted alleys. In the quiet still atmosphere night streets bathed in dreamy light scintillated on the sluggish Seine with reflections reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting. Bundled in their coats nonchalant nocturnal strollers lingered at the lighted windows of closed shops. The restaurants and cafés bursting with diners out for an evening of gastronomic adventures extended their welcome to all who wanted to come in from the cold. On a downtown street the unpretentious home of "the world's most famous croissants" still catered to the faithful decades after it had won the distinction. And on a medieval plaza, the feebly illuminated Gothic cathedral suffused in the eerie darkness stood vigil as it had been doing for centuries. I just wanted to absorb this whole world into my being so that it will be mine forever. For where else can you find such peace, such tranquillity, such warmth, and such feeling of comfort and security that seemed to reign so effortlessly than in this town by night?

At the end of a pleasant promenade along the narrow lanes of Troyes we entered a Mediterranean restaurant whose specialty was couscous and Sahel wine. A small cozy nook it was. Here we ventured into another culture, another world. But it was an entirely rewarding adventure. After the exotic food that presumably was invented by the Berber nomads of north Africa, there must be a dessert to seal the marvelous experience in indestructible gold. So off we plunged into the chilly night to the ultimate destination of this evening's excursion, sending our steps reverberating on the paving stones, and our long shadows mingling with those of a few other hardy souls.

Jacques's favorite crêperie was many blocks away, but I was all excited with anticipation of the crowning moment when the decadent chocolate crêpe with almond would melt away swiftly to leave me forever unsatiated. The crowded crêperie had a way to titillate you half silly with the tempting fragrance wafting in from the kitchen and from the tables near by. The wait seemed endless and excruciating. But the room was vibrant with conviviality and a high level of decibels arising from every one chattering and laughing at the same time. A scene eminently worthy of a dissertation on the sinful crêpe and good living. Seized with desperate fervor to be a part of this frenetically wonderful experience, I was tempted to cry out, "As for me, give me crêpes, or give me death!" Fortunately, that wasn't necessary. The crêpes arrived just in time. With my agony subsiding, I dug in. They took mere seconds to vanish, leaving behind an aftertaste which was delectable beyond belief. In the next sober moment, I was astounded at the variety of crêpes on the menu. They came in dozens of flavors. As if with a vengeance. Then again, I thought, if a French chef could metamorphose escargot into a delicacy, a French pastry chef can surely turn crêpes into a rhapsody divine.

Out of Troyes the following morning in the cool fall Champagne weather our car threaded its way over the gentle hills that would be covered with vineyards in due time and now had been prepared and raked smooth to present in ochre a picture-perfect vista of bucolic peace and serenity. The road was lined with champagne domains, small farms where the farmhouse could be an ancient château, an old-fashioned building, or a more modern structure. Soon we arrived at a champagne maker's domain, his wooden farmhouse perched on a hilltop overlooking his fields. He is Jacques's champagne supplier. There followed the obligatory glass of the golden bubbly beverage raised to everyone's health. An impromptu guided tour of his cellar and champagne manufacturing facility ensued during which I learned that it did not take huge vats or presses or bottling machines to turn out the delicious drink. This probably explains, at least in part, the plethora of champagnes produced in this region.

That afternoon we drove through a scenic landscape where the trees' canopies wove an unbroken cover over the roadway, and created an unusually idyllic tunnel of vegetation. Remember one of those Universal Studios whirling tunnels that thrill you half to death? Or the dark long tube that links France and England under the English Channel, and offers absolutely no clues as to where you are? No, there was scarcely any resemblance here. This tunnel is the stuff dreams are made of. If I were Claude Monet, I'd throw all etiquette and caution to the winds, jump out of the car without waiting for it to stop, set up my easel, grab my brushes and palette, and, yes, leave to posterity a canvas destined never to be forgotten. So serene, peaceful, and relaxing was the scene that you would want time to suspend its course forever, leaving you to exist forever. We were heading for Jacques's country club somewhere in this enchanted land. My sense of space and time had deserted me long ago, and I wouldn't want it to come back. Some time later in this timeless journey, voilà, there we were. The trees parted. What a country club it was! Amidst a vast expanse of conifers and meadows and solitude sprawled an eighteen-hole golf course carpeted with velvet grass under heavenly skies, interspersed with a pond or two of still water, reeds and lilies where a few solitary ducks, which had popped into the scene only God knows how and why, were quietly navigating its glassy surface; tortuous leaf-strewn foot paths; trees still green; the breeze a gentle caress; and the air invigorating. At the end of a long dirt and gravel driveway, we pulled in front of a small château, small by the standard of the Loire châteaux, but a picturesque one just the same.

After meeting some of Jacques's friends at the clubhouse bar and refreshments in the well-appointed lounge, we ventured out into the neighboring countryside to take in a few charming small towns. These ageless gems lay unperturbed, oblivious of time and its ravages because time's ravages never occurred here. They simply went somewhere else. Skeptical? Just look at the darling little houses with red roofs and gable windows, their white picket fences barely restraining the luxuriant trees and flowers that burst with life, the gravel paths that sang under your feet, and the aura of peacefulness that permeated your soul! You will agree, much against your better judgment and reason, that time had never laid its destructive hand on them. I know now why Jacques and so many of his friends are enamored of this lovely corner of the world that was so secluded and sheltered from the cares of daily life.

That evening's dinner was in the château's dining room. It featured filet of lamb, entrecôtes, and salmon smothered in house sauce at once pleasing to the eye and to the taste, which we delicately washed down with vintage bordeaux. All this abundant delight flowed inexhaustibly amid a chamber that glowed softly with elegance on its antique furniture, its porcelain vases, its sculptures, its vast wall frescoes, heraldic shields, standards, embroidered draperies, carved wooden beams, and coffered ceiling. My imagination carried me back to a past when in the very same ambiance persons whose station in life far exceeded mine had held soirées full of music, mirth, and merriment. It is here that the drama of their leisured lives could have unfolded in a chilly autumn evening, or cold winter night. It is here that an old-line aristocracy could have led an existence of ease and comfort. It is here that intrigues could have been hatched that would have marred someone's reputation or ruined someone's life.

Tonight at this moment the château was not a mere clubhouse. Now it was a castle right out of Cinderella's fairy tale where by enchantment we were the aristocracy waiting for the orchestra to strike the first notes of the masked ball. The lovely strains of a Viennese waltz soon filled the air. There were couples whirling on the dance floor gracefully and elegantly. Music, laughter, badinage, curtsies, bows and myriad pleasantries and happy faces. Suddenly out front this humble girl, this lowly maid transformed into a vision of unsurpassed beauty had just alighted from her pumpkin coach. A stunned silence descended upon the scene. The music stopped as if by magic. The revelers bedecked in their finery abandoned their pirouettes. The bewitching beauty that had come uninvited slowly walked into the astonished crowd, which parted as she was passing. Her steps in glass slippers resonated in divine melody. Her noble comportment and radiant figure betrayed a world beyond. Finally she stopped. A few feet ahead, alone, young, handsome stood Prince Charming, his demeanor regal, his arm extended, and his smile inviting. Incongruous humbug? Ah, the good old days! Then I awoke to ask, like François Villon, "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" (But where are the snows of yesteryear?). If you're not careful that's what a château could do to you.

Tomorrow we would be heading for Reims, the site of the coronation of French royalty. But tonight Jacques was our host, whose association with Troyes went back for decades, the undisputed man of the hour, simple and unpretentious but personable and lovable as Troyes itself. From this Champagne city on the Seine we came away with an indelible impression of its charm and beauty that will be etched in our psyche forever. For its medieval heritage that had escaped the most destructive ravages of World War II, I retained an inexplicable affinity, a fascination beyond words. Why would a turn-of-the-millennium resident of space city be so captivated by a past that was termed variously the Dark Ages and the Age of Faith? There is no simple answer. The images of a distant past have the capacity to despoil themselves of their ugly and sharp edges leaving only their esthetic and nostalgic aspects, beautified by the reassuring feeling that they can no longer hurt you in the same way that the present can. That past you can now see it: in the wood frame houses whose walls defy the rectilinear pattern, and whose upper stories teeter precariously over the narrow streets that they shield from the sun; in the church steeples that pierce the skies like arrows; in the dizzying heights of a Gothic cathedral with its ogival portals and carvings; in the paving stones in the streets that seem still to echo the sounds of that bygone era. So I will say, "Ask Champagne. Ask Troyes." for they have gone through it all and endured to recount with mute eloquence their experience of these remarkable times.

To this land that survived ages of vicissitudes, to Troyes and Champagne Ardenne, to the hills and vineyards, the champagne domains, the upper Seine River, the châteaus, the church spires, the gargoyles, and Jacques and Martine, it is fitting not to say adieu or good-bye, but to say A bientôt.

If you ever want to savor a peaceful existence, if you ever want to wash away, albeit for an ephemeral instant, the sophistication and sometimes the artificiality of big city life, or just to experience a bona fide dolce vita, if you ever want to be enchanted, where else will you wish to be than in this realm of bliss in the heart of Champagne that the Romans once called Augustobona, now known as Troyes?

  See Paris, City of Light
  See Paris Romantic
  See Renaissance Florence
  See Lovers' Venice
  See Troyes Revisited
  See Across Northern France


The story of Troyes continues in this fascinating sequel.

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