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Day Four of MOHA France Benefactor Tour

November 3, 2018

Fields of Gold and Fields of Battle, by Chancy Kapp

Past North Carolina Museum of History Associate Chairs Jennie Hayman and Chancy Kapp near Epernay in the Marne Valley.

A beautiful hotel in a fin de siecle chateau in the ancient city of Reims—with a 100 year old trench across the street and remnants of the Western Front a half-mile away.

Golden hillsides in the Valley of the Marne with vineyards that supply the world’s stock of champagne—and hide craters and bunkers left from pitched battles in 1914 and 1918.

Elegant Epernay, lined with the mansions of Champagne Avenue along the historic road between Paris and Germany—including one donated by the Moet family to replace the city hall destroyed by German artillery.

A few grapes remained in the vineyards.

Quaint Hautvillers, where Dom Perignon perfected champagne-making in the hilltop abbey—and Italian divisions set up headquarters in 1918.

Photo: Hautvillers

Millions of bottles of champagne aging in miles of ancient quarries and abbey tunnels carved out of the chalk underpinnings of Reims—where the city’s people took shelter, set up schools and tended the injured as German shells rained from morning until night for four years.

Photo: Champagne aging

Magnificent Our Lady of Reims Cathedral, a 13th century masterpiece that honors the baptism of Clovis, the first Christian King of the Franks, and hosted 33 coronations, including that of Charles VII engineered by Joan of Arc—where broken statues attest to the savagery of the French Revolution and German shells smashed the vaulted roof and left ragged craters in the walls.

Photo: In the tunnels below Reims

Photo: Medieval rose window at Reims Cathedral survived WWI because it was removed just in time.

This day scheduled for savoring scenery and champagne turned into a day packed with dizzying juxtapositions. What was this day about, then?

“France,” said Christine Weason of Raleigh, an avowed Francophile. “In the U.S., we learn so little about the French perspective in World War I.  Every day brings new knowledge.”

“Clovis,” said Buck Kester of High Point.  “We heard that the French count him as their first real king, and everything we’re learning starts here, with him.”

“The enduring power of the land,” offered my husband Keith Kapp of Raleigh.  “The wine grapes came with the Romans, and hills full of shrapnel still grow the vines.”

Photo: Our Lady of Reims Cathedral at twilight

Our chats at the dinner table have focused on how much we as Americans don’t know about World War I.  Did we not learn about it because our history teachers got stuck on the American Civil War and ran out of time?  Was this war less important to us because the US joined the war late and fought for a short time?  Were the battles too far away in distance and time?  

Many of our fathers and other family members fought in World War II, and some in our group remember those war years.  Only a handful of us grew up with memories of grandfathers and great-uncles who served a century ago.

That begs the question of whether lessons studied in long-ago school days would have prepared us for the shock of seeing trenches sliced through city parks and the sheer numbers of graves and memorials.  Our tour guide told us that in all of France, perhaps eight villages escaped the Great War without a war death.

A great gift of focused travel is the opportunity for understanding.  Thus far, we are experiencing the truth of author Henry Miller’s opinion:  “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”