The rigour and control of winemaking in France is taken to another level in Champagne. I respect the producers and like the product and I had visited Épernay a few months earlier to mark my 50th birthday. I drove the 570km from Zurich to see another centre of champagne in Reims and to photograph its magnificent Cathedral.
I toured Pommery’s cellars and was pleased to find the space also used for art installations, which change every few months. As with many champagne houses, Pommery was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, when demand for champagne exploded, in part due to the audacious marketing of an Épernay-based producer, Eugene Mercier. At the Paris exposition universelle in 1889, which also saw the debut of the Eiffel Tower, Mercier exhibited a ‘Cathedral of Champagne’ – the world’s largest wine barrel, or foudre with a capacity of 1,600 hectolitres and weighing 20 metric tonnes. He had hauled it from Épernay with 24 bulls and 18 horses, demolishing five buildings on the way.
Walking back into town, I came across a ruined Franciscan monastery, dating from the thirteenth century, when around 4,000 monks were touring Europe. In France the order is known Cordeliers, which refers to the cord or rope which the monks wear as a belt. The symbolism is the rejection of the pursuit of material wealth (and the system for its production) and relates to the use of money belts in medieval Italy. Like the nearby cathedral, the monastery was heavily damaged by shelling in the First World War, but it was not restored. The ruins are now part of a small park with a children’s playground.
It was late afternoon by the time I reached Notre-Dame Cathedral and I took some photographs inside and then of the front elevation. I was unhappy with the overcast conditions and flat even light. As I was giving up, the sun emerged between a think bank of cloud and the horizon, seconds before it set, casting an intense, deep red onto the front of the Cathedral. With several others, I stopped, astonished. Then I moved quickly to get distance and context and took the photograph below. It is my favourite of the trip so far, with contrasting light, shade highlighting the figures and the reflected sunshine on the paving at the front.
As with the Dubrovnik wedding parade, I was reminded of the benefits of being alive to what is present, rather than trying to resist or force an outcome. That is, instead of acting clumsily on the world, I could wait for events to unfold.
The photographs below include a Pommery cellars art installation – a pair of giant rubber boots, with the toe-cap of one in the bottom left corner and its shadow on the wall. I think the Franciscan monastery ivy looks like knotted cord. For the photographers, I used a 24mm tilt shift lens for the front view of the Cathedral.
My next and final destination is Bruges.
Pommery Cellars, Reims