On the first day of my high-school Latin class, Mrs. Duncan declared (as did Julius Caesar before her), “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.” Translation: “Gaul is a whole divided into three parts.”
Gaul? It was Greek to me.
Caesar conquered the three parts of Gaul between 58 and 50 BCE. Millions were killed or enslaved during the invasion.
The region known to Caesar as Gaul is now France, Belgium, and parts of Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.
The conquerors and the conquered proceeded to romanize the place. On a recent visit to France, I saw lots of evidence of their public projects.
My first stop was Reims (pronounced to rhyme with taunts), a city in the former province of Champagne in northeast France.
Founded around 18 BCE by a Gallic tribe, Reims became the second largest city in Roman Gaul with a population of over fifty thousand. Its residents enjoyed numerous amenities, including an aqueduct, marketplace, arena, theater, temples, and baths.
Nothing remains of these monuments above ground, except the mammoth Porte de Mars, the last remaining entry gate into the city. Below the surface, however, it’s another story, best told while the champagne chills.
Walk-in wine coolers
When building the city, Gallo-Roman slaves mined blocks of chalky limestone from vertical quarries. The deeper they dug, the softer and more malleable the limestone they found.
The residual pits are called crayères. Some are 130 feet deep. Over the centuries they were expanded and connected. Beneath the champagne-wine region are hundreds of miles of chalky chambers and tunnels.
Since the 1600s, the crayères have proven to be ideal for making, aging, and storing champagne. The maze of passages under the region holds hundreds of millions of bottles of wine.
Champagne from the French champagne-wine region is usually regarded as the finest sparkling wine in the world. The winemaking community has established a strict set of rules regarding vineyard locations, grape varieties, vineyard practices, and fermentation processes.
Only when a wine meets these requirements may it be labeled champagne.
The word champagne is legally protected and reserved for sparkling wines from the former province of Champagne. (Champagne is now part of the larger region of Grand Est.)
During my days in marketing, we called such a strategy place-of-origin branding. Still, some consumers and wine sellers apply the word champagne generically to sparkling wine from other regions.
Reims is the capital of the traditional champagne-wine region. Many of the largest producers are headquartered in the city. One of those is G.H. Mumm, ranked fourth in the world.
The winery was founded in 1827 by three German brothers—Gottlieb, Jacobus, and Philipp Mumm. During World War I, the French confiscated the Mumms’ vineyards, even though the family had lived in France for almost a century.
At Mumm I climbed down a few steep flights of stairs into near silence. The lighting was dim; the walls cold and clammy. In places, the stroke marks of picks and the etchings of past visitors were still visible. Mumm has sixteen miles of tunnels. The longest straightaway is a quarter of a mile.
The aging of wine, however, is only one purpose the region’s tunnels have served. During World War I, Reims was shelled daily for nearly three years. Over twenty thousand residents used the tunnels as shelters. The passages turned into city streets.
Under some of the wineries, makeshift laundries, kitchens, shops, schools, and playgrounds operated. An underground hospital cared for French soldiers. Church services and concerts were held. German prisoners were incarcerated.
Above ground, most of the city was demolished.
Coronations and capitulation
Throughout history, Reims has frequently been at ground zero.
The city was, for Rome, the far-flung capital of one of Gaul’s three parts, Gallia Belgica. For France, Reims was Coronation City, where, between 1223 and 1825, twenty-five kings were crowned.
One of the coronations occurred in 1429, when a seventeen-year-old named Joan of Arc led the French against the English and recaptured Reims.
The victory cleared the way for Charles VII to be crowned in the city’s historic cathedral.
In August 1944, the Allies liberated Reims from the Nazis.
The following winter, they chose a drab school building, belonging to a small technical college near the railroad station, as the headquarters of the Allied forces, headed by General Dwight Eisenhower.
While in the city, I visited the school (now called Roosevelt High), where another major historical event took place.
In early May 1945, a German admiral informed Eisenhower’s staff that Germany was prepared to surrender their forces on the western front. Eisenhower insisted instead on “immediate, simultaneous and unconditional surrender on all fronts,” including in the east where Germany was engaged with Russia.
Germany finally agreed to the terms. The participants met in a room in the school house and, at 2:41 a.m. on May 8, signed the agreement. Afterward, the Allies celebrated with tin cups of (what else?) champagne.
It was agreed the cease-fire would go into effect at 11:01 p.m. on May 8. However, the Russians insisted on their own surrender ceremony to be held in Berlin. The second signing occurred in the early hours of May 9. As a result, the Russians celebrate VE Day on May 9, while the Allies celebrate on May 8.
The school room where the signing took place looks much as it did in 1945. Wooden chairs surround a conference table, ashtrays at the ready. Military maps cover the walls. At the entrance, the flags of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Russia fly.
I spent two weeks in France touring with a small group and two more weeks on my own. At our get-acquainted dinner in Reims, I was asked to open a bottle of champagne with a saber.
The trick to sabrage is to slide the blunt edge of a sword (even a table knife will work) along the seam of a champagne bottle until it strikes the glass collar. A blunt whack cleanly breaks the collar from the neck at the bottle’s weakest point.
The technique was popularized by Napoleon’s light cavalry, who apparently wasted no time when it came to celebrating their victories.
Hell of Verdun
The longest battle of World War I was fought seventy-five miles east of Reims near the Gallic town of Verdun.
Due to its historical significance, Verdun was believed by Germany to be the location France would defend to the last man. (Verdun was the final French fortress to surrender in the Franco-Prussian War.)
Germany’s strategy was to conduct attrition warfare and bleed France to death. Instead, both sides bled. Once the fighting began in early 1916, the battle lines ebbed and flowed for over three hundred days.
The French suffered approximately 378,000 casualties; the Germans 337,000. Over three hundred thousand lives were lost, most of them between the ages of twenty and thirty. The numbers are numbing.
Sixty million artillery shells were spent. Following the yearlong battle, the area was a moonscape littered with human remains. Nine villages in the region were abandoned and never rebuilt. In the end, France held the line.
The battlefield is a somber place, forests and fields blanketing the remains of thousands of missing soldiers, a vast graveyard pocked with craters. Miles of empty trenches scar the landscape.
Fort Douaumont is dank and dreary, almost a prison, dug into the side of a mountain.
Some rooms, where soldiers were killed by explosions, were simply walled up and memorialized.
The largest memorial is the French National Cemetery and Douaumont Ossuary. Sixteen thousand crosses carpet the field. The ossuary holds roughly 130,000 unidentified remains, French, German, and otherwise. Every year more are unearthed and placed inside the vaults.
For the French, the battle symbolizes heroic determination; for nearly everyone else, the madness of war.
Oui or nein?
The cultural region of Alsace (pronounced OWL zahz) was largely spared during the world wars, likely because both France and Germany wanted to save it for themselves.
France thinks the border between the two countries is the River Rhine in the east; Germany, the Vosges Mountains in the west. Alsace was the land caught in between.
If you were born in Alsace in early 1871, you would have been French. Later, in the year, following the Franco-Prussian War, you would have become German. Following World War I, you would be French again. When Germany invaded in 1940, you would once again be germanized. At the end of World War II, you would be French.
By the time you celebrated your seventy-fourth birthday, you would have switched nationalities (and languages) four times.
Older Alsatians speak the Alsatian dialect, which is closer to German. Their grandkids speak French. Restaurants serve German-influenced cuisine, such as choucroutegarnie—sauerkraut, sausage, and potatoes. Alsatian wines are produced from grapes also used in German wines, such as reisling and gewürztraminer.
On a hot day, our group toured a vineyard belonging to Stintzi Winery. Their harvest used to begin in early October. Now due to global warming, they pick in late August. Olivier Stintzi said the grapes mature more quickly in the heat, but don’t taste as good.
We visited Château du Haut-Kœnigsburg, a castle on a rocky ridge twenty-five hundred feet high in the Vosges Mountains overlooking the Rhine Valley. The Tour de France once climbed the same hill.
The castle was originally built in 1147. In 1633, it was looted and burned. In 1899, during one of the German periods, locals gave the ruins of the castle to Kaiser Wilhelm II.
He rebuilt it to resemble what he imagined a German castle in the 1600s looked like. The German eagle was painted on the dining-room ceiling.
The castle became a symbol of restored German power.
The city of Colmar could be the setting for a German fairy tale. Houses are half-timbered and brightly painted, Hansel-and-Gretel-style. Window boxes burst with blossoms. Narrow lanes are cobbled.
A canal crosses through Little Venice, the former quarter of the butchers, fishmongers, and tanners.
Our local guide Muriel halted traffic on a narrow street, so that our group could safely cross. “If he’s smiling,” she said, referring to the driver of the car she stopped, “he’s German. If he’s frowning, he’s French.”
Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi is from Colmar. His former home is now an art museum. Bartholdi sculpted the Statue of Liberty.
In the nearby village of Eguilsheim I noticed a couple of storks’ nests on top of chimneys. The nests are monstrosities that may weigh as much as one thousand pounds.
Despite the weight, storks are revered as good-luck charms for the inhabitants of any home where they nest.
Twenty-five years ago, the population had dwindled to fewer than nine pairs in the entire upper Rhine valley. A reintroduction program, begun in 1978, has been successful in bringing them back. Hundreds of pairs are now crushing Alsatian rooftops.
South of the city of Beaune, pickers filed along the rows of vines with buckets strapped to their backs. Beaune has been the wine capital of the former province of Burgundy since Roman times.
Near the village of Chagny, we visited Château de Rully. A castle overlooked the community from a small hill as early as the 800s. In 1619 the castle was acquired by the ancestors of the current tenants. We were given a tour by Count Raoul de Ternay, whose family has owned the chateau for at least twenty-six generations.
Castles are expensive to maintain. The count’s family live in a few rooms and show a few rooms. The rest of the building is unused and shows signs of gradual decay.
I asked if the castle had ever been attacked. “Until today, never,” he answered.
The rooms are full of old portraits. “All of them are related to me,” Raoul said, “except that one.” He pointed to a mustachioed gentleman. “He was king of Spain. We don’t know why he is here.”
Raoul toured us through the elegantly furnished public rooms, telling stories. His great- (or great-great) grandfather was a colonel in World War I. Years later, when the Nazis arrived to commandeer the chateau, they instead bowed to his grandfather’s seniority as both an officer and a count.
“They left the chateau,” Raoul said, “but they took the wine.”
At the end of the tour, Raoul shared some of his vineyard’s wine with us in his medieval kitchen. We picnicked next to the chateau. When we said goodbye to the count, he was wearing a ball cap and riding a lawnmower.
During World War II, a civil servant-turned-spy named Jean Moulin was assigned by Free France leader Charles de Gaulle to coordinate France’s disparate resistance movements.
Throughout the war, French resistors conducted sabotage and guerrilla warfare against the Nazis. They gathered intelligence crucial to the Allies. They published underground newspapers. When Allied soldiers were trapped behind enemy lines, they helped them escape.
Moulin managed to unite the majority of the organizations by May 1943. Soon thereafter, he was arrested by the Gestapo in Lyon.
Under the command of Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon, Moulin was beaten until he was in a coma. The symbol for French resistance and patriotism, he died in Barbie’s prison of brain damage.
When the Allies invaded in 1944, the French underground played an important role in speeding their advance through France.
Barbie, who was responsible for the deaths of up to fourteen thousand people, escaped to Bolivia. In 1983, he was extradited to France and, in 1991, died in prison.
In Lyon I visited the Center for the History of the Resistance and Deportation. The museum opened in 1992 to tell the story of the underground movement as well as the deportation of Jews during the war.
The center is located on the former site of the school expropriated by the Gestapo. Members of the resistance, including Moulin, were tortured in the building’s cellars.
At the confluence of two rivers, Lyon was considered a strategic transportation hub by the Gallo-Romans. Centrally located between Gaul’s three parts, the city was the capital of the province.
Modern Lyon has two funiculars. They climb Fourviére Hill to two hillside Roman theaters, a Gallo-Roman Museum, and the Notre-Dame Basilica.
On the walls of the church’s aisles are large gold-plated mosaics, where glittery images of Mary alternate with glittery images of Joan of Arc. She is portrayed leading a siege against the English and, later, being burned at the stake.
In addition to funiculars, Lyon has traboules. A traboule is a passageway through a block of buildings that links one street to another.
In the 300s CE, traboules provided residents with shortcuts to the river for water. Later, they were used by silk workers carrying bolts of cloth from loom to market.
During World War II, the hidden passageways were ideal for moving discreetly around Lyon and avoiding the Gestapo. Jean Moulin had an office near one of the traboules.
Most serve as nondescript entrances to private residences. Inside can be found medieval fountains, spiral staircases, renaissance balconies, and flowery courtyards.
I pushed open a heavy unmarked wooden door and walked into a traboule between Rue Saint-Jean and Rue du Bœuf. It’s one of the longest, going the length of two city blocks. Most of it was a shadowy tunnel.
Lyon’s streets hide about five hundred trauboles, over forty of which are open to the public. As “true” New Yorkers know the subway system, “true” Lyonese know the traboules.
In 1466, King Louis XI decided Lyon’s simmering silk industry needed some heat. A fan of fine apparel, he hired Italian silk artisans to share their craft. Years later, another fan of the fabric, King François I, gave Lyon sole access to the raw silk entering the country from the Far East.
Upon arrival in Lyon, the silk was spun, woven, and dyed. To help make ends meet, many local women learned how to weave. With an expanded workforce, the enterprise grew exponentially. The neighborhood of La Croix-Rousse in Lyon became the locus of Europe’s silk industry.
In the 1700s, with over one hundred thousand looms in operation, the silk industry accounted for seventy-five percent of Lyon’s economy. The invention of the Jacquard loom in 1805 increased production even more.
Weavers worked up to twelve hours a day. Several times, they revolted for better wages and conditions. (As guide Guillaume said, when referring to France’s numerous political revolutions, “France is a major producer of both wine and whiners.”)
Got the motion
Lyon was likely the birthplace of the movies.
In the late 1800s, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, took over their father’s small business, where they made photographic plates. Eventually, they turned their attention to reengineering photographic equipment.
The cinématographe, a device that could record, develop, and project motion pictures, caught their attention. The images presented by other devices, such as Thomas Edison’s kinetograph, were blurry and dark, and required an eyepiece to view.
The Lumières pioneered several improvements, including the ability to project images onto a screen for mass viewing. Their screening of a short film in Paris in March, 1895, was probably the first projection of a movie to a large audience.
They hand-cranked their film through their invention for a room of two hundred viewers. Imagine, for the first time, seeing images move across the screen. It must have been magic.
The brothers produced several short films, many of them comedic takes on everyday activities. Most were shorter than fifty seconds.
They were smash hits. The brothers were surprised that moving black-and-white images garnered more attention than their forays into color photography.
Each year, the Advanced Imaging Society presents awards recognizing advanced visual technologies in various mediums. In 2022, some of the winners included West Side Story, The Beatles: Get Back, and Squid Game.
The Lumiére Award given to the winners is named after the brothers who said, in 1895, “cinema is an invention without any future.”
Tip of the needle
We headed into the Alps, some jagged and some snow-covered, to Chamonix, one of the oldest ski resorts in France. Chamonix was the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
The small town hugs the valley floor beneath Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe, rising to nearly sixteen thousand feet. The summit is a thick dome of ice and snow. Its mountain range straddles the borders of France, Italy, and Switzerland.
Chamonix is a town of outdoor enthusiasts—skiers, climbers, mountain bikers, paragliders, and trail runners. When we arrived, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTBM) race was underway.
The UTMB is 106 miles long and circumnavigates Mont Blanc. Around twenty-three hundred people start the race and contend with 33,000 feet of elevation gain, plus changes in weather and trail conditions.
Runners have 46½ hours to complete the course. The fastest can finish in twenty-one hours. It is considered one of the toughest footraces in the world. In downtown Chamonix a crowd cheered exhausted runners as they crossed the line.
I walked up a steep hill to the Le Brévent lift station and boarded a gondola, which is like a closed ferris-wheel cabin that holds up to six people sitting. At the 6,600-foot Planpraz station, people were sunbathing in the grass next to a restaurant. Paragliders launched into the valley.
I continued by cable car to Brévent. These cabins hold approximately twenty people standing.
At 8,300 feet, I ate lunch and contemplated the expansive view of the Mont Blanc massif, including the needle-like summit of Aiguille du Midi (AY gree doo MEE dee). Tomorrow, I would be there.
Switzerland’s proxity to Chamonix influences the town’s cuisine. Our dinner included cheese fondue made with local Beaufort and Comté cheeses and white wine, plus meat and veggies grilled tabletop on hot stone blocks called pierrades.
The next morning, a small group of us boarded a cable car and headed straight up the cliff face to Aiguille du Midi. The ride is the highest vertical ascent by cable car in the world, from over three thousand to over twelve thousand feet. Throughout the trip, I considered the intelligence of dangling by a thread hundreds of feet over a rocky void.
There are two legs to the journey: from Chamonix to Plan de l’Aiguille at 7,602 feet and then to the upper station at 12,605 feet. The second cable car holds around sixty people, but the ride is fast.
The top was cold and my breathing more labored.
From the panoramic viewing platform on the “needle,” Mont Blanc was impressive against a blue sky. It seemed close, even accessible, yet it is over half of a mile higher.
With binoculars, I watched little black specks moving through the snow—mountaineers traversing the ridge in Mont Blanc’s direction.
Back down the cliff at the midway stop, a few of us tackled the five-mile Grand Balcon Nord hike to Montenvers-Mer de Glace. The trail is rocky and undulating, with a few steep ascents and descents.
The glacier near Montenvers is rather sad to behold—dirty, dull, and retreating. However, the views up and down the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Valley were breathtaking.
Or maybe it was the elevation.