The Champagne region of France was well known because of its famous bubbly wine, but there was much more to the region than that. Sparsely populated with beautiful little towns amidst wide green stretches of open land, Champagne was a very pleasant Sunday drive (or in my case, train ride). At the end of the drive, one might be seeking some urban amenities, a romantic French restaurant and a warm hotel bed. If so, the central Champagne city of Châlons-en-Champagne (until recently known as Châlons-sur-Marne) might be a good place to consider.
The city was graced by the Marne River and several artificial canals drawn from it that cut through the downtown. Together they established the city's layout and character. The first photograph of the Notre Dame church shows an example of how the older structures stood directly over the waterways. But, likely due to the numbers of wars fought in this part of France, many adjacent buildings were newer and simpler. The canals ran in parallel east of the Marne, with the majority of the city off the east bank. The train station was on the west bank, so my journey began with a full survey of her waterways and locks in an area known as the "Left Bank" district, filled with stone bridges, simple architecture, and old cafés.
After I crossed by, the first major attraction I reached was the Cathedral St. Étienne, shown in the second photograph with its very large war memorial in front. The Cathedral was quite magnificent, with its massive windows and rebuilt front facade.
Châlons had several extraordinary churches scattered around the town. The Notre Dame, sitting in the main square in the center of downtown, was where I attended Sunday Mass. The beautiful St. Alpin church sat along a park in the north-center of town, while St. John's was perched on a small hill at the southeast corner. Several monasteries and convents were scattered about town as well.
Châlons also had a number of war monuments in addition to the one in front of the Cathedral. In total, I counted about a half-dozen memorials referring to the two World Wars alone. The most impressive one was away from the downtown, consisting of huge iron tablets counting off the Chalonnaise war dead. The figurines wore WWI garb and looked realistic and ragged, with one of the soldiers dragging a cannon behind him. Another memorial took the form of a plaque near a footbridge across the Marne River that expressed sorrow to the civilian victims of Allied bombing over the city in late 1944 as they pressed rapidly across France toward Germany. Another impressive memorial was part of the city's Eastern Cemetery, just outside the city's administrative buildings. Incorporated there was a war cemetery from the battles of Champagne and the Ardennes. Meanwhile, one of the more unusual memorials I have ever seen is in the third photo. This was located more to the north of town, and when I arrived there was a party of over a hundred senior citizens just breaking up from some gathering. It turned out that the stone structure to the right was a prison memorial (note the way the figure is tied to the post), presumably from the Holocaust, and the garrison structure it faced was a WWII prison complex. The corner was called "Place de la Souvenir Française", and was adjacent to the Place Verdun, a major traffic intersection. I could not tell what the prison complex was used for in modern times, but I believed it was used as a businesses complex.
Another thing that Châlons had plenty of were military garrisons that were worth walking by because of their impressive archictecture. I was most impressed with the front entrance of an old artillery kaserne in the far northeast of town that interspersed concrete blocks with red brick in a bright pattern. The healthy display of cannons added to the view.
There were several other sights worth mentioning. The Hotel de Ville (town hall) is shown in the fourth photo. This massive structure was visible from a long ways away around the town. It was in the heart of the shopping district, which contained several market squares (turned parking lots) such as the Place de la Republique. Also, although most of the interesting structures were massive and made of concrete, scattered about were plenty of old-style half-timber buildings made with long wooden logs and plaster. Several of these have been preserved near the canals, providing for some of the rustic-looking postcards I saw on display. The Office de Tourisme was a large (probably recently remade) example of that form of architecture. In the southern part of town there was a port, a massive white arch that overlooked a major highway intersection, and the Champagne regional government building, a magnificent structure in its own right.
I also spent quite a bit of time in Châlons' parks, the most beautiful of which was Le Petit Jard, located between two of the canals on the south side of town. The fifth photograph shows one of the canals passing under the building. Just off the photo to the right was a huge clock built into the embankment. On a warm summer day, the park probably would have been crowded.
Alas, the day in March when I went was anything but warm and sunny. But, despite the cold rain I occasionally had to contend with, there were plenty of people outside, walking their dogs or going to or from church. The extent of the industry on both sides of the Marne River told me that this place was indeed a busy one.
Trip taken 2 March 2003 -- Page Last Updated 05 October 2006 -- (C) 2003 Tom Galvin