Thursday, June 10, 2010


Susie and I spent two days in Rheims, which wasn't at all like I had expected. Rheims is famous above all for its cathedral, which was where the kings of France were crowned over a span of a thousand years. But the city is not another quaint assemblage of narrow medieval streets with half-timbered buildings. On the contrary, Rheims is a gracious city of broad esplanades lined with buildings from the 1920s and 30s.

This turns out to be for terrible reasons, but the result is a city that feels like a smaller, lower, and calmer version of Paris. Almost all of central Rheims was destroyed by German shelling in the First World War. The city had been evacuated, so few civilians lost their lives. But the destruction of Rheims's buildings was so complete that the city had to re-envision itself, replan itself, and rebuild itself. Over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s, often with reparation funds, the inhabitants rebuilt their city in a modern idiom, and primarily in the Art Deco style. Here's an example. I'll write blog post that takes readers on an abbreviated tour of some of Rheims's Art Deco buildings.

The cathedral was badly damaged in World War I, as well. It's been rebuilt and restored--indeed, restoration work continues to this day. I'll write another blog post with details on the cathedral and its history.

One of the few buildings to survive World War I largely unscathed (its facade, anyway) was the Grand Theatre, a neo-Classical structure from the Belle Epoque. The auditorium and stage had to be rebuilt after the war. The auditorium is rather intimate compared to some opera houses. It has a glass ceiling surrounded by elegant paintings that must be from the 1920s. Susie and I were able to attend a terrific performance of Rossini's "La Cenerentola." Rossini based his opera on the story of Cinderella, and this staging--a co-production with Spoleto USA and Avignon--certainly lived up to the promise of the magic in Cinderella's tale. The singing was superb, the sets (including computer effects!) excellent, the staging imaginative and funny, and the orchestra sparkling.

One of the best buildings in Rheims is a Carnegie Library, an Art Deco masterpiece from the 1920s. I hope to be able to blog about this building in detail.

Many of the streets in central Rheims are reserved for pedestrians. With a carousel, fountains, monuments, and those Art Deco buildings, these streets bring a charm and liveliness to the city.

And if your feet get tired from walking to see all those buildings, or if you're meeting friends for drinks or dinner, the broad pedestrian avenues of Rheims offer many restaurants, cafes, and bars from which you can choose.

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