France: The chalk cathedrals of Reims and Epernay

A perfect heart is engraved in the ancient chalk walls, a pictorial love letter to France, expressing the fighting spirit of the person who carved it. It is not casual graffiti but a sombre reminder of far darker times than these.

It is but one of the many engravings scratched into the walls of the "chalk cathedrals" that spread like a subterranean metropolis beneath France's Champagne region. This network of crypts, vaults, passageways and cellars houses millions of bottles of champagne from the region's great champagne houses.

As the gorgeous high Gothic Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Reims, coronation place of the French kings, was being reduced to ruins during World War I, the caves were sheltering thousands of people from the four-year German bombardment – civilians and soldiers.

The same soil that grows the grapes whose yield commemorates festivity and goodwill hosted some of the bloodiest fighting of the Great War. Reims, in the heart of Champagne, was a critical landmark on the war's Western Front.

As head of Champagne Taittinger, Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger says: "On the land of Champagne where we drink the happiness, we lost so many families to war."

The Champagne region of north-eastern France was decimated – more than half its population were killed and at least 40 per cent of the vineyards destroyed. Yet far beneath these killing fields a sanctuary, carved in the fourth century, welcomed an entire underground community.

We've come to the family owned Taittinger's section of "les crayeres", the underground maze of caves and tunnels that spread for about 200 kilometres. In 2015, les crayeres were world heritage-listed as part of the "Coteaux, Maisons et Caves de Champagne" cultural citation (hillsides, Champagne houses and caves).

Gallo-Roman slaves mined the region's limestone to build the Roman city of Durocortorum (now Reims), creating the caves 18 to 40 metres underground.

With our charming Taittinger guide, we descend 95 steps into the dreamy silence of the cellars – it's a constant 12 degrees on the first level and 8 degrees on the lower. This is the perfect temperature for soothing the soul of Taittinger – its millions of bottles of champagne maturing in Taittinger's four kilometres of caves whose Gothic vaults, crypts and galleries do indeed resemble a cathedral.

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This is where Taittinger's superb vintage, "Les Comtes de Champagne", matures for 10 years. A champagne lover might find it hard to look away from such resting beauties, however the wall etchings reveal intriguing fragments of lives.

Taittinger's cellars have the added cachet of being housed in the 13th-century cellars of the Saint Nicaise Abbey, once considered one of France's most beautiful Gothic churches belonging to the Comtes de Champagne. Champagne's Benedictine monks filled its cellars with their wines. The abbey was plundered and demolished in the 19th century but the handsome cellars remain, complete with original wooden doors.

In a dim, pink-orange light, we pass the wooden racks with their fermenting bottles, stopping at the graffiti, picturing the fears of the people trapped in this chalky labyrinth as bombs pounded above.

Shops, two schools, a playground, kitchens and laundries all existed here. Even a hospital for French soldiers opened. Taittinger still has uniforms, hospital cots and old medical equipment.

There are initials, dates, children's drawings, carvings and portraits of women, patriotic messages and observations such as, "I am on the front lines since the first day of war".

Three-leaved clovers are dotted about and tricolour flags, steamboats and stars. An inscription indicates that the cellars can accommodate two companies of 500 troops. Some reference the destructive battle of Reims.

An October 1918 carving of an Iron Cross indicates that German prisoners were kept here. "Defeated but not kaput," reads the inscription. There are also carvings of the spiked German helmet.

The drink itself has also played its part. After a failed 1917 offensive, troops mutinied and were given champagne from the cellars to placate them. When the Germans gained control of the region, the cellars were full of drunken soldiers.

Jewish refugees hid from the Nazis in the cellars during World War II, as did the French resistance. Churchill inspired his troops with the words: "Remember, gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's champagne."

Churchill was fond of quoting Napoleon: "I cannot live without champagne. In victory I deserve it, and in defeat I need it."

Taittinger's founder Pierre, a World War I cavalry officer quartered nearby, promised himself he would own a champagne house one day if he survived. He returned to the region in 1932 to found the House of Taittinger.

After our tour, we have the opportunity to taste Taittinger's creamy bubbles, making a silent toast to those who survived and those who did not.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/france

champagne.fr/en

TOUR

Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours operates a variety of Western Front battlefields tours from April to November. His four-day Western Front Explorer Tour in 2019 costs $1997 per person twin share. See battlefields.com.au

FLY

Vietnam Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Paris via Ho Chi Minh City.

See vietnamairlines.com

Alison Stewart was a guest of Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours

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