September 19, 1914: The German army, camped at the gates of the northern French city of Reims, shot a cannonball onto the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Statues lining the grand archways lost their heads. Wooden scaffolding on the cathedral's front façade caught fire. Seven-hundred-year-old stained glass windows shattered from the heat. The timber roof started burning, but the Germans continued, not stopping until they had shot off 400 explosive shells. Soon all that was left of the gothic masterpiece were its columns, standing 125 feet high.
In one week's time, the Germans shelled the entire city, leaving 80 percent of Reims in ruins. Inhabitants were forced to live underground for months at a time in the city's 75-mile network of champagne cellars.
The German bombing turned the leveled city into a laboratory for architects, who took this as an opportunity to go beyond the typical Haussmann-style buildings and experiment with styles like Art Deco and Art Nouveau.
Today, Reims is celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Notre Dame Cathedral, thanks to the generosity of American billionaire John D. Rockefeller, who funded its restoration after World War I.
To mark the event, a colorful, high-definition light show is being performed several nights a week for the next six months. Called a "Dream of Colors," the 25-minute spectacle pairs symphonic and techno music with lights that dance on the cathedral's front façade, illuminating its sculptures in the colors they were originally painted.
Reims buzzes with the energy of more than 20,000 university students. Restaurants with names like the Ernest Hemingway Café and the James Joyce Pub spill out onto the wide sidewalks of the main boulevard, the Place Drouet-d'Erlon, enabling their customers to take part in a national pastime: people watching. Lime green and neon pink trams glide through the city, their ends curved up in the smile of a Champagne glass, the region's lifeblood.
As for the Germans? The French finally made peace with them in 1962 when Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer signed an official reconciliation under the vaults of the Cathedral. As Jacques Cohen, the Deputy Mayor of Reims, put it, "This is not just a celebration of the building, but a celebration of our relationship with the Germans."
But it was the Americans who rebuilt Reims after the Germans bombed it. Not only did Rockefeller fund the restoration of the Cathedral, but Andrew Carnegie donated a large library and a hospital was built with American funding and named the White House.
"Even today, we still have Americans who give money for this cathedral," said my tour guide.
For the light show's opening night, thousands of people gathered to watch on the main street in front of the cathedral. The name of the street? Rue Rockefeller.
Where to Eat in Reims:
- Brasserie Flo, an upscale brasserie in the city center open every day.
- Café de la Paix, try the crabmeat salad over avocado at this laid back but trendy restaurant specializing in seafood.
For more information:
- ATOUT France/France Tourism Development Agency (www.franceguide.com)
- Reims Tourist Office (www.reims-tourism.com)
Video courtesy of Sonja Stark of Pilotgirl Productions.