I left at 7 in the morning by car and as I headed towards the region of Champagne-Ardenne– the region where champagne is produced, of course– just north of Dijon and southwest of Strasbourg, cars and houses and even powerlines fell away little by little and our radio crackled into pure static until I was surrounded by long, flat deserts of green and yellow. Around 9, what seemed to be a castle floating in the bright blue sky emerged in the distance and it was only when I was within a few miles that the fog hiding the hill it stood upon made its appearance. I started a slow climb up a winding two-lane road to one of the seven gates of the town of Langres. The entrance was an ancient arch of yellow-brown stones covered in moss and chipped away in every corner. I hopped out and squeezed my way through the arch- the road that passed beneath it curved sharply on the other side and cars rumbled down its cobblestone surface and only just managed to fit through the narrow opening, which had obviously been built light-years before the invention of any type of automobile.
With no map but guided by the ramparts surrounding the town, I circled the eastern wall of the city and caught the last few minutes of sunrise glaring out over the cluster of houses below, the green fields and hills spreading out from them on all sides, and in the distance, a gray-blue lake, the Lac de la Liez.
After a few minutes of marveling at how far away the bustling Christmas Markets of Strasbourg seemed to be at this moment, I turned back to the stillness of this town of 8000 inhabitants, continuing along the ramparts to the south. Two middle-aged women out for a morning walk offered me a friendly “Bonjour,” and as I arrived at the end of the eastern wall, an elderly gentleman with a fresh baguette tucked under his arm and a black beret perched on his head did the same.
I followed the smell of bread to the corner of Rue Diderot, the town’s main street. To the left, it led under another magnificent arched gate called the Porte des Moulins (dating back to 1647) and then fell away over the hill. To the right, it continued along between bakeries, pastry shops, a restaurant here and there and a few clothing and accessory shops. I wandered down it, stopping to stare into a few shop windows in search of a few last-minute Christmas gifts. Most were closed on this sleepy 23 of December morning, so I left the street in search of the western ramparts, thinking that perhaps the town center would come to life in the afternoon, which normally happens on Saturdays, Sundays and vacation days in France.
It’s impossible to get lost in Langres: keep walking straight in one direction and you’ll hit the ramparts in no more than 20 minutes. The view from the western side is less spectacular but leads to the historic neighborhood where it is difficult to distinguish between run-down and antique, between rickety and charming.
Crossing this neighborhood will lead to the other end of Rue Diderot and the plaza where the statue version of famous writer and founder of the encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, born in Langres, keeps watch over the sparse traffic circling its way around him and towards the Saint-Mammès Cathedral to the north. I made a quick stop at this magnificent site, constructed between 1150 and 1196, admired its charming old-ness, and then realized that its ancient walls hardly kept out the cold. It was almost midday at this point, so I headed back to the main street to search for a warm meal.
I then found a housing decor store that corresponded perfectly with my Christmas shopping list. When I explained that I was a tourist and just picking up some last-minute gifts, the friendly woman behind the counter kindly agreed to keep my purchases in the store until I could pick them up at the end of the day so that I could “better enjoy the town” and not be bogged down with shopping bags. I then asked her where I could buy wine in Langres and she pointed me to the caviste at the end of Rue Diderot to the south. So I circled back and creaked open the wooden door of the wine shop with its fading and chipped red paint and then creaked across the old wooden floorboards covered in randomly-placed wine barrels and a ceiling-high shelf crowded with bottles of wine and liquor that sparkled several shades of red, pink, yellow, gold in the sunlight that glared through the dusty window panes.
I was looking for mirabelle liquor, normally a specialty of the Lorraine region to the north where this yellow plum is supposed to be the most delicious, but produced in the neighboring regions of Champagne-Ardenne and Franche-Compté as well. The jolly old caviste talked me into the last variety he had left and then at my request pulled out a few bottles of the best champagne in the region. He warned me against “false” champagnes that are sold throughout the world- the only wine with the right to be called “Champagne” is produced in Champagne-Ardenne, yet many foreign wine growers stick a “champagne” label on their lower-quality bubbly and sell it at high prices, giving the buyer the impression that he or she is enjoying a luxury French product that in reality is inferior to the champagnes of this region. When I made my final selections-varieties of Pommery and Jacquart for the Christmas festivities- he wrapped them up proudly while chatting with another customer- apparently a regular- about the latest news of his family. In fact, I seemed to be the only person in the town who didn’t know everyone by name- as I strolled past the florist, the shopkeeper called out to the passers-by with a “Bonjour, Maryse” or a “How’s the shoulder doing today, Jean-Michel?” and the bakers slipped in a few words about the latest on their daughter studying far away in Lorraine or their son’s new apartment just across the street. In fact, the caviste’s first words to me, after a Bonjour, were “Well, well, you look like a tourist,” even though I had stashed my camera out of sight long before entering the shop.
By one o’clock, I had already seen practically the whole town and decided to go down to the village at the base of the hill to see what life was like in that seemingly unmoving plot of homes and dirt roads.
Getting there was quite a challenge. A long, curved, bridge-like ramp offered a great view of the ramparts and village, but was slippery with last night’s rainfall. I descended slowly and found myself on the small, two-lane road we had taken that morning. I crossed it to a steep paved staircase that cut through the woods and small garden plots kept by the villagers. It took me down to the residential area but it was so steep and long that it took a lot of effort to keep myself from falling forward down the hill!
The village was indeed silent with an occasional car or bus zipping past in the direction of the train station. The old buildings sprinkled among the houses- tiny cafés without names, a corner store called “Food,” and a night club called “Night Club” seemed worn and tired but in a charming way, as if, despite the passage of time and the flight of residents to the big cities, they still stood proud and upright, determined to last for ages still to come.
The climb back to the hilltop proved physically taxing as well; as my legs started to burn, I wondered that the cars on the street following my upward path didn’t somehow give out halfway uphill and come tumbling back towards the tiny round-about that marked the center of the village below.
With a good 2 hours to spare after my downhill expedition, I decided to finish the section of ramparts that I hadn’t yet explored to the north. This led me to the Tower of Saint-Jean, which served as a carrier pigeon outpost from 1883 until the First World War, all the way around to the northwestern gate of l’Hôtel-de-Ville, and back into the main town center.
I finished the day with a few purchases– a small traditional chocolate log cake and some postcards– and then tucked myself away in the Café-Brasserie Le Foy at the very center of town for a cup of hot chocolate. The wind on the hill is impressive and despite an otherwise sunny day, had frozen my nose and cheeks. I took a seat near the window on the indoor patio and watched as a small marching band of 6 or 7 retirees with white and gold uniforms and large feather hats circled Mr. Diderot in the center of the plaza. As expected, families had started to emerge from their homes after lunch and formed a sparse crowd around the musicians. Children were hoisted on shoulders and young couples holding hands swayed back and forth shyly. Meanwhile, the sun crept towards the western ramparts and reflected off of the millions of gleaming yellow-brown stones that made up this hilltop paradise in the center of the land of Champagne.