Would the city of Reims even have existed if it weren’t for the hill and abbey of Saint-Nicaise? Without a shadow of a doubt, but it seems highly likely that its development model from the ancient period to modern day would have been an entirely different proposition.
Despite its location to the south of the city of Reims, a little outside the ancient settlement, the hill of Saint-Nicaise has played a leading role in the development and establishment of the city’s unique character for over two millennia. Indeed, the chalk there was exploited from the 3rd century AD onwards. This readily available material has been a permanent feature in the construction of the city’s buildings. The chalk can be seen in the remains of certain Gallo-Roman cellars and in the equipment used to build the Basilica of Saint-Remi in Reims. It was used for the most-part to construct the city’s medieval walls, and although these walls are no longer in place today, at the time they stretched six kilometres in circumference. A minimum of 200,000 m3 of materials were required for this, 60,000 m3 of which was chalk masonry. Once transformed into limestone, the chalk also enabled the erection of structures which have stood the test of time. The city’s buildings, including the Notre-Dame Cathedral, owe part of their existence to the quarries of Saint-Nicaise. This manna was a major contributor to the city’s wealth creation, so it is not merely due to chance that this mound of earth, later a chalk quarry – the famous crayères – has been dedicated to Saint Nicaise, a patron of the city of Reims.
A constantly evolving abbey
Construction of the abbey church in Saint-Nicaise began in 1231 and took place over several stages up until the 17th century. At the time it stood on the foundations of the original church of Saint-Agricole, a traditional burial site for bishops in Gallo-Roman times, and thus of Saint-Nicaise. The earliest traces of a church on this site date back to the 4th century, but the abbey as it was conceived and built at the time of its splendour, richly adorned with sculptures, is contemporary with the cathedral. Back then it was a major hub of medieval Christianity in northern France, with the chalk from its vaults generating a great deal of wealth. However, the abbey lost its prestige and gradually fell into decline between the 16th century and the French Revolution, before becoming – by chance or by fate – a stone quarry. While nothing remains of the abbey today, it has left behind a fully preserved underground monument which lies hiding beneath our footsteps. The last historic remains that are still visible can be found in the underground tunnels of Maison Taittinger’s wine cellars, with the company’s headquarters currently occupying the site. The wine cellars themselves are located in the former Gallo-Roman and medieval chalk quarries.
Carved out of the chalk, the tunnels connect former extraction wells together, some of which are 40 metres high. These are real underground cathedrals, accommodating the Champagne region’s finest vintages. The cellars benefit from the exceptional conditions provided by the chalk. From seven metres below ground, the temperature is 10 to 12° all year round, with a constant humidity level and no condensation at all as the limestone absorbs any excess moisture. You can see the imprints of quarrymen and labourers everywhere – ancient, medieval and modern – serving as a reminder of the chalk quarries’ first incarnation… Having toiled for generations, these workers have extracted around 300,000 m3 of chalk. The oldest chalk quarries dating back to the 4th century are today listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The riches extracted from the soil have now been replaced by the treasures of the Champagne wines that are stored there. Ever since mankind chose to settle on this land – on these plains on the banks of the Vesle – the hill of Saint-Nicaise has protected people, their know-how and their finest creations.