The Seine, Marne, Aube and several other lesser rivers rise in the Plateau de Langres between Troyes and Dijon, with main routes between the two towns skirting this area. To the east, the N19 (which the train follows) takes in Chaumont and Langres, two towns that could briefly slow your progress if you’re in no hurry, and the home village of Charles de Gaulle, Colombey-les-Deux-Églises.
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Situated on a steep ridge between the Marne and Suize valleys, Chaumont (Chaumont-en-Bassigny, to give its full name), lies 93km southeast of Troyes. Approach by train to cross the town’s stupendous mid-nineteenth-century viaduct, which took an average of 2500 labourers working night and day two years to construct. It’s also possible to walk across the viaduct, which gives you fine views of the Suize valley.
The town’s most interesting historic building is the Basilique St-Jean-Baptiste. Though built with the same dour, grey stone of most Champagne churches, it has a wonderful Renaissance addition to the Gothic transept of balconies and turreted stairway, and a superb church organ. The decoration includes an Arbre de Jessé of the early sixteenth-century Troyes school, in which all the characters are sitting in the tree, dressed in the style of the day.
You shouldn’t leave without taking a look at Les Silos, a 1930s agricultural co-op transformed into a graphic arts centre and médiathèque. As well as hosting temporary exhibitions, it’s the main venue for Chaumont’s international poster festival (Festival de l’Affiche), which is held every year from mid-May to mid-June. As for the rest of the Old Town, there’s not much to do except admire the twelfth-century castle keep of the Comtes de Champagne, the delightfully named Tour d’Arse at the foot of the vieille ville – all that remains of the thirteen-century town gate – and the strange, bulging stair towers of the houses.
Twenty-seven kilometres northwest of Chaumont, on the N19 to Troyes, is Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, the village where Gaullist leaders come to pay their respects at the grave of Général Charles de Gaulle. The former president’s family home, La Boisserie opens its ground floor to the public but more impressive are the pink-granite Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the French Resistance movement, standing over 40m high on a hill just west of the village, and the Mémorial Charles de Gaulle, an exhaustive chronicle of the man’s life and times in an ultra-sleek museum beneath the cross. It was inaugurated in 2008 with much pomp by Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the fiftieth anniversary of the rapprochement between de Gaulle and then-German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Langres, 35km south of Chaumont and just as spectacularly situated above the Marne, retains its near-complete encirclement of gateways, towers and ramparts. If you’re just here for an hour or so, the best thing to do is to walk this circuit, with its great views east to the hills of Alsace and southwest across the Plateau de Langres. Don’t miss the St-Ferjeux tower with its beautiful metal sculpture, Air and Dreams. Wandering inside the walls is also rewarding – Renaissance houses and narrow streets give the feel of a place time has left behind, swathed in the mists of southern Champagne.
Langres was home to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher Diderot for the first sixteen years of his life, and people like to make the point that, were he to return to Langres today, he’d have no trouble finding his way around. The Musée d’Art et Histoire on place du Centenaire near the cathedral, duly devotes a section to Diderot, including his encyclopedias and various other first editions of his works, plus a portrait by Van Loos. The highlight of the museum is the superbly restored Romanesque chapel of St-Didier in the old wing, which houses a fourteenth-century which houses painted ivory Annunciation.