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When I started to tell my co-workers of this journey I had decided to embark upon they were all fascinated.  The majority of my co-workers are French and joked that I was likely to learn more about their history and see more of France than they had!  But, they were excited and supportive and asked me to bring in the book.

Many of the places I will be visiting our the usual suspect locations like The Louvre and Versailles.  Others are a little more off the beaten path but are all known by the French for the most part – all save one.  Not one of my co-workers had ever heard of Laon.  We actually spent a good deal of time just trying to sort out how to pronounce it!  Once it was located on a map (it is north-west of Reims) they just shrugged their shoulders and told me to enjoy.

Similar to my astonishment that the Basilique Saint Denis is not in the Paris guidebooks was my astonishment that no one knew of Laon.  After reading a bit about the city I learned that it is one of the oldest cities in France, founded in the 5th century.  Additionally, construction on Laon’s Notre-Dame Cathedral began in 1150, 13 years before its more famous sister in Paris.  For a period of time Laon was also the capital of the Celtic empire in the region around the 1st century, the Romans also called it home and built the walls around the city about 400-600AD.  It was also the capital for the Carolingian empire and where the first Capetian king, Hugh Capet, made the center of his kingdom.

A walled city (similar to Carcassonne in the south but much smaller) it sits up on a hill overlooking the valleys below.  Laon is located in the Picardy region of France just to the Northwest of its more famous neighbour Champagne.

I was quite excited to take this hour and half trip north to Laon and woke up one Saturday like a kid at Christmas.  I took the 30 minute line 4 journey from Alesia to Gare du Nord where the trains going north leave regularly.  I ended up at the SNCF ticket counter with a British flag sticker in the window which indicates the teller speaks English.  She did not.  No bother, my French is certainly good enough to purchase a train ticket so after buying my ticket to Laon and return to Paris I was off to find the voie (platform).

The train ride takes you through some very pretty towns and villages, some of which looked as though they might warrant a stop of their own one day!  I am always amazed when traveling through France (or really anywhere in Europe) how easy it is to just stumble upon an old castle, abbey, monastery, chateau or church.  This ride was no exception once we passed the gritty parts of north Paris and its suburbs.

Upon arriving in Laon I expected to look out the window and see a magnificent medieval village.  I did not.  Much like my first view of the Basilique de Saint Denis my first take of Laon was one of utter disappointment.  The train station was a mess.  Benches were turned over and graffitied, the locals looked like a group of people I would not want to run into in a dark alley, and everything around me was 1970’s modern and dirty.  My first thought was ‘how on earth am I going to fill in the five hours I now have until I can catch the train back to Paris.’

It was probably about midway through that thought that I looked up…………. and wow.  There, upon a hill, on a perfect fall day was the ancient walled city and the magnificent towers of the Cathedral Notre-Dame.  I was so mesmerized by the view that I just started walking towards it, completely forgetting to find the tram that brings you up the 656 feet from the train station to the cathedral.  I found a staircase that at first glance seemed perfectly manageable.  I lost count after 550 steps and tripping over numerous broken and missing steps.  I am glad I took the stairs all the same though as it gave me a chance to see all the beautiful houses along the path and also to appreciate just how high up this walled city was and what a magnificent view it afforded of the valleys below.

Upon arriving at the top of the stairs (and a subsequent path) I found myself in a very small alley surrounded by buildings that had to be at least five hundred years old.  The streets in Laon are still made of cobblestone and the alleys are just big enough for a horse and cart.  Similar to my experience of visiting Venice I felt like I could imagine exactly what it was like here 500 or more years ago.  It was almost as though nothing had changed.

I decided not to pull out my map but rather started wandering around the city.  I am so glad I did.  If I had used my map it would have taken me on the most direct route to the cathedral which would have had me coming at it from the north side.  Instead I turned a corner and there down a small side street was the massive cathedral, perfectly framed by the centuries old buildings along it.

After visiting the cathedral (and doing my usual routine of imagining the people who have come to worship there throughout the centuries) I left to go have lunch at the cafe just across the square.  Notre Dame de Laon is certainly beautiful but so is Notre Dame de Paris, Saint Sulpice, and Saint Chapelle.  Why was I so transfixed by this particular Cathedral over others?  My friend Kelly will certainly attest to the fact that I love popping into churches around Paris, but somehow this one just grabbed me.  I think it is because of all the churches I have seen in France this one was still in the setting that it likely was in when it was built in the 10th century.  No cars, no lights, just the cathedral and the cobblestoned square.  Also, because as we have learned, Laon is barely known amongst the French let alone foreigners, the square is not besieged by greedy tourists pushing and shoving to get their pictures like the cathedral mentioned above in Paris.

After lunch I began to wander the streets of Laon.  I began by following the wall around the south side of the city, eventually ending up at the Abbey Church of Saint Martin.  The Abbey Church was build in the 12th century by Saint Norbert.  From there I stumbled across several fantastic French antique shops.  If I had a car this apartment would look a lot different after that trip!  Around the corner I came across the Hotel de Ville (town hall) which was originally the site of the medieval royal palace of King Louis VII. I also learned that it is rumoured that Louis XIV was conceived in Laon.

I came across this quote from Victor Hugo – “This morning I came away from Laon, an ancient cathedral city within a city, an immense cathedral which should have six towers but has only four; four rather Byzantine towers with ornamental apertures like 16th century spires.  Laon is full of beauty, its churches, its houses, its surroundings, everything…”

As Victor Hugo was a much better writer than I, I think I will leave it at that.

Next Stop – Chartres

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