Eighty-five miles northeast of Paris there stands on the plateau of the old town of Laon one of the great, undervisited Gothic cathedrals of France, Notre-Dame de Laon.
Luminous by its vast, clear windows, by the light streaming in from its lantern tower, and by its bright, naked stone, Notre-Dame de Laon on a sunny day is a beacon calling the traveler well off the beaten track. If you know the other Notre-Dames north of the Loire Valley, now consider Laon’s.
The architecture styles and developments of the 12th through 15th centuries that became known as Gothic during the Renaissance as a way of calling their style barbaric and unrefined were previously known as the manner of building in Ile-de-France (the Paris region) or simply the French arts. Indeed, many of the primitive Gothic (begun 1135-1190) and classic Gothic (begun 1190-1230) monsters of France (and of Europe) lie within a 100-mile radius of Paris: Saint-Etienne de Sens, Basilique Saint Denis, Notre-Dame de Laon, and Notre-Dame de Paris for primitive Gothic, Notre-Dame de Chartres, Notre-Dame d’Amiens, Notre-Dame de Reims, and Saint-Pierre de Beauvais for classic Gothic.
Laon’s cathedral is a first-generation Gothic construction started in 1155, eight years before Paris’s Notre-Dame. It replaced a Romanesque cathedral that had been heavily damaged by fire in 1112 and partially repaired before a complete renewal was decided.
In order to understand the construction of Notre-Dame de Laon and its cousins in the Paris region and beyond, opt for a guided tour when visiting the cathedral. Furthermore, the tribune(second floor walkabout) and towers can only be visited with a guide.Inquire about tours directly at the tourist office or better yet contact the tourist office in advance.
It’s rare nowadays to have access to the tribune of medieval churches and cathedrals. Along with allowing wonderful views of the interior, the tribune displays some of the building’s original late 12th-century and early 13th-century sculptures, copies of which now decorate the outside. (At Laon, as in other Gothic cathedrals, much of the stone and the sculptures were originally painted.)
There are these gargoyle gutters, for example:
And these column capitals:
And I love the wind-worn limestone of these works that could well be presented in a museum of contemporary art:
The next photo, taken from the outer landing of one of its five towers (of seven originally planned) and looking up to the top, shows the stone oxen that are a sculptural oddity at Laon, They recall the legend by which an ox miraculously appeared to replace an exhausted ox that could go no further while its yoke was pulling stones to the top of the plateau for the construction of the cathedral. The mysterious ox then disappeared once it had helped deliver the stones to the top.
Looking to the west, here is a view over the Upper Town, which is surprisingly (and sadly) quiet since most of the town’s businesses are in the Lower Town, where most Laonnois reside. Actually, that quiet makes a visit here feel even more like an unusual find.
The choice café and restaurant is naturally situated across from the cathedral, as seen above.
Loan is the capital of the department of Aisne, an area that is part a swath of Belgium and northern France—Verdun, the Ardennes, the Somme—that witnessed the incessant trench warfare that defined WWI. Laon nevertheless survived the fighting from 1914 to 1918 unscathed because it was occupied by Germans throughout much of the war and lay behind the front. Allied bombing in 1944 later caused damage around the train station and elsewhere, but the Upper Town was largely spared.
The Upper Town of Laon occupies what is geographically the last outlier plateau of the Paris region. Another such hill, the infamous Chemin des Dames (The Ladies Road) can be seen at the horizon in this photo taken from the cathedral’s south tower.
The Chemin des Dames, a narrow plateau, 18 miles long and 110 feet high, overlooking the plain between Laon and Reims, was of great strategic importance during the The First World War. For more on the Chemin des Dames click here.
Getting to Laon
Loan, 85 miles northeast of Paris, is about 1 hour 40 minutes by train from Paris’s North Station, Gare du Nord. About 20-minutes outside Paris on the train (past the suburb of Mitry and before Dammartin) you’ll notice that the landscape changes quickly from crowded suburbia to vast agriculture. The fields are largely reserved by the four main crops of northern France: wheat, barley, sugar beets, and colza/rape.
Across the street from the Laon train station the funicular Poma takes you up to the Upper Town, i.e. the old town, right by City Hall. As noted above, a guided tour of the cathedral is highly recommended since it will give access to the towers and the basements. (My guide for this visit, Rose Condette, was excellent.) Guided touring can also include other parts of the Upper Town, including a precious little Templar church and a museum.
American travelers are rarely seen or heard in Laon. In a typical year, according to tourist officials, only about 200 American stop by the tourist office, which occupies the 12th-century hospital building (Hôtel Dieu) next door to the cathedral. So be sure to stop in to let them know that it isn’t only the English, the Dutch, the Belgiums, and the Germans who appreciate their town and their cathedral. Inquire there if interested in visiting the WWI battle sites and museums in the surrounding area, particularly along the Chemin de Dames.
Official tourist office site for Laon and surroundings: http://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/.
– Text and photos by GLK