France // The north //


Looking out over the plains of Champagne and Picardy from the spine of a high narrow ridge, still protected by its gated medieval walls, Laon(pronounced “Lon”) is one of the highlights of the region. Dominating the town, and visible for miles around, are the five great towers of one of the earliest and finest Gothic cathedrals in the country. Of all the cathedral towns in the Aisne, Laon is the one to head for.

The magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame, built in the second half of the twelfth century, was a trendsetter in its day. Elements of its design – the gabled porches, the imposing towers and the gallery of arcades above the west front – were repeated at Chartres, Reims and Notre-Dame in Paris. The creatures craning from the uppermost ledges, looking like reckless mountain goats borrowed from a medieval bestiary, are reputed to have been carved in memory of the valiant horned steers which lugged the cathedral’s masonry up from the plains below. Inside, the effects are no less dramatic – the high white nave is lit by the dense ruby, sapphire and emerald tones of the medieval stained glass. Crowded in the cathedral’s lee is a quiet jumble of grey stone streets. South of the cathedral on rue Ermant is the crumbly little twelfth-century octagonal Chapelle des Templiers – the Knights Templar – set in a secluded garden. The rest of the ville haute, which rambles along the ridge to the west of the cathedral, is enjoyable to wander around, with sweeping views from the ramparts.

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