Big Love for Laon France
Updated: Dec 6, 2019
"Can we go somewhere authentic?" my travel partner asked, a tiny sparkle in his eye belaying the seeming seriousness of his question.
I paused and furrowed my brows in a nervous reflex. I wasn't exactly sure what he meant by the term "authentic."
The Concept Of "Authentic" Travel
It's a new trend for travelers to seek out authentic experiences in the places they visit. Some travelers want to add deeper meaning to their vacation. Others want to "get off the beaten path," find "hidden gems," and immerse themselves in the local culture. Some travelers don't really want to be labeled "tourists" or confined to superficial tourist attractions.
All this is laudable, and I'm certainly in favor of them hiding their selfie sticks.
For us, as we perambulated through Picardy on our geographical cure, we simply wanted to avoid overly manicured and curated tourist sites. We sought a village, perhaps isolated, which seemed genuine, real, and perhaps even a little grimy.
As we slowly wound up the narrow road leading from the wheat plains to the old town of Laon France, I had a hunch my friend would like it.
The Medieval Village of Laon
The overused word "authentic," to the extent it has any truly decipherable meaning, seems to apply to Laon.
Laon is an ancient city perched high on a limestone rock. It's encircled by walls with formidable gates, and is one of France's oldest historical centers. There are more than 80 historic monuments in what was once the capital of the Carolingian Empire in the early middle ages.
We entered via Porte d'Ardon, a beautifully preserved 14th century turreted fortress in its own right, which provides more than a hint of what lies within. In 1594, King Henry IV purportedly entered through this gate after besieging the town.
Once past the imposing gate, all vestiges of modernity were erased and we, re-christined as knight errants, had found our adventure.
A Battered But Authentic Hotel in Laon
But first, we checked into our hotel in the medieval old town, the Hotel de la Banniere at 11 Rue Franklin Roosevelt.
The hotel is a truly old building, and is styled in the charm, elegance, and (possibly original) velvet of its time with the heavy suggestion of bygone eras. Even the air tasted different inside the thick stone walls. The fantastic curly staircase creaked as we made our way to our rooms and it took several minutes to unlock the doors with the enormous iron keys.
"Is this sufficiently authentic for you?" I asked.
By most people's standards, even mine, the hotel is supremely worn out and dated. Blithely ignoring the obvious, my travel partner professed himself "perfectly happy" with the marked character and individuality of the place. For him, an ancient carriage house in need of renovation was eminently more desirable than a generic modern hotel. I couldn't disagree with the sentiment.
The big bonus was free parking, if you have an extremely small car and your parking skills are better than average. Mine weren't.
After checking in, we took a leisurely stroll down Rue Châtelain, Laon's pedestrianized main drag. It was almost entirely bereft of tourists in April. The quaint signs reminded us of the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. Ever so slowly, we made progress, poking in and out of artisan and antique shops until finally arriving at the stunning main attraction of Laon.
The Oxen Adorned and Pleasingly Grimy Laon Cathedral
The crowing glory of Laon is its cathedral, the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Laon, on 8 rue du Cloître. It is open daily between 8:30 am to 6:30 pm.
The cathedral can be seen from miles away. Constructed between 1160-1230, Laon Cathedral is one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals in France, pre-dating even the Notre Dame in Paris. It's known for its six imposing towers and is a key stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago in Spain. Laon Cathedral has been listed as a historic monument since 1840.
It's a musty, dusty, and ancient affair, unspoiled by modernity or excess adornment, and with none of the elegance of its Parisian counterpart.
We loved it.
Perhaps what most enchanted us, and what sets Laon Cathedral apart from its counterparts, is the nature of the adornment that does exist. There's a veritable farm on the upper towers -- 16 oxen in total. Local legend holds that the sculptures are a tribute to the animals who hefted the granite up the steep hill.
The accompanying adorable menagerie of animal gargoyles also demands your attention.
Once inside, we were stunned by the sheer scale of the place. The 360 foot church has a four level nave supported by Roman style columns with ten bays. There's some restored stained glass and a lovely 18th century choir grill. The local white limestone also lends a certain luminosity and peacefulness.
After our visit and with an utter lack of urgency, we sat and sipped wine at an empty cafe on Mortagne Square directly across from the cathedral, soaking everything in. Happy and lulled into a meditative authenticity trance, we could almost hear a low, deep mooooooooooo-ing sound.
Not Your Typical Tourist Trap
Laon Cathedral is still an active part of the community and you can sense it. The cathedral feels like a place of refuge, not a place that primarily entertains tourists like so many others. With wine in our belly and oxen in our eyes, we were perhaps a tad smugly convinced that we were in the midst of a truly authentic experience.
The darker side of authenticity is that, like many important French monuments, Laon Cathedral is badly neglected and soot stained by the ravages of pollution. Parts of it are crumbling.
My friend didn't care one bit. He pronounced it "authentically grimy and not whitewashed." He appreciated seeing the passage of time writ large on a first generation gothic marvel. "Buildings, like our species, have a limited life," he unsentimentally intoned, with more than a tinge of a historian's gravitas.
Chapelle des Templiers
Rare and unique, Laon also boasts a reasonably well-preserved chapel built by the Knights Templar. Located at 32 Rue Georges Ermant not far from the Cathedral, you can simply walk right in and have a look around. There's not a guard, or ticket taker, or anyone else to prevent you from running your hands over the slightly grubby stones.
Here, you can marvel and touch.
The chapel is one of only three Knights Templar churches in France that were built in a round or octagonal style. The Knights Templar, a powerful and wealthy medieval order known for their role in the Crusades, lived, prayed and worked here beginning in 1140. You can linger in the gardens while you admire the austere chapel.
f you want to delve more deeply into ancient history, Indiana Jones style, stop by the tourist office and sign up for the daily 6 euro 3:30 pm tour of Laon Souterrain. Laon Souterrain is a maze of roughly hewn passageways and underground tunnels, dug over 2,000 years.
Originally, it was a quarry for monuments like the cathedral, but later was used as a prison and a defence system. While a bit creepy, as you would expect from any hidden underground network, Laon Souterrain offers a different perspective on its past.
La Dolce Vita, Literally
Satisfied by the bona fides of our day, we eventually arrived appetites in hand at La Dolce Vita, a cozy restaurant located just off Rue Châtelain at 13 Rue du Change.
We were honestly relieved to be free of classic northern French food at this point in our journey. Real Italian pizza sounded scrumptious. The town was quiet and the restaurant initially empty, but it filled up fast. And not just with out-of-touch camera-toting tourists, or so we were willing to believe. A thin crispy pizza and several delectable Italian dishes later, we were content and sated.
We wondered though ... Was it inauthentic to dine at an Italian restaurant while visiting a medieval village in France? Or was it in fact an authentic reflection of today's local culture in Laon? Either way, we were authentically happy as we stumbled back down the cobblestone streets toward our hotel's agreeably thick stone walls, creaking staircase, and red velvet love seats.