A fortified mediaeval town standing on a hill, Laon offers visitors a chance to discover its past, with many historic buildings and valuable books and manuscripts. With more than 80 listed Monuments historiques, including Notre-Dame cathedral. L'Hôtel-Dieu is one of the oldest and best preserved hospitals in France.
© ATOUT FRANCE/CRT Picardie/Claude Jacquot
In the centre of Aisne, Laon is one town it is not easy to miss; it stands perched clearly on a huge hill more than 100 metres above the surrounding plain, today the departmental capital, but with a pedigree that dates back to its time as the capital of the Carolingian Empire (9th-10th century), when it was known as Laudunum.
Secure behind its great walls and ramparts, which even these days are difficult to find your way through, the city thrived throughout the Middle Ages, a golden age for ‘La montagne couronnée’, which saw the building of its impressive cathedral of Notre Dame. This is one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals in France, on which work commenced in the 12th century. Its greatness served as a model for other French cathedrals, notably Chartres, Reims and Dijon, and some English cathedrals, too – York and Durham. The rich architectural legacy has made Laon the largest protected heritage site in France.
This is unquestionably a town for exploring on foot, the network of narrow and often cobbled streets is a maze for a visiting motorist, and promeneurs will always have the advantage. This was how I stumbled upon (the now closed) 'La Bonne Heure' in the rue Châtelaine, a simple and unfussy bistro specialising in produits de terroir, and serving tortinettes, a kind of modest-sized pizza with a wide selection of toppings and lashings of the local Maroilles cheese. Ten years ago, the bistro found itself in the Guinness Book of Records, having produced the world’s longest andouillette, which locals later queued up to pay ten francs per ten centimetres to take away as souvenirs.
As I tottered up and down the steep grimpettes, the pathways between the upper and lower town formerly used by the vineyard workers, I could hear Debussy; someone was playing La Plus que Lente (badly; I play it badly, too, so I know), reminding me that the town holds an annual and extremely popular Festival of French Music.