Sitting high above the Picardie plain with a magnificent 12th century Gothic cathedral, the medieval city of Laon is known as the ‘Montagne Couronnée’ (The crowned city). From the 5th century until the 1789 revolution, Laon was one of the principle cities of the Franks and also the seat of a powerful and influential bishopric.
In more recent times it suffered many invasions and changes of control not least during the Napoleonic wars, The Great War and WW2, yet surprisingly has escaped complete destruction and many buildings remain intact having been protected or sensitively restored.
Today this attractive town of some 27,000 inhabitants features lovely medieval streets winding up from the gates of the city, quiet squares as well as the towering Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon. Of the original gates of the walled city only 3 remain and a walk around the ramparts is highly recommended both for the view but also to see the formal parks and gardens and other significant buildings.
A tour of the cathedral is recommended. Built in the 12th century and extended and restored at various times it is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture and the climb to the top affords a fabulous view of the compact hilltop town as well as views for 30 miles in all directions.
Situated just 10 km off the A26 Autoroute des Anglais, the main autoroute between Calais and South of France, Laon is well-worth a visit. Here you can also see the important battlefield sites of the Chemin des Dames or take time out along the greenway, a path constructed for walkers and cyclists to enjoy the countryside around Lac de L’Ailette. Besides hotels around Laon there are one or two around the lake including the comfortable Hôtel du Golf de l’Ailette and a spectacularly well-situated Center Parcs both of which are on the lake.
You should also remember that Aisne region is one of the five departments in the Champagne region, with vineyards in the south of the region closer to Reims which is just 40 miles south from Laon. You don’t have to look far for lovely restaurants and in the case of Laon one of the best is directly outside the Cathedral.
Le Parvis restaurant is a typical regional bistro serving traditional favourites such as Steak Frites and Foie Gras, as well as a wide selection of lovely salads and regional specialities.
I tried the Flamiches Picardie au Maroilles, a Picardie speciality featuring locally produced NOC Maroilles cheese. Washed down with a slightly fruitier white wine recommended by the house, this is a delicious starter. For a main course the Carbonnade de Boeuf was a deliciously rich beef stew served with cinnamon toast and French fries. Le Parvis also has a wide ranging wine list with many local and regional wines and of course if you have something special to celebrate then the local Champagne is available.
Besides stopping off to see Laon, one of the main reasons to stop in the Aisne region is to see the famous Chemin des Dames battlefields. Whilst Laon was protected behind the German lines during the Great War, the Western Front, scene of complete devastation, was just 20 miles south.
The German army, thwarted in their rush to Paris in 1914, retreated to the Craonne plateau and dug-in for the long-term. Here you can visit the famous Caverne du Dragon, The Dragon’s Cave’, a complex of quarries and tunnels occupied by the German army whilst defending the line from 1914 and 1918. It’s an extraordinary visitor centre and museum showing how the quarries were defended in one of the most extreme examples of trench, or should we say, underground warfare.
Close by are various viewing points and monuments, spread out along the so-called Chemin des Dames (Ladies way), a steep ridge named after the royal coach road Louis XV had built for his daughters. A tranquil elevated area now, where one can walk the marked trails and see the remains of trenches, it is here that some of the fiercest WW1 fighting took place and thousands of French soldiers died, particularly in the spring 1917 assaults as they attempted to scale the escarpment unprotected from the well-defended German lines.
Among these monument is the recently created Memorial to International Rugby Men who died in the war. Inaugurated in 2017 and designed by Jean-Pierre Rives, legendary French rugby captain, the memorial reminds us that the British and French armies brought companies of men to the battlefields from all over the world; as far away as Australia, South Africa and Canada on the British side and from Tahiti, New Caledonia and Morocco on the French.
uk.france.fr/en/discover/caverne-dragon-chemin-dames-museum – The Dragon Cave
www.ailette.fr – Hôtel du Golf de l’Ailette