It’s almost impossible to imagine today, but long before Paris became capital of France and went on to become one of the most famous cities on the planet, Laon, a little know and remarkably tourist-free town near the Belgian border, was the medieval capital of France. It gained this distinction during the reign of the Carolingian dynasty, the most famous member of which was Charlemagne. Power shifted to Paris in 987 AD when Hugues Capet claimed the crown and made it his capital.
Almost impossible to imagine that is, but for one thing: the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. Sitting like a vast crown over the city, the cathedral can be seen from kilometres away, and it gets more impressive the closer you get to it. It’s a building that lends a certain majesty to the city, even though when it was built in the 12th century, the city’s royal status had long gone. It’s a rival for any of the more famous churches we’d seen on our trip.
I knew nothing of Laon’s great history before arriving in the town. We stopped here only because a brief description in our guidebook said it was interesting, and it was a convenient spot to break the journey back to the Netherlands. We hadn’t booked a hotel and were lucky to get a room at Hotel Les Chevaliers, a converted 18th century house. The friendly manager gave us the low down on the city and a few suggestions of places to eat, and off we went to explore.
Arriving late in the day, and with ominous storm clouds gathering, we made straight for the cathedral down streets lined with ancient buildings. The cathedral was closed but as the sun set it was fantastically illuminated. We walked around this immense building and down some of the neighbouring streets, before returning to the Place du Parvis de Mortagne in front of the cathedral. We found a restaurant and ordered dinner.
It was a warm evening and we had front row seats of the cathedral’s facade. When the rain came, we moved under the umbrellas unwilling to lose our view of this magnificent building. A rainbow came out and crowned the entire scene. It was a great introduction to this historic place. Laon was occupied in both World Wars, but it and the cathedral survived without any serious damage. One of the reasons why, in 1940, Adolf Hitler visited it.
We went for a walk through the town, which is strung out along the hilltop. There was a bit of action in a couple of youthful bars but, to all intents and purposes, the town was fast asleep at 9.30pm on a Thursday night in summer. The next morning dawned grey and damp, the previous evening’s weather stubbornly refusing to improve. We set off to explore and to see if Laon had woken up from the previous evening’s slumber.
Maybe it was the weather, maybe the urban neglect that we saw around us, but Laon began to make us a bit depressed. This wasn’t helped by being served the worst pain au chocolate I’ve ever eaten. Cardboard with something brown but not chocolate in the middle. Many historic buildings are not open to the public, and the 7th century Abbaye Saint-Vincent was burned down by teenagers in 2008 and is yet to be fixed. Those that are open seem to keep erratic hours. In desperation we went back to the cathedral.
In the cathedral, jaunty Christian pop music was blasting out as several hundred school children were ushered in. Their teachers were desperately trying to keep them quiet, which was a little like trying to hold water in a sieve. The futility of the situation at least made me smile. We wandered around in the vast interior space, before the music got the better of us. As we left the sun came out briefly, but we’d already decided the best thing to do in Loan on a damp and chilly Friday morning was to leave.
For all its wealth of history, Laon seems unloved. There are many abandoned, decaying buildings, shops are closed with boarded up windows. No surprise then that the town’s population has been in slow decline from a peak in 1975. The traffic is a curse, beautiful medieval streets are little more than open air car parks. It’s an undignified state, for a once dignified place. All the more surprising because Laon is the capital of the region and has many qualities to recommend it.
The contrast between the city’s heritage and its seemingly parlous present reminded me of a New York Times article I’d read about Albi in southern France, often described as the jewel of the Midi-Pyrenees. The two towns have many similarities, including out of town shopping centres that seem to be draining life from the old town. As we drove towards Belgium we passed through this area. Hundreds of cars outside hypermarkets told their own story.