The department of Aisne in Picardy is the ancient cradle of France. Its capital Laon was once also the capital of France, and it is the only place in the world where Champagne is produced – outside of Champagne. Discover a land brimming with historic cities, glorious countryside, picturesque villages and monumental cultural sites…
Laon a historic city
The great French writer Victor Hugo once said, “everything is beautiful in Laon.” Almost 200 years after his visit, he would recognise its Cathedral and winding streets of ancient buildings – a whopping 84 listed monuments – and surely feel the same way.
This ancient city with its ramparts and stone gateways was the capital of France from the 8th to 10th centuries when Paris was still a village. Perched on a hill at 180m high, the site is perfect for defence, and Queen Berthe au Grand Pied (the unlikely named Bertha of the Big Feet), mother of the great Charlemagne, made Laon her seat of government. It was only when Hugues Capet was made King in 987, that Paris became the capital. Laon though, remained an important religious city and a centre of learning.
The 800 year old cathedral of Notre Dame, a Gothic masterpiece, dominates the upper town. Flanked by two magnificent turreted towers, from which large stone oxen peer. They are a nod to the sturdy beasts who dragged the stones to build it and the local legend that when an exhausted oxen fell to the ground, a white ox was sent by God to help carry the stones. The façade is intricately carved and inside there are beautiful 13th century stained glass windows. The sound of monks chanting creates a spiritual atmosphere.
What to see in Laon
The streets around the Cathedral are lined with old buildings, all encompassed within the medieval ramparts from which there are wonderful views over the town below and the countryside. On clear days you can see as far as the plain of neighbouring Champagne.
Look closely at some of the buildings and you’ll notice fossils and shells embedded in the walls. They’re left over from the time when the area was under a tropical sea – some 65 million years ago. And many of the buildings are listed historic monuments including the tourist office which is located in a building dating to 1167 and the underground passages of the Citadel. There is a legend that at the 16th century Cour du Change, formerly known as the Hotellerie du Dauphin in rue Sérurier, King Louis XIII stayed on a stormy night in 1638. He and his wife Anne of Austria had prayed for children but to no avail. However that night, Louis XIV was conceived. Just don’t check the dates too carefully, you might see that there are 13 months between the night Louis XIII stayed and Louis XIV’s birth!
Laon is also where Abelard and Heloise met – the Romeo and Juliet of France. It was a tragic love story, the student, Heloise falling for the teacher, marrying in secret and having a baby against the wishes of her uncle/guardian. The lovers were torn apart and she was sent to an abbey whilst he was castrated on the orders of Heloise’ uncle. You’ll spot their likeness in the fabulous street art that illuminates the town.
You can book guided tours at the town hall to discover Laon’s many secrets and charms. Tourisme-paysdelaon.com
Familistère of Guise – a most unusual Museum
Guise was once an important border town ruled by the powerful Dukes of Guise. Now it is a rather sleepy place with pretty streets, a ruined castle and superbly restored fortified church. But its most famous attraction is the monumental Familistère – a ‘social palace.’
It was created by Jean-Baptiste André Godin, founder of the famous Godin stoves company. He was born in 1817 in Aisne, the son of a locksmith and left school at the age of 11. At 17 he moved to Paris, taught himself architecture. In 1840 he returned to Aisne and began manufacturing a cast-iron heating-stove which he had designed. To this day they are known as Godins in France and an astonishing number of them have survived, still working to this day – I have one myself!
Godin made a fortune from his stoves and at its height his factory in Guise employed almost a thousand workers. In 1856, moved by the plight of workers living conditions, Godin started to build the Familistère, a place where his employees and their families could live. It also had a nursery, school, laundrette, shops, 600-seat theatre and swimming pool. The monumental residential building was based on the Palace of Versailles with apartments for up to 900 people. It was essentially a small town, and all within easy walking distance of the huge factory. He called it a social palace.
The social palace
Around 75% of the workforce lived there with their families. He paid workers well, around 150 francs per month and their rent was just 8-12 francs. He set a 10 hour working day when the norm at the time was 13-15 hours. And gave his workers Sunday off. He set up a workers union who decided the rules in the factory via a series of committees.
It seemed like utopia… But when he died in 1888 having lost his only son just 15 days before, the running of the factory fell to the committees and without his influence it all fell apart as infighting and disagreement took over.
The German army occupied the site from 1914 to November 1918. They turned the theatre into a jail, the central palace became military hospital and they destroyed some of the buildings.
The Utopia Project began in 2002 to restore the palace and remaining buildings. It is a triumph. You can tour an apartment, have a guided tour, visit the theatre and pool and discover this extraordinary tale. There’s a cafe on site and a great shop where you can buy Godin products. Familistere.com
Saint-Quentin – Art Deco dazzler
Born in France, Art Deco began in 1908 – a merging of art of various influences: antiquity, cubism, the arts of Africa and the Far East.
Saint-Quentin has been through a lot. Founded by the Romans, it was a major medieval trading centre. It’s been invaded, conquered, besieged and finally all but destroyed during World War I – the Great War as the French call it. Rebuilt in the 1920s it has many Art Deco buildings including the extraordinary railway station where trains ran from as early as 1850. It became a key site in the 1940s when Saint-Quentin once more come under foreign control and the city became the headquarters of the 2nd German army.
Visit now and you’ll find a hugely cultural city with 9 museums and extraordinary buildings.
The station buffet, a listed historical monument, is pure Art Deco with walls and furniture covered in soft silver and glistening gold mosaics with an accent of bright red, featuring flowers and Normandy ocean liner window design. From the station it’s a short walk across the canal to the town. Built in 1801, it was the first canal north of Paris and inaugurated by Napoleon in recognition of its importance to France.
In the city, the Art Deco vibe is everywhere. There are some 3000 buildings that feature the Art Deco style of which 300 are classified as Historic Monuments. This includes the tourist office where you can book an audio guide and route map.
Museum of Beaux-Arts Saint-Quentin
Whatever you do don’t miss the Musée des Beaux-Arts Antoine Lécuyer which in my opinion is the city’s star. There is a superb collection of pastels by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, known as the ‘King of the Pastels’, an artist who ‘looked into the souls’ of his subjects and then captured their likeness with pastels in a way never seen before or since. Sadly not all the pastels were out when I visited but enough for me to be able to be completely amazed. Destination-saintquentin.fr
4 Must-sees in Aisne
Champagne vineyards in Picardy!
Chateau-Thierry in Aisne is the only place in the world outside of champagne where champagne is made. There are cellars dating to the 12th century and 400 vineyards producing Champagne. Visit Champagne Pannier for a tour and tasting and to stock up on their superb fizz. champagnepannier.com
Jardin Viel Maison
There are 16 sections to this magnificent private garden and it looks different in each of the four seasons. In the distance you can hear the town church bells, spot woodpeckers and wild birds and wander at will to enjoy the superb planting. Book in advance: jardins-vielsmaisons.net
Chemin des Dames
During World War I, the Chemin des Dames was a frontline position where violent fighting took place. There an underground quarry called ‘The Caverne du Dragon’ which was turned into army barracks. Today you can visit the galleries and see the chapel, first aid station, command post and No Man’s Land which movingly testify to the lives of the soldiers – both French and German – who fought and lived, sometimes even side by side, within the confines of the cavern and the countryside around. chemindesdames.fr
Chateau de Conde
Once home to the Princes of Conde and still lived in, this glorious castle was transformed into the Renaissance gem in the 16th century for Louis de Bourbon. Sumptuously decorated with gorgeous gardens, it’s well worth a visit. chateaudeconde.com
Find out more on the Aisne tourism website: jaimelaisne.com