A historic scavenger hunt was not one of the things I expected when on a day trip to Laon, France. There were actually a few things I was surprised by. The stairs, the historic scavenger hunt, the view of the valley below. This ancient hilltop city captivated my interest right from the start.
I arrived at the Laon station around noon and departed for the municipal staircase which is in plain view from the station itself. The stairs were the first unexpected feature. I knew before I had even set foot on French soil that Laon was perched on a hilltop because of the things I had read, though I didn’t realize quite how many stairs there were. This town was a lot higher than I thought. Then, just when I thought I was finished climbing, I exited the staircase between buildings and saw there was still a sharp incline to get to the ancient walled portion of the town. At some point on the climb, you pass over the old funicular system that no longer runs but provided an alternative method than the stairs a while back. I wish it was still running because it would have been a gorgeous ride.
When I finally arrived in the medieval part of the town, where the ancients laid the foundations for the modern city, I knew that I was right in the span of time where most restaurants and businesses were closed for the midday break. I was quite alright with that because it gave me the chance to wander the streets of a town unlike any I had been in yet. The visitor center is adjacent to the cathedral, which is where I dropped off my bags. The cathedral itself is beautiful and ancient, dating from the beginning of the French Gothic design period. Unfortunately, most of the windows have been replaced due to damage, though a handful of 12th and 13th century stained glass windows still survive. There were not many visitors this time of day which made my visit very peaceful.
What I enjoyed most about Laon was the hidden in plain sight historic features of the city. As I walked around, I stumbled upon plaques in the most seemingly random of places. The plaques contained facts about the happenings in each location. I felt almost as though I was walking through a giant open-air museum of sorts. I had grabbed a map from the visitor center but so many of these locations were not on the map. This encouraged me to explore the city a lot more thoroughly because I was always on the lookout for more signs.
Laon is another city that is surrounded to this day by its medieval walls and gates. The interesting thing about these walls as opposed to the other cities I had seen though was that due to the hilltop nature of the city, the ramparts were almost level with the ground in the city itself, allowing visitors easy access to walk along and look down at the city and the valley below. From the walls on the northern side of the city, one can see down into the lower town and all the way to the train station. Beyond that lie farmlands for miles. On the south side of the city, however, are forests and hills with small towns interspersed in the valleys.
I loved the view from the southern wall so much that I decided to try to find somewhere that was still open for some takeaway to bring it back and eat it there. I found an amazing little mom and pop style sandwich shop which was pretty much the only thing open but I’m glad it was. I grabbed a traditional French style sandwich on a baguette and a pastry and off I went. From a corner of the ramparts, the wall drops away a good 50 feet or so to the road below. I sat on the edge with my legs dangling over (sorry Mom!) and looked out over the hills and forests. I tried to imagine what the area may have looked like hundreds of years ago as I munched on my sandwich. For one of the less eventful afternoons of my trip, I thoroughly enjoyed the peace and relaxation.
For anyone who loves history, Laon is a great example of a well-preserved town. It’s an amazing opportunity to see how many medieval villages and cities were founded, built, and expanded over the centuries. The cathedral, like always, occupies the highest point of the town, with the old citadel just below it. I didn’t get to the western half of the town but in that direction lies a monastery and museums as well. It is a town without a huge tourist buzz despite being a short train ride from Paris, and therefore much less crowded, even in high season. Given the opportunity, I would return to Laon in a heartbeat.