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Laon – Could Do Better

A Visit to Laon – September 2009
Having pulled off the motorway to top up with diesel last year and, seeing the amazing cathedral atop of the hill and having read that it was a medieval city of great historical interest and charm, we decided to spend the night in Laon. So we checked into the Etap in the retail park and then drove up the hill to the medieval city to look for some dinner.
Look was all we did, and at great length. Laon was shabby. Certainly it was a medieval city and certainly it had all the makings for the charm, but for me the enduring image is of a grubbily-dressed man with a dog on a string, who could not raise a good evening, entering a patched wooden door to one of the historic buildings to an undecorated hallway that smelled of wee. There were a couple of noisy bars, including one for ageing heavy metal fans in leather jackets, in a street of bars and restaurants, all the restaurants empty and at many of them the proprietor standing in the doorway smoking a cigarette. One of the restaurants had a few customers, but the window positions being taken up with the owner’s bicycle and some upturned chairs, we decided against. There were a couple of more up-market places, but again empty and looking more pricey than pleasant. And in the end, being unable to see anywhere that looked even half appealing, we decided to drive to the new town, which is signposted as the Centre Ville, and try our luck there.
No luck. A few restaurants but all empty, for example there was a Franco-Belge restaurant, ablaze with lights, that looked promising, but look inside and it is glaring and empty and shabby and there is a sign saying, pizzas.
So in desperation we drove back to the Etap and went into the restaurant of the Ibis hotel next door, which wasn’t very good but at least had some people in – quite a few people indeed and it was getting late, we were a bit worried they might have stopped serving. We were by this time tired and almost past eating so Hilary just had some salad and chips and I a beef stew. The chips were OK, but not like proper French fries we’d eaten the night before in Alsace.
In Britain, a town like Laon would not be so shabby. It has the second-oldest cathedral in France, or so we were told, which is a kind of prototype for Rheims, and in much the same style, and it has a medieval walled city with all the making of the picturesque. In Britain it would be verging on the chic. It would be a well-known national heritage and tourist site. Not so in France, in fact so many towns and cities in France seem run-down. France seems to be finding it hard to move on.
The following morning we drove again up to the medieval city, believing that there must be somewhere bearable enough for breakfast, for Hilary wanted to look round the cathedral and I wanted to take a look inside the tourist information centre to try and find out what the Chemin des Dames was, or is (It’s a battle area of the First World War, equivalent for the French army to what the Somme was for the British. The Chemin des Dames was a ridge that was held by the German army and the French suffered immense casualties in trying to capture it. Its name as a walk for ladies dated from much earlier, the road having being built to accommodate the desires of a couple of aristocratic young women in the 18th century – we had seen numerous signs to it on driving toward Laon on the B-road from Rheims).
The bar café opposite the cathedral seemed to be opening up so I walked in and asked the man if he could do us some coffee. Oui. And something to eat, a croissant maybe? Non, there’s the boulangerie just behind, you can get a croissant there. So I walked round to the boulangerie and did find a croissant and a kind of pain au chocolat custard tart, the boulangerie looking even more down-market inside that it did out, and we ate our take-away breakfast in the bar, with a coffee from the establishment that was, true to form for France, excellent.
A stage was being erected in the cathedral as the Laon music festival was to begin on the following day, and we met and spoke to the festival organiser, who was an enthusiastic man in a pullover who spoke excellent if strongly-accented English and who had been, he told us, a manufacturer of bicycle parts – not sure which parts – and who now was ‘out of work’ (though we read that to mean retired) and very excited about the forthcoming festival. I asked him how he came to speak such good English and he said that he had had to, going as he did to bicycle fairs and conferences in different countries where the lingua Franca was inevitably English. Though of course the real reason was that he’d chosen to learn it. Italian people quite often ask me how come (come mai – how ever) I speak such good Italian, which I don’t in fact but it’s very kind of them to ask, and I come up with some sort of story but the true reason is that I choose to learn it.
It felt a pity that we could not stay to attend some of the musical concerts. Maybe next year. And maybe the man might be able to recommend a restaurant.


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