What Lurks Beneath
As I drive north from Paris, early one Sunday morning, I am looking for Laon, the capital of Aisne region. I hadn’t even looked on the map as I should have, but used the car’s GPS giving me directions. And I had been traveling along on a flat plain so I was surprised to found myself climbing at a very steep angle and narrowly slipping through the last remaining medieval gates into the town.
I parked on the square across from the imposing and beautiful Cathedral Notre-Dame, a Gothic masterpiece of the late 12 century. Drinking a coffee at the only café open, I look up to see five gray towers (there were to be seven but two were never completed), a triple portico, vaulting and the church rising in tiers. It is truly a flamboyant façade that inspires today’s architects. The key was to find the Oxen… it’s a legend of how the cathedral was built. They didn’t have my four-wheel drive back then, so oxen were needed to carry all that stone up to the sight high on the hill. So sixteen life size oxen look down from the two western towers as a homage.
When I go inside, this cathedral is immense, filled with light and much of the stain glass is original to 13 century. But as lovely as it is inside I wanted to climb the tower to get a closer view of the Oxen and the surrounding landscapes. After 209 circular stairs I was winded and happy to stick my head out into the cool air looking eye to eye with an ox. You can walk along the roof lines to see the rich farmland surrounding the horseshoe shaped upper town. When you look at Laon strategically on a map it is remarkable that the town and Cathedral survived intact through both World Wars.
There are a few other interesting facts about this preserved old town. One, they claim that that Louis XIV was conceived in the Dauphin Inn where his parents, Louis XIII and his Spanish born wife Anne of Austria had stopped in Laon for the night after making a pilgrimage to Blessed Lady of Liesse. Now these two had been wed by proxy in Burgos when they were 14 years old and there hadn’t been a baby bump in 22 years. Just perhaps their wish had been granted.
Another house of interest is the birth place of Louis Joliet. Joliet and Jacques Marquette discovered the upper Mississippi River 1674 in Illinois. Sound familiar.
But from the top we go to the bottom. Les Souterrains de Laon is the surprising subterranean attraction that few people even know about. The town is surrounded by 7 km of defensive walls. These walls are a labyrinth of passages, carved and mined limestone honeycomb full of galleries. Some date as far back as Gallo-Roman times for storage granaries and in the Middle Ages they served as a prison, but during the wars they became strategic military position for storage, quarters and even a hospital for the Germans. The Germans always seem to hold the high ground to everyone’s detriment. Beneath the Citadel there are traces of passageways spread over three levels and one 450 meter stretch that takes you secretly to the bowels of the city. This step back in time was eyry because you can feel along with hear the sounds of the war all around you. But even now Laon still teases with more hidden history of fossilized forms of the sea creature dating back 40 million years in its subterranean passageways.