After a good night’s sleep we awoke to bright sunshine and with slightly less aching feet following yesterday’s long walk. By late morning we felt sufficiently rested to find somewhere nice to have lunch, and walked – perhaps more accurately, we climbed – up a very steep and long set of steps into the old medieval town.

Lots of steps up to the old town in Laon

The views out across the plains around Laon are spectacular, and gave us good reason to pause after every second set of steps! At the top we rounded a corner into the central square to find a handy restaurant right across the way from the cathedral and it was open for lunch.

Laon cathedral west front

The cathedral is the model for Notre Dame in Paris, and is said to be a near perfect example of French gothic style. It fortunately avoided damage in both of the two world wars. Inside it was reminiscent of Salisbury Cathedral in its simplicity and homogeneity of style, and turned out to have been built at about the same time and, like Salisbury, also in a single campaign between 1150 and 1235 when it was consecrated.

Laon cathedral nave looking east

There is some beautiful, richly coloured medieval stained glass at the east end, a little modern stained glass, and a lot of large windows with plain glass giving a light airy feel to the building.

Sumptuous medieval stained glass at east end

Although we were unable to find any information about services for Palm Sunday, there was a priest hearing confessions in the choir all afternoon, so the cathedral appears to be active – unlike the majority of village churches, which are moribund or dead. Plainsong was playing in the background, which made for a calm and peaceful ambience. There seemed to be an absence of the gaudy effigies and statues we’ve found in some other churches – something that stands out for those if us used to the denuded post reformation churches of the UK.

West end of Laon cathedral

This was the first church we have been into in France where there is recognition that it lies on the Via Francigena route, and that it has a role in supporting pilgrims walking the VF, not merely selling coach trips to Lourdes or Rome to its own congregation, as we’ve seen elsewhere. There was an extensive exhibition about the purpose and history of pilgrimage, and about the VF and other pilgrim routes across Europe. We could have had our pilgrim passes stamped here, although we had already got that done in the adjacent tourist information office, based on our past experience.

Latern over the transept

The baptismal font is made from Tournai stone and dates from the 11th century. It has interesting carvings around its sides thought to depict the Evangelists, or the four rivers of Paradise: the Tigris, Euphrates, Gihon and Pison.

On visiting the reliquary, we met a very nice lady who takes VF pilgrims into her home and gives them dinner, bed and breakfast, and even does their laundry for them. She either didn’t understand or didn’t agree with Tom that although we are not Catholics we are one church under St Paul! The item of interest that stood out for us in the reliquary was a 19th century antiphonal – a relic of the historical musical tradition of the catholic church, which is sadly now in serious decline in France. As one famous musician has said to us, the catholic church now uses ‘jingles’ in place of the wonderful choral tradition we’ve been able to maintain in our cathedrals in the UK, much of it written by catholic composers.

After a brief walk through the pedestrianised medieval centre of the town, we returned to our hotel room to do some serious work on booking accommodation for the next week or so, which is proving to be quite a challenge. We are again facing several long days of walking with no accommodation to be had at the end of the day, making any possibility of combining days completely impossible. We will have to keep working on it!

Laon’s medieval town centre – note the signs advertising different businesses, originally used to assist the many people who couldn’t read

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