Monday, 29 August 2016

Moment cathedral, moment goat, moment castle...

When we planned this trip we talked about heading down to Nancy or going through Luxembourg to explore some of the cycle tracks in Germany's Saarland. One of the places we planned to stay happened to be near the bridge at Schengen. I imagined photographing the pair of us waving the little paper EU flag given to us at the Festival of Europe in Aix as if to say - "Hey fellow citizens, we're not all Brexiteers you know, some of us liked the idea of a continent without borders and even could utter the phrase 'ever closer Union' without even the slightest nervous tic." In the end practicality won over sentiment, and concious that the whole trip had been designed as an 'extra' on a shoestring budget, we concluded the additional tank of diesel was not justifiable. 

So we started plotting a route back to Dunkerque, as ever trying to apply our rule of thumb about visiting places we had never been to before. Gill summoned up the ACSI app and Campercontacts on her phone, then rummaged in the book cupboard for our out of date All The Aires Guide. After staring at the road atlas and double checking the route on Google maps, finally she found two possible placed to say that would fit in with my vague desire to visit Laon. Whether a visit to the town does fit into our rule of thumb about exploring new places is a matter of debate. Gill is convinced we visited here years ago with her sister and I have no reason to doubt this; however, I have no recollection of it whatsoever. So, a question - does somewhere you have visited before, but can't now remember fit our guidelines? If so, then perhaps in the future we will be coming back to all the places we've been to recently. Anyway, we hatched a bit of a plan: park in the aire below Laon's walls, have lunch, then have a look at the place before heading off to either the camp site at La Frére, or the aire at Cucy-le-Chateau. Easi-peasi!

Room for six mohos under the wall at Laon - free, but no service point.
So without ado we found ourselves parked at Laon. The city dominates the surrounding plain from its situation on top of a craggy bluff. It has been occupied for thousands of years, but developed into a significant place in the late 700s during the reign of Pepin the Short, Charlemagne's father. I like the Carolingian dynasty not least because chroniclers of the time were not averse to giving their rulers rude nicknames. Other illustrious Carolingians included. Charles the Bald, Louis the Stammerer and Lothar the Lame. This seems an eminently sensible way to ensure our self appointed rulers don't get too up themselves. So an Early Medieval chronicler might dub our lot as George the Impeded, Lizzie the Morose, Charles Juglugs, and William the Harmless. 

Laon today is a pleasant old town surrounded by ancient walls. What makes it exceptional is its 13th Century cathedral. Sadly, for Gill, I am quite enthusiastic about Gothic cathedrals and remember more than you might expect of what Dr. Crossley taught me about them back in 1974. This resulted in her having to trail along as I whittered on about the building being a transition from the earlier Soissonaise style's concern with articulating space, to the later High Gothic's interest in expressing structural coherence. In this mode even I get bored with my own obsessions, goodness knows what Gill is thinking.

a truly sculptural building
The portal figures reflect a growing humanism in the way they interact.
The towers remind me of an Escher drawing

pale stone - pearly light.

the lantern tower

A bestiary in stone decorates the towers
Briefly we toyed with the idea of staying at the Laon aire, then thinking about this morning's debacle concerning the cold showers we opted to head for the camp site at at La Frére. As we neared the place it became clear that this was no rural hideaway, the adjacent towns of Chauny and Tergnier seem to have sprawled accidently into a new town; when we finally tracked down where the campsite was, it was situated next to some kind of mini-banlieue. When we discovered that the camp site had closed we were more relieved than disappointed. 

Instead we headed south for about 20km to the aire at Cucy-le-Chateau. This proved an inspired accidental discovery. The aire is not free, to use it you need to negotiate an incomprehensible credit card system that for €5 per day gives you a code to access the service point and toilet cabin (shed). The place is maintained beautifully and the site is overlooked by the ruins of Chateau de Cucy, which in the medieval period was one of the largest fortifications in France.

Sunset on the walls of Cucy-le-Chateau.

Next morning we decided to explore the castle. It's a steep climb and none too clear as to how you reach the ramparts. Part way up the steep road an enterprising local has planted a vineyard. The vine clad slopes under the deep blue sky, overlooked by the castle's curtain walls and semi-circular bastions gave Picardy the look of the Midi this morning.

more typical of landscapes 400 miles further south
We met three older chaps out walking, they pointed us to a small gate which led to the path that circumnavigated the walls. We had not gone far before we were joined by a herd a goats who trotted along happily behind us. Eventually we reached the hilltop settlement of Cucy-le-Chateau which is clustered around the castle's gatehouse. It was all very unexpected, a great aire, a lively small village, an interesting walk, and a spectacular goat infested castle. The joys of motorhomes, "All good" as the lovely Gill is wont to remark.

A path circles the castle
with friendly goats
in fact, exceptionally friendly goats..
Outside the castle on the hill-top is a collection of mainly 18th century buildings
Fortified churches are typical of the area


  1. We stayed at the Aire in Chateau Le Coucy in July, on Bastille Day. Our kind French neighbour helped me suss out using the code to kick start the electric! We loved the old castle - did you notice the many various mason's marks on the stones?

  2. Yes, we needed native assistance too with the electrics - its a great aire though. We missed the mason's marks on the castle - probably because, although we circumnavigated it on foot, we actually did not go inside the walls balking at the 5 euro entry cost in our quest for a low budget trip! Maybe next time, it is somewhere we might well stay at again as it is a safe quiet stop-off for a journey north or south.

  3. We stayed at the Aire in Chateau Le Coucy in July, on Bastille Day. Our kind French neighbour helped me suss out using the code to kick start the electric! We loved the old castle - did you notice the many various mason's marks on the stones?