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France II 9-12 May: Laon, Reims, Nancy, Metz

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

On my youngest brother (Bill’s) birthday, I finished packing, checked out of the Paris hotel and walked my gear to the train station Gare du Nord, catching a 9:30 train to Soissons. While it had been drizzling in the French capital, it was raining in Soissons, my intermediary stop. My attempt to “park” my bags at the hotel across from the station failed, as the concierge would be closed for the afternoon before I returned from the village center. So I basically pulled my gear the kilometer and a half into town. The Tourist Office agreed to hold my stuff, and armed with a map of Soissons, I ventured out towards the cathedrals.

Front facade, Basilique-Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais, Soissons
Basilique-Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais, Soissons

The Basilique-Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais was being restored, with the eastern apse end under canvas and scaffolding. The western facade faced out onto a shallow courtyard, making getting the shot I wanted impossible. Particularly as it continued to rain and the umbrella had stayed in the bags.

With shots from under the protection of the trees surrounding the parking lot at the cathedral’s east end, and then quick shots from the west side, I ventured inside. The apse and quire inside were also covered. The vault in the nave is impressively high with classic gothic crossed ribbing, the gallery about 4 stories above the side aisle and under the clerestory windows. A reliquary in a side chapel displayed the femur of St Alban, whose cathedral I’d visited in England in 2019.

There are two bishop’s thrones, a classic ornate cathedra, no longer used, and a more modern simple one which matches the post-Vatican II main altar table. Similarly, the stained glass throughout the structure varies along the timeline, older to modern, with a stunning rose window over the western entrance. Of particular interest is a painting by Rubens, L’adoration des les bergers, a depiction of the visit to the Bethlehem manger by the shepherds and townspeople immediately after the birth of Christ. The memorial hanging on the wall, honoring the British dead of the Great War moved me strongly.

Leaving the church, I strove for a better picture of the west facade and its single tower. Combining both the mobile phone and quick wipe-and-shoot with the Nikon, I achieved a few decent shots. The building closed at noon, so I felt “thrown out”, but it did motivate me to head to the ruins of the abbey that I’d spotted on my walk into town.

Ruins, Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes, Soissons
Ruins, Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes, Soissons

Ruins, Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes, Soissons
Ruins, Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes, Soissons

The Abbey of St. Jean des Vignes is under archeological care, but the twin towers with the open hole of the former rose window were stunning. The grounds closed at 12:15, and I was unable to find access, but still climbed rocks and mounds, maneuvered stones and tree roots to see what I could see. I felt it was better preserved than the former cathedrals I’d visited in Scotland - those of St Andrew’s and Elgin. But then again, it was an abbey ruin, not a cathedral.

Returning to the Tourist Office, I chatted a bit with the staff, and then went for my gear. Surprisingly, they never reacted to my mention of a taxi, nor did they mention the existence of a bus which could take me to the station. Thus, I walked the reverse route in the light rain, finding the hotel closed as promised, but I had enough time to have a small Pelforth, French beer, and crisps before the train arrived. On time, it was three stops until Laon, where I would spend the night in an inn located up on the butte. Romans and other tribes have always sought the defensible locations of higher ground, and Laon was yet another example. My research said to catch a bus, but I was last off the train, there were numerous travelers ahead of me to use the lifts and subway to clear the platform. I had a 20 minute wait for the bus which took me up a winding route into the city. It dropped me practically at the hotel door, and I was assigned Room 1. Cramped for floor space, the bed was larger than Paris, appeared to be softer, and had a decent bathroom space.

Front facade, Ancienne cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon
Ancienne cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon

It was still raining, but this time I left with the small umbrella on my way to the cathedral. Its four towers at the ends of the east-west axes, and a square lantern at the cross, I found it huge from outside. The Ancienne cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon had been a cathedral until the reclassification in 1802, which reduced the count of French cathedrals by half. Early gothic, it has a substantial vault with two levels of galleries over the side aisles, topped with clerestory windows. With the lantern, there was great light, despite the gloomy weather outside. Along the side aisles are small chapels, accessed guarded by gated doorways, most locked with the interior space used for storage.

At the entry to the presbytery, a magnificent rood screen protected the altar and sanctuary space. I noted several rose windows, of different time periods, in the arms of the cruciform layout. A carving of black stone of the Virgin and Child seemed to be the most visited chapel. Opposite was a chapel to a recently venerated monk, as there were photographs of him in his hood. A display reported the influences on six other cathedrals in France and Germany that Laon’s cathedral had had. The eleventh century baptismal font was highlighted, and linked me back to the last Belgian cathedral I’d visited, as it was of Tournai stone. The images carved into its face include the Evangelists and the historic rivers of the Old Testament. The Jesuit explorer of the central North American heartland in the seventeenth century, Jacques Marquette, hailed from Laon, and with Louis Jolliet, traveled in what became Michigan and Illinois, along the MIssissippi River about as far south as St Louis, Missouri.

A display, a diorama, was under plexiglass, a mockup of the butte that is filled with the buildings of Laon. It made real the climb the bus had taken me on. When I left the ex-cathedral, I followed the road along the town’s backbone. I was taking pictures, trying to show all four towers and the lantern, as well as shots out over the flats below the town. Ending at the University end, where the ruins of an abbey (possibly Hinault) were all locked, I found a well-preserved large church with imposing towers and spires and a gothic facade.

When I got back to the hotel, I searched for my clear-framed reading glasses to take with me to dinner. I’d apparently lost them in Soissons, so dug out the backup tortoiseshell pair. The hotel’s dining option was closed, so the husband-wife team running the establishment gave me a suggestion for Cafe Bistrot nearby. My dinner consisted of a half dozen escargot, a Laon burger with frites and a glass of Cotes du Rhone. Passionfruit and framboise sorbet for dessert. I wound up commiserating with a Welsh woman who was having mechanical difficulties with her caravan.

Wednesday May 10 had me up early, as I had plans in Reims, my next itinerary stop. My hotel hosts helped me with my gear, getting it into a taxi, and soon I was at the station and then on the train to the Champagne region’s capital. The hotel I’d booked in February had changed hands in 3 months, and my booking agency hadn’t advised, however, my reservation was honored. I left my gear as the room wasn’t ready (as I’d anticipated.)

Tour tickets were sold daily, early, hence my rush to leave Laon. When I got to the Tourist Office, I was told I could only purchase online. My primary objective was the tower climb, so while standing in their space, I booked a climb for the afternoon. And then left for the cathedral itself.

Exterior facade, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims (Paroisse Notre-Dame–Saint-Jacques) has a classic gothic facade, which I’d included in Cathedrals to the Glory of God from my 1993 trip that had included Giverny and the Champagne district. It was a film photo, straight on, which is now not how I prefer to photograph a building. So I spent about 20 minutes under the overcast skies seemingly threatening to break into rain, getting the outside shot I wanted (both camera and phone) as well as focused shots of the statuary (including gargoyles) on the western facade.

Entering the cathedral, per my notes written while having lunch shortly thereafter, I was underwhelmed. I wrote that I felt there was less ornamentation than I expected. Now, a couple of months later, and looking at my hundred shots, I question that judgment. Albeit, many of my pictures are of the windows and the high altar. In the apse, a trio of Chagall-designed stained glass windows, primarily in blue, provided muted light to the ambulatory chapel. Aisle windows varied, some from its construction, some modern abstracts in color, as well as “smoked” designs of clear glass.

In the presbytery the cathedra sat to the left side of the main altar. Unlike many of the stone or wood thrones, this is a cloth-covered, high-back nineteenth century armchair: the fabric, repeated in the backcloth and canopy, is a deep blue with repeated fleur-de-lis in gold.

The clerestory windows, set above a high gallery, are colored glass. Two rose windows fill the western wall with the larger, more classic, at the upper level. Windows of the side aisles were modern, either in color or smoke. The capitals of the columns varied, with multiple designs found. Rose windows top the lights in the transepts, however, the north transept was under conservation, so the canvas scrim hanging on the scaffolding only allowed outlines of the stonework to bleed through.

Out the door, I began my circumnavigation, finding interesting angles for shots, both of the building and its surroundings. After completing, I passed a large sundial on a square and headed to the Basilique St-Remi, where the bishop who had converted Clovis to Christianity is honored with a mausoleum. Two rose windows, a red-based in the western wall, blue at its opposite. Another massive church, I felt more comfortable there, staying until I decided lunch was in order.

Choosing Bistro Le Maryland from the options at a corner, I went simple, getting a Hotdog New York (mustard and onions) with a coupe of champagne. (I was, afterall, in Reims, the capital of Champagne.) Then, checking my tower climb ticket for the start time, I realized I’d booked for the following day! I headed back to the Tourist Office to plead stupidity, hoping I might be able to join that day’s climb. Reservations were max’ed out at 18, however, when 2pm rolled around, only a pair of younger women had arrived. A Frenchwoman, and her American friend from New York/New Jersey, they were pleased to lead up the 250 steps to the tower and inside and outside on the roof. My notes say it was a splendid experience with superb photographic opportunities, many of which appear to be black and white!

While at the Tourist Office, I explored options for the evening - a concert recital at a youth conservatory appealed, but started early. Instead, I chose to return to the room and took a half hour nap before tending to choosing my reservations on the trains the following day. I needed a seat reservation, so I pushed the planning out until I was due to leave France, and made all my selections, coming up with a list where I needed bookings. Heading to the train station (gare), I approached a pleasant woman who spent 15 minutes generating all the seats tickets I needed before I ran the charges through on my credit card.

A light drizzle was falling as I walked back to the hotel and then out in my search for dinner. Le Royal II Restaurant had a table of 8 seated over their dinner, with distinctively North American accents. My query was met with responses that the 4 men were on a boondoggle with their spouses (and a baby) for a Canadian firm. While there was much business talk, they were all enjoying the French experience to the hilt. I got a large amber Grimberger and ordered a pizza: Le Tisane - oignons, boeuf hache, chorizo, marquez, and mozzarella, and then added gorgonzola. Deciding to start with 6 escargot farce maison, I also got a large pichet of water. I contributed to the conversation until they all split, and then got into a conversation with an Irish couple who were sharing a bottle of Maison Deutz champagne over their steaks.

The snails never arrived, and the pizza proved to be so filling I could only finish half. And the water went missing. It had been raining steadily during dinner, however, the setting sun began slipping in under the cloud cover, yielding an arc-en-ciel (rainbow).

Awakening at 6 and then 7 on the morning of 11 May, I finally pushed myself out of bed at 7:30, leaving the hotel an hour later. My first train for the morning was on the A platform, with no lift, so I hefted it down and up, to ride briefly to the TGV station where I boarded after carefully situating myself at the correct carriage door. Once the earlier Paris-bound train left (after 15 minutes), I was able to board my train to Nancy. Fortunately, my reserved seat was near the door, and space was available for the luggage. My seatmate, a silent black man, was busy on his phone. About half way through the journey a couple from Ft Myers boarded, using their Eurail pass to continue to Colmar. We chatted about traveling, the Eurail pass experience, Hurricane Ian. (It turned out they are snowbirds, with their northern base in Chicago.)

Departing the train was easy, and my hotel was just around the corner from the station. However, Maps had a fail here, taking me on a circuitous route that sent me a block out of the way. My room wasn’t ready until 4pm, and the cathedral was closed until 3pm. Off to the Tourist Office for a map and purchased a ticket for a recital that evening in the basilica. I wandered the Vielle Village, saw two old gates in the city walls, passed by the closed basilica and wandered numerous small streets.

As my shoelace had broken that morning, I poked into several shops and markets looking for replacements. Meanwhile, the clouds were winning in the sky and finally the sun was deep under cover.

Chicken pad thai  at Empire de Chine, Nancy

After wandering for nearly 2 hours, I finally found the Marche - the marketplace. It was the first I’d visited this trip. After exploring, with nothing really appealing to me, I crossed the street to Empire de Chine for a light lunch of chicken pad thai with water.

Lunch done, I found a market where I purchased shoelaces. They were too long, so I pulled the excess towards the toe and knotted them, folding the excess under the laces on the tongue.

Front facade, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Annonciation et Saint-Sigisbert, Nancy
Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Annonciation et Saint-Sigisbert, Nancy

Then I headed towards the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Annonciation et Saint-Sigisbert. The pace of the rain increased as I approached the doors. With two spires bracketing the Romanesque facade, and set between adjacent buildings, I managed to get not-quite head-on shots before entering the narthex. Early 18th century, I noted the interesting capitals on the columns and in the eaves. My notes say it is a nice cathedral, with six gated chapels in the side aisles and walls filled with lots of paintings.

Natural light was plentiful, making it easy to appreciate the interior. I was “done” in an hour (it had opened promptly at 3,) so I headed to the hotel where I brought my gear to room #2. With two twin beds plus a loft, the bath was decent with an open shower. I was on the ground floor, benefiting from no stairs, but would hear street noise.

Tortilla chips with guacamole at Pap Joe, Nancy

An email from Eurail advised that the railroad would be on strike the following Monday and Tuesday in Germany, as I was planning to leave Luxembourg. I began exploring bus and car options. Dinner time rolled around, so I opted for Papa Joe, where I ordered a “Red Hot”: bun, fillet de poulet Corn Flakes, cheddar, guacamole, onion rings, poivron grille, chorizo and mayo epice. I added tortilla chips with more guacamole. A decidedly unfriendly place, the 4 on the wait staff made themselves scarce, as did the bartender. I was seated at the bar, and another couple were at a table - ignored! As I left, one server offered me a copy of the menu. Miscommunication reigned, as my attempt to get the pommes frites extra crispy resulted in an order of fries, and the red hot order had to be placed once I seemed it never was ordered. I was rushed to ensure I’d be in time for the concert.

Arriving at the Church of Sainte-Therese, it was dark, and fairly full. I found a seat over to the side, near a column. Promptly at 8:30 three women musicians entered (piano, violin, cello) took their positions in front of the altar.

Interior, Church of Sainte-Therese, Nancy
Church of Sainte-Therese, Nancy

Interior, Church of Sainte-Therese, Nancy

Then the (male) singer strode down the center aisle from the rear, to some standing applause. Probably in his early 40’s, he had an effective banter in fluent French (his name appeared to be Italian, Vincent Niclo) and he used a microphone to sing, with his middle and lower range being more impressive. Twice during the concert he “dropped the mic” and sang without amplification. During those pieces, you could see how much effort and work was involved. The cellist joined him for one song, and both string players provided backup. There was no program distributed or sold. He sang one encore.

My return to the hotel was uneventful, however I only overshot the entrance by a single block. Street noise was light, and I slept fairly well.

May 12 was a Friday, and I made my first journal entry sitting on the 8:28 train in the Nancy station. The lifts had been working, and I was ahead of schedule, so caught an earlier train and got to Metz Ville much ahead of check-in time. It was a “milk run” making numerous stops, giving a view of the countryside. I managed to get to the Kyriad Hotel via a modified Maps route, leaving my gear until later.

My plan was to make a “day trip” to Verdun. I returned to the train station, only to find corridors blocked, staff distracted and useless. Finally a civilian was able to direct me to the bus depot (through a tunnel at the far end of the station) where I boarded a bus for a 36 mile trip which took two and a half hours.

Facade, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Verdun
Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Verdun

I found Verdun Cathedral: Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Verdun to be nondescript with 10 large oil paintings mounted on the nave columns. There is an interesting baldachin, supported by gray marble twisted columns. The crypt was a broad empty space.

After a pee break on my way to the bus stop, I caught a bus, exiting two stops later to get on the train, reducing my return to an hour and three-quarters. The bus took me by several war cemeteries, while it sprinkled. Showers persisted while on the train.

Front facade, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Metz
Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Metz

Proceeding directly from the train station up a slight hill to the Metz Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, it sits in tight quarters on the square. Scaffolding held the shroud in place in the south transept. Very dark inside, the soot and smoke of ages needed to be removed from the stones. I found the glass to be an interesting mix, as there are double galleries with clerestory windows above in the rather tall vault. Like a fly on the wall, the organ keyboard was mounted seemingly unreachable, however, for my entire visit, it was being played. After assisting a German visitor in procuring candles, I went into the shop and bought myself a medal to St Peregrine, the patron saint of those with a cancer diagnosis.

Returning to the hotel, I got settled in and then went out for dinner. At Restaurant Au Detour, I started with a Suze, and selected the 39euro menu: salad melangee aux Ecrisse et foie gras; moelleux d'oignon, coriandre et creme de piquilles. A Saint Nicholas bourgogne accompanied. The salad contained two slices of delicious foie gras - creamy, melt-in-the-mouth. Crawfish, haricot vert, fresh mushrooms (some shaved) were the salad toppers, over red endive, parsley, dill and a shell of red cabbage. The lamb was super tender, falling apart, with potato latkes, squash, but the supposedly piquant sauce was rather bland.

Dessert was presented as a sampler, with pieces of canned pineapple, tiramisu, peach cobbler, mocha “something”, a raspberry and panna cotta. The latter was best, and the decaf latte topped off my meal.

Back at the hotel, the receptionist shared an observation: in Metz, those buildings which are yellow were built by French during their ruling the city; those that are red were put up by Germans, such as the train station.

Book: Cathedrals to the Glory of God
Cathedrals to the Glory of God

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Cathedrals to the Glory of God

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