Fifth Stop – Rouen

Rouen on the Seine (image – Wikimedia Commons)

Our brief visit to Beauvais and Cathédrale Saint-Pierre was a happy detour on our way to Rouen, the capital of Normandy. After Paris, Rouen is the third largest city in France and sits on the same river as Paris, the Seine. Its location near the English Channel makes it a prosperous port city and a major hub for trade and commerce.

When planning our cathedral pilgrimage, I first thought about staying in Chartres. I decided against that after I read that many of the city’s businesses are closed in the winter and about the possible lack of high-speed internet. Still thinking we would stay in one place on our trip, I turned my attention to Rouen due to its size, historical significance, and the fact that it is home to several Gothic churches, including a cathedral. Even after choosing to make our trip a multi-city adventure, we knew we would have to spend an extended time in Rouen.

Rouen is where Joan of Arc was imprisoned and martyred. But today, it celebrates her life through museums, monuments, exhibitions, festivals, street names, and works of art (and several businesses and restaurants bear her name).

The pyre marker of Joan of Arc (Le Bûcher de Jeanne d’Arc).

Mapping out our pilgrimage route, I included the stop in Beauvais right before arriving in Rouen so we could see the Cathedral from where Joan’s nemesis Bishop Cauchon hailed. Driving from Beauvais to Rouen is a relatively straight hour-and-a-half drive on a two-lane road winding through rolling hills, picturesque farms, and charming villages. We stopped at an Aldi near Rouen, where we could stock up for our stay before checking in to our Airbnb. We shopped for groceries while trying to avoid exposing our pathetic grasp of the language. We were successful and resumed our trek toward the old medieval section of the city.

Our apartment was located in the heart of the historic center in a medieval building. I wasn’t fully prepared for the traffic we encountered to get there; it wasn’t even the tourist season. Driving in the historic center is like driving in New York City but with medieval streets. I was grateful for the Peugeot’s camera and warning system. Rouen was the first real metropolis we visited. The parking garage for the apartment was like all inner city parking in Europe – tight, but I was glad to leave the car safely tucked away and navigate this beautiful city on foot.

Our medieval apartment in Rouen.

After meeting our landlord and hauling our luggage and groceries into our place, we were eager to visit the three Flamboyant Gothic churches, the free art museum just around the corner, and the Old Market Square, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. But we had a week and a half ahead of us, so we settled in and prepared to see some fantastic sites.

Rouen Cathedral – Flamboyant Gothic style.
Rouen’s Gros-Horloge – a 14th century astronomical clock.
Gargoyles on the Royal Palace (1509-1540) – Flamboyant decor.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Fourth Stop – Beauvais

The fourth stop on our cathedral pilgrimage was more of a pause than an extended visit. Rouen was technically our next destination, but we could not pass up the chance to visit Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais since it was on the way. Beauvais’ cathedral has the highest Gothic choir in the world (48.5 meters or 159 ft), and the city was the home of Bishop Cauchon, the diabolical persecutor of Joan of Arc. Beauvais’ history and beauty demanded a visit, and since check-in to our Airbnb in Rouen was scheduled for the late afternoon, we had plenty of time to explore.

Beauvais is less than an hour from Amiens, so we got an early start for our day of exploration. We arrived before noon, and the drive allowed us to experience the region’s small towns and country roads since there was no major highway between the cities. We still had March temperatures, but it was sunny and felt almost like spring. After being in Amiens for a week, the serenity of a smaller city was a welcome change. It was easy to find parking near the Cathedral, and the tourist office was a short walk from the car. We picked up a city map that included a self-guided walking tour which we decided to take before exploring the Cathedral.

At the start of the tour, next to the Cathedral is the former Episcopal Palace of Beauvais, which also houses the Museum of the Oise Department, an art museum. It didn’t appear that the palace was open for visitors, but we could roam the grounds and visit the art museum. The evolution of the palace is nicely documented on the walls of a pavilion, and medieval tombs and architectural fragments decorate the yard. The art museum also has some lovely pieces in its collection.

“The Illumination Lesson” by Auguste Félix Bauer

From the palace, we visited the city’s ancient ramparts and center square, stopping to get a caffeine fix at a lovely cafe, one of the few times we were brave enough to attempt ordering something at a restaurant. Let’s just say we succeeded enough to get un café et un thé. Just off the center square is the Church of Saint-Étienne, once the center of medieval town life and one of the most important parishes in the city. The church’s history goes back to the late 3rd century, but the building dates from the 12th century. Unfortunately, it was closed, but we could enjoy it from the outside.

4th-century ramparts
Saint-Étienne Church

Finally, we made our way to the Cathedral. Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais was never completed having only a choir and transept. The remains of the original cathedral, the 10th century Notre-Dame de la Basse-Oeuvre, sits where the nave would have been built. La Basse-Oeuvre is one of the rare examples in France of late Carolingian architecture still standing.

First Cathedral of Beauvais, the 10th-century Basse-Oeuvre, a rare Carolingian structure.

When we entered the Cathedral, we encountered an inner door that appeared to be locked. I asked a young man in front of us in French if the Cathedral was closed. He didn’t answer, so I repeated myself. He then turned and said, “Speak in English.” Obviously, he was an American and couldn’t speak French, but he lacked the tact to tell me that politely. I asked him the same question in English, but he ignored me and pushed the door open. His rudeness took me aback, but I was a little satisfied with myself that someone else had mistaken me for a French person, but I’m sure an actual French person would not have made that mistake.

Amiens Cathedral is France’s highest complete Gothic cathedral, but Beauvais Cathedral has the highest Gothic choir vaults in the world. Pushing the limits of what was possible at the time led to the collapse of the choir in 1284, just twelve years after its completion. It has since been repaired, but the structure of the Cathedral is vulnerable, as evidenced by the visible reinforcing beams.

Beauvais Cathedral is a marvel, especially its choir, labeled “the Parthenon of French Gothic” by the French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

The enormous proportions of the Cathedral make it famous, but the 13th, 14th, and 16th-century stained glass is among its greatest treasures. However, most of its furniture and prized possessions disappeared during the French Revolution, but a remarkable 19th-century astronomical clock now finds its home in the Cathedral.

Beauvais astronomical clock by Lucien Auguste Vérité

One early 20th-century statue in the Cathedral that enthralled us was “Saint Joan and the Bishop of Beauvais” by Charles Desvergnes. It depicts the contemporary Bishop of Beauvais, Eugène-Stanislas Le Senne, asking Joan to forgive the actions of his predecessor Bishop Cauchon, who relentlessly persecuted the saint during the 15th century.

“Saint Joan and the Bishop of Beauvais” The Bishop of Beauvais asks Joan to forgive the actions of Bishop Cauchon.

We thoroughly enjoyed our short visit to Beauvais, with its magnificent Cathedral and historical delights. Like all of our other stops, one could immerse themselves in this lovely city’s beauty, history, and ambiance for quite some time without exhausting its charm.

Jeanne Hachette Square

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Amiens: A City of History, Art, and Culture

We spent a week in Amiens during our cathedral pilgrimage. Since our trip focused on cathedrals, religious sites, and French history, Amiens gave us a lot of bang for the buck. Of course, the Cathedral drew us here, but it was marvelous exploring the city, too.

Our narrow purpose necessarily kept us from experiencing many of Amiens’ virtues, including its culinary offerings. We wanted to grocery shop like the locals and save money, so we didn’t eat out. Also, we didn’t visit any military battlefields or cemeteries, even though arguably that is a central feature of this region. Perhaps on another visit, we can give the attention those sites deserve, which would undoubtedly humble and inspire us.

One of the reasons we took this particular trip was because we realized how little we knew about the Christian heritage in France. I don’t remember learning about the great Gothic cathedrals in school. Even today, one can get the idea that France was and always has been a secular nation known only as the birthplace of the Enlightenment. Perhaps this says more about my public school education than anything else; however, despite the controversy, France’s Christian history is profound, and Gothic churches densely populate the country, for which I am grateful.

Peter the Hermit, a Roman Catholic priest of Amiens in the 12th century.

Like most of the principal cities of France, Amiens has a Christian heritage going back to antiquity. We stayed in the Saint-Leu quarter, which, along with the eponymous 15th-century church located there, was named after a 7th-century bishop. As the “Venice of the North,” the district is full of canals, quaint half-timbered houses, boutique shops, and inviting restaurants. And the Cathedral is always looming just over the rooftops.

15th-century Church of Saint-Leu. “It has three naves. A flamboyant portal adorns the base of the steeple. The latter, struck by lightning, had to be rebuilt at the beginning of the 16th century. The ends of beams are carved. Stone and wood statues date from the 17th-century.” Wikipedia

We spent a whole day roaming the city’s center, visiting the Picardie Museum, Jules Verne’s house, and monuments. That’s when we met several residents who helped us navigate the city. Their hospitality and kindness left a significant impression on us.

Francis Tattegrain: The Mourners of Etaples
The “House with the Tower” – 19th century mansion where Jules Verne lived from 1882 to 1900.
Jules Verne monument

We loved exploring Amiens, but naturally, the Cathedral was the highlight of our stay.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Enchanted Chanting

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens is the third of the great cathedrals built in northern France during the thirteenth century (the others being the cathedrals in Reims and Chartres). Besides being the largest Gothic cathedral in France, it has an impressive set of medieval sculptures on its facade and many old polychrome sculptures inside. But the 16th-century choir stalls are one of its great treasures.

The choir stalls are located behind locked gates and are only available to visitors accompanied by a tour guide. Fortunately, we were admiring the stalls through the bars when one such guide approached to inform us of an upcoming tour. We had a personalized tour of these magnificent wood carvings a few minutes later.

The guide only spoke French, which did not diminish our experience. I tried to get him to use the Google Translate app on my phone in conversation mode, translating on the fly. He couldn’t grasp the concept but tried to speak English phrases during his turn in the conversation. We abandoned that effort and allowed him to explain things in French with English words sprinkled in.

He systematically took us through each side of the choir, explaining the stories engraved in wood on the stalls’ panels. It was relatively easy for us to interpret each vignette or scene because of our familiarity with the Bible and the year and a half of learning French with Duolingo. After a while, a French couple came to the gate, and the tour guide began a personalized tour for them with seemingly great relief while Lisa and I roamed around on our own.

More than four thousand carvings decorate the choir stalls. Like the sculpture inside and outside of the Cathedral, one could spend a significant amount of time studying these images. I photographed the ones that interested us, but I assume they are well-documented online. Regardless, the choir stalls of Amiens Cathedral are a must-see.

Traditionally choir members stood during mass, but these little seats – called “misericords” – allowed them to mercifully prop themselves up without violating church decorum.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Soaring Vaults and Great Treasures

We planned to make the city and cathedral of Amiens a particular focus for our cathedral pilgrimage. Besides Rouen, we spent the most time exploring here than any other church or place in France. I initially considered spending our whole time exploring Chartres Cathedral, arguably the best-preserved Gothic cathedral in the country. That would have been glorious but limited. We wanted a broad experience of cathedrals and France rather than a focused one.

Amiens and its Cathedral was a good choice for a week-long stay. The 140 feet high vaults of Notre-Dame d’Amiens are the highest of any completed cathedral. Its history, features, and treasures are fascinating and exceptional. And as I shared in a previous post, the city has many historical places and monuments (and we found the residents to be exceedingly friendly – some of the nicest people we met on the trip).

If climbing the towers of Amiens Cathedral raises you closer to the heavens, walking through its portals grants you entrance to them. The rock roof floats high above the ground while Rococo ornamentation dances around you.

With a pilgrimage maze under your feet, the glazed triforium of the apse allows the light to dazzle your eyes.

Like the parade of statues on the exterior of the building, the inside narrative displays of sculpture and quatrefoils are equally full of meaning. Again, Lisa was lost in her study of them while I became a frantic shutterbug attempting to capture digitally what our eyes could barely absorb.

The choir sits behind the bars of a locked gate. What I could make out peering between them was the most ornately carved choir stalls I’ve ever seen. A gentleman saw us looking through the bars dumbstruck and approached us to say a tour was available in 15 minutes. The wait was handsomely rewarded, but more of that next time.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Amiens Cathedral: Almost Heaven

The scale of Notre-Dame d’Amiens is hard to comprehend, a familiar experience when visiting Gothic cathedrals. Church architecture for medieval people served a didactic function; in other words, the building was a sermon. Approaching and entering such a structure is like accessing Heaven. It is simply impossible not to become transfixed at some level. Even repeat visits can’t quench the transcendent spirit of the church.

The sculpture and reliefs on the facade and interior of Amiens Cathedral were the most intriguing to us (besides those of Chartres Cathedral). They are rich in narrative and symbolism and “may well be the greatest single sculptural display in all of Gothic architecture.”* Like medieval pilgrims, we were caught up in biblical and church history while admiring them. We watched Professor Cook’s lecture and Smarthistory’s video on Amiens Cathedral several times beforehand (Smarthistory also has a companion article about the Cathedral).

We scheduled a week in Amiens so we could repeatedly visit the Cathedral. Each time we returned, something new and marvelous grabbed our attention. Lisa inspected and sketched the quatrefoils and statuary while I took Professor Cook’s advice to study the Cathedral’s features from various perspectives.

Near the beginning of our week-long stay, we chose to climb the towers. It was a little windy, so the woman at the Cathedral’s tourist office had to send a staff member up to ensure it was safe for visitors. Thankfully it was and cost just under €20 for both of us – worth every euro cent.

You enter the south tower through a door just inside the south portal on the western facade. There you climb up a narrow spiral staircase (similar to those in castles) until you reach a passage that takes you outside behind the Gallery of Kings and in front of the rose window. Just wow. I never imagined I would ever be so close to a rose window. We only saw one other couple exploring the towers. We asked them if they would take our photo by the rose window. The man was too scared to return to take the picture, but the woman boldly agreed.

From the rose window, you walk straight toward the north tower and enter a door leading to another spiral staircase up to the highest part of the Cathedral, the pinnacle of the north tower. The scout from the office awaited us at the top. After a mandatory “Bonjour,” we implemented Professor Cook’s recommendation and examined spires, buttresses, and panoramas from every angle possible, ignoring the wind and cold.

The outside of Amiens Cathedral is breathtaking, but the inside is stunning, which I will share in my next post.

*Footnote: The Cathedral Course Guidebook by William R. Cook, Ph.D.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Third Stop – Amiens

Continuing our circumnavigation around the Île-de-France, our next pilgrimage stop was the city of Amiens. France’s excellent highway system makes the drive from Laon to Amiens a pleasant hour-and-a-half cruise. When driving from Reims to Laon, we took the back country roads to visit Vauclair Abbey, but on this leg of our trip, we had no scheduled detour, so taking the highway seemed the best choice. If I had done a little research, I could have found a beautiful church to explore on the way, and I did briefly consider visiting Basilique de Saint-Quentin. However, I was still not confident enough to navigate narrow old city streets to take the plunge.

The main highways of France have tolls. You can have Google Maps or other mapping software create routes to avoid the tolls, but there are several advantages to using the paid highways, not the least of which are rest stops. We were starting to get a handle on the French road signs and the numerous roundabouts, but the toll booths were still a concern. I did not need to worry about them because they are similar to the ones in the States, and France, like the UK, uses contactless terminals everywhere, including at toll booths.

Since studying in Britain, I prefer making purchases with Apple Pay. Contactless shopping is ubiquitous in the UK and France. Using an Apple Watch with Apple Pay makes it more convenient. All I needed to do was roll down my window and plant my wrist against the contactless terminal, and voila, nous étions en route.

Amiens Cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in France, is a central landmark of the city, but Amiens is also known for other things. It is the capital of the Somme department (an administrative region similar to a county in the US) and was fought over and occupied by both sides during the World Wars. If the word “Somme” sounds familiar, it’s because it is the name of the river that flows through the city and region where some of the bloodiest battles in World War I were fought. Consequently, this region is home to several military cemeteries and monuments. Amiens is also the birthplace of President Macron. And the beloved author Jules Verne lived his last 35 years here, serving on the city council for 15 years.

Jules Verne House

Amiens is full of history, with over 1,600 historical places and monuments. We stayed in the medieval Saint-Leu quarter of the city (the oldest district of Amiens). It is called “The Little Venice of the North” and is packed with half-timbered houses and cafe terraces. The Cathedral is just around the corner from where we made our home base in the district (we could see it out the window of our bedroom). The region’s art museum, Musée de Picardie, is also a historic place initially founded as the Musée Napoléon in 1802 (the year of the Treaty of Amiens).

Saint-Leu quarter
Amiens Cathedral outside our bedroom window
Musée de Picardie

Despite all there was to see in Amiens, our priority was the Cathedral. After meeting our hosts and unpacking, we ventured out into the evening to get a look at this Gothic marvel. Unlike Reims, the Cathedral was not lit up and was closed. In the summers, they conduct a laser light show that colors the facade as it would have appeared in medieval times. But for now, we had to gaze at the imposing structure in the atmospheric light of the lampposts.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon

A church has existed in Laon since the beginning of the fifth century. However, the Gothic structure we have today dates back to the 1150s, owing to a parish uprising that destroyed several buildings, including the Romanesque church. Completed in a mere 80 years, the Cathedral is a stylistically unified example of Early Gothic architecture.

As usual, because our pilgrimage was during the off-season, we could enjoy exploring the Cathedral with hardly anyone else around. Laon is a small town, and the late winter/early spring does not attract large crowds. The tourist office is right next to the Cathedral, so we did see a trickle of tourists during our three-day stay, but for the most part, we wandered reverently in and around the church by ourselves.

A large section of the west end of the nave was free of chairs, which enhanced the feeling of grandeur that most Gothic churches give, but the light stone and lantern tower of Laon Cathedral gave it such a warm atmosphere. A recording of liturgical chants permeated the entire building creating a respectful atmosphere.

Laon Cathedral is unique in having a flat apse, but it puts that space to good use by filling the wall with a rose window and three lancet windows underneath fitted with original medieval stained glass. The side chapels along the aisles are closed off with Renaissance screens. We also saw painted sections on the wall of the chevet that appeared to be medieval.

A couple of intriguing pieces of art we encountered were the “Holy Face of Laon,” which is believed to be a likeness of Christ, and a 15th-century wood carving of Saint Martin of Tours.

The Cathedral has five towers of seven that were planned. The north Thomas-a-Becket tower is named after the English Archbishop of Canterbury, who stopped at Laon while fleeing England in 1163. An unusual feature of the Cathedral’s towers is the stone oxen that adorn them. They are a homage to the oxen for helping to build the church by pulling enormous beams up to the roof.

The Laon Cathedral is a beautiful medieval legacy set in an equally lovely medieval town on a hilltop surrounded by fairytale ramparts. This stop had all the features one could imagine reading in a medieval pilgrimage tale.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Second Stop – Laon

The second stop on our Cathedral pilgrimage was in the hilltop city of Laon. Retaining a great deal of the charm of its history, Laon looks like a storybook town out of a medieval tale. High up on a hill above the Picardy plain, its ramparts and fortifications successfully checked the invasions of the Franks, Burgundians, Vandals, Alans, and Huns. We were privileged to stay in a beautiful apartment built along the medieval ramparts giving us a spectacular view of the plateau beneath the city stretching for miles.

After the baptism of Clovis by Saint Remi (who was from the surrounding district), Laon became one of the main towns of the kingdom of the Franks and eventually became the principal city of the late Carolingian kings. Early in the twelfth century, Laon was an important center for learning, hosting the famous Anselm of Laon‘s school for theology and exegesis. Since the French Revolution, Laon has lost its prominence, but its architectural beauty, medieval legacy, and magnificent cathedral make it a magical tourist destination.

Laon can trace its history back to the ancient Roman Empire. Today it has an art and archeological museum in the former Templar hotel preserving ancient artifacts and historical works from the city and elsewhere. We spent an enjoyable afternoon combing through its collection.

Of course, our primary purpose in coming to Laon was to visit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon. It is one of France’s best-preserved early Gothic cathedrals and is notable for its unity of style and bright interior. I will dedicate my next post to the cathedral.

At the far end of the city, away from the cathedral, are the abbey and church of Saint Martin, which were unfortunately closed when we visited. They are now part of a complex of buildings that include the local hospital and a library.

Laon has a lot to offer, including an old Templer chapel and a citadel, not to mention a plethora of lovely shops and restaurants. As much as we would have loved to frequent these places, we had only limited time in this magical city, and the Cathedral awaited us.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage

Christian Time Traveling

The original 1963 set of Doctor Who (2014 reproduction) - Wikimedia Commons
The original 1963 set of Doctor Who (2014 reproduction) – Wikimedia Commons

Our cathedral pilgrimage was essentially a journey back through time. Although there are cathedrals built in contemporary architectural styles, our interest generally does not point in that direction. We’re interested in the Romanesque and Gothic styles mainly due to their beauty and because they reflect the medieval attitude. That “God-centric” culture produced buildings and works of art that astonish even today. So, after saying goodbye to Reims we hopped into our Tardis, I mean Peugeot, and set the controls for the medieval city of Laon.

Ardon Gate – Laon, France

Laon is less than an hour’s drive from Reims so we had time (ahem) before checking into our apartment to visit the ruins of Vauclair Abbey, a medieval Cistercian monastery founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134. Winding our way through the beautiful Laonnois countryside (a small natural region centered around Laon) we found the extinct monastery standing in shattered beauty nestled in the palm of a verdant valley. Exploring these ruins one could imagine themselves actually traveling back in time.

Once established the Abbey received several estates and farms and quickly prospered, even sending out monks to found another monastery near Épernay. Between the 100 Years’ War and the 16th-century French Wars of Religion, Vauclair Abbey suffered heavy damage, but it wasn’t until the French Revolution in 1789 that it met its final demise.

Wandering amidst the remnants of Gothic vaults, pointed archways, and decorative pillars you can almost see the ghosts of the monastic inhabitants going about their daily duties.

While doing research for our trip I learned of a small town near Vauclair where Merovingian tombs had been discovered containing the first Christian burials in the region. We headed to the town of Vorges to see for ourselves. Unfortunately, the medieval church was closed, but it was still a delight to visit the town.

Finally, heading to the old city of Laon we traversed several narrow country roads until we came within view of the cathedral standing prominently on the city’s hilltop. Pulling over to the side of the road, we stared at our next destination and prepared for another journey back in time.

Index of blog posts for our Cathedral Pilgrimage