Picardie and Champagne
We spent our first five nights
in a small village right on the border between the old French provinces of Picardie
It was an ideal location for exploring the region immediately northeast of Paris.
The view from the second floor of our country house.
Our first visit was to the
Château de Pierrefonds, built in the fourteenth century, ruined in the
seventeenth, and rebuilt in the nineteenth.
It was a residence for the emperor Napoleon III, and restored by the famous French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.
So it is more of a fantasy of what a medieval castle should look like than any real attempt at accuracy.
There are lots of interesting details and intricately painted rooms throughout the castle.
In the dungeon of the castle are plaster busts of French kings and other notables, eerily lit, who speak to you as you pass them.
The town of Pierrefonds has many nineteenth-century mansions, which once belonged to the associates of the emperor.
Very close to our house was
the city of Compiègne.
There was not much going on there, but on the edge of the city is one of the
former imperial residences of Napoleon I, modeled after the palace of Versailles.
Expansive gardens spread out behind the palace.
Joe found a long-lost relative in the emperor Napoleon III.
We heard about a festival happening in nearby Crepy-en-Valois, the festival of the pig, which we had to check out.
Look at all that garlic!
Another day we visited the
Château de Chantilly. It was an amazing place. It was begun in the fourteenth
then added onto over the centuries until it became the sprawling complex it is today. It was largely restored by
Henri d'Orleans, the man who would have been king in the late nineteenth century if France hadn't abolished the
monarchy. He used his vast wealth to restore the palace and enlarge it with extensive gardens and works of art
(the second largest collection of art in France after the Louvre Museum). He left it after his death to the state.
The huge former stables (below right) now house a museum dedicated to the horse.
We also stopped in Senlis, another sleepy
town that was once the capital of France (in the seventh and eighth centuries,
under the Merovingian kings).
A beautiful Gothic cathedral adorns the town, alongside which are the ruins of the medieval royal palace and remnants of the towns' former walls.
Yet another day we drove to Rheims, a large,
vibrant, and attractive city.
It's claim to fame is the Gothic cathedral where the kings of France were crowned.
The cathedral was mostly destroyed during
World War One, but carefully rebuilt,
and embellished with modern stained glass windows, including one set by Marc Chagall.
The sights of Rheims are interesting and diverse, from an ancient Roman triumphal arch to an Art Deco market hall.
Rheims is the headquarters for many champagne
makers. We toured the cellars of Taittinger, one of the best known.
The cellars, some of which date back to the Romans, served as shelters for locals from the bombs of World War One.
We also saw the medieval church of Saint-Rémi (Saint Remigius), the local patron saint.
Still another day, we drove to Soissons,
another sleepy town with a beautiful Gothic cathedral.
It was also heavily bombed during World War One, so has some beautiful 1920s and 1930s
buildings from the time of its reconstruction, including one with an Egyptian motif.
The church contains the relics of the paired
male saints Crispin and Crispinian, Roman martyrs,
and statues of other paired male saints: Peter and Paul, Protasius and Gervasius.
That same day we drove on to Laon, almost
at the Belgian border.
The city also boasts an immense Gothic cathedral, but much more of its medieval town has been preserved.
A church that once belonged to the Templar Knights survives (below), as does a former town gate (below that).
Outside of Laon are the evocative ruins
of the medieval monastery of Vauclair, demolished in the French Revolution.
It was a tranquil place to wander around in and relax.
Driving back to the house, we passed by an art deco church in a tiny village, doubtless also rebuilt after World War One.
We stopped briefly in the town of Coucy-le-Château, with a ruined castle.
We also stopped at the eighteenth-century
Château de Blérancourt,
closed for renovation but home to a museum of American-French friendship.