Stairway to Heaven

The second stop in Ina Caron’s train trip through French history is Laon — home to the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Laon. It’s a magnificient vision sitting on a hill that you can easily spot when you hop off the train at the station. Having read Mrs. Caron’s chapter on Laon, we knew there was a little tram that would cart you to the top of the hill, but it was early in the morning and we didn’t immediately see it. So, we just headed toward the cathedral, stopping to ask a couple of presumed locals about the tram. Either our French was so bad or they weren’t locals…because we did not communicate!

If you can’t find the tram in Laon…you take the stairway to heaven to get to the cathedral.

John and I began our ascent like two lumbering giants on a pilgrimage. Small, lithe French men and women were passing us on the stairs like it was the Indy 500. About 3/4 of the way up, I spotted the tracks for the tram. John and I looked at each other and simultaneously agreed that we were taking the tram down!

The uphill hike was worth it…because this Gothic glory awaits you at the top.

The history behind her is truly fascinating. A cathedral was first built here in the 1100s with the bishop doubling as the feudal lord. He left town for a while and while he was gone, the burgeoning middle class (merchants) worked a deal with the king — Louis the Fat, in this case — on their taxes (or the 12th century equivalent!). When the bishop returned, he was not a happy camper. His opulent lifestyle required that he milk the locals for all they were worth. He petitioned the king to rescind the deal and to make a long story short — the tax payers ended up storming the church where the bishop was hiding in the basement. Despite his assurances that he would leave town and never return, the locals weren’t inclined to believe the bishop could set aside his greed so they proceeded to bash his head in with a battle axe and burn the cathedral down.

Never fear, the marauding merchants gladly ponied up the bucks to rebuild and voila — about 30 years later we have the cathedral that we see today. Truly beautiful and distinct from other Gothic cathedrals because the architects went for light as opposed to height. Inside — unlike Notre Dame or St. Denis — it is brightly lit with sunshine pouring through stained glass against white stone. A glorious site…untouched during the Revolution and the two World Wars. In fact, take away the cars, and the village immediately surrounding the cathedral probably hasn’t changed that much since the 13th century.

Funny, people haven’t changed that much either! The have’s always want more and the rest of the population ultimately gets fed up with giving it to them and/or doing without. Greed is the same today as it was yesterday and as it always shall be.

These cathedrals are story books in stone…outlining for an illiterate population in richly-colored, glass pictures the story of salvation and transformation. It’s not hard to imagine the medieval citizens attending mass in these stone monuments to God believing He resided therein. They do, to my modern eyes, seem like space ships designed to lift everything within heavenward.

Laon is worth the train ride — a real step back in time where you’re reminded that the stairway to heaven resides within each of us — not in stone pillars or multi-colored glass, no matter how breathtakingly beautiful.

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