After an early start in sodden London and a dash under the Channel we arrived in a less wet, but even colder France. I had always been interested by the silhouette of the distant Basilica of St Quentin, a huge mountain-like building soaring ominously in the distance. The journey had been long enough already for a stop so we turned off the payage and proceeded through the ugly outskirts of St Quentin, once the great Mediaeval city par excellence of Picardie. It turns out that this wonderfully grand and imposing church was nearly destroyed completely in the First World War, so it was quite a shock to see it looking so perfect and serene.
Inside there is an M R James-like quiet and other-Worldly calm to this spiky Gothic building. The silence is full of ancient whispers and one expects to hear a distant thin metallic laughter from high up in the Triforium!
This place is Huge! For me it was like being a child in a sweet shop...an empty, vast Gothic box of delights filled with treasures like the hand of St Quentin, a great sculpture of St George with a head modelled on King Louis XIV and the finest Baroque organ case in Northern France. If any church is worthy of a spectral organ recital, this is it!
If one wants to have the thrill of a great French Gothic church with none of the tourist rails and barriers go to St Quentin. This church has been through enormous trauma, but it still stands, almost impossibly tall restored to its original splendour wooing motorists off the endless payages of Picardie!
The next stop was nearby Laon Cathedral, arguably the finest early Gothic Mediaeval Cathedral in France, if not Europe. Unlike St Quentin, Laon was not bombed to its foundations and it looks like an ancient French hill-top City should do; great curtain walls, tiny winding streets, squares and, dominating all around, the great Cathedral of Our Lady with no less than five soaring towers of a projected seven. Lifesize stone animals gaze down from hundreds of feet in the air and the silhouette of this utterly extraordinary building is nothing short of Baroque in its sheer exuberance.
On entering Laon Cathedral one is brought back down to earth, as the proportions are comfortable and perfect. The stone is honey coloured and the architecture is the finest it can be...this is a Rolls Royce of a building, even the Triforium is vaulted beautifully in stone and the transepts have their own mini transepts under their own twin towers. Renaissance facades, like the most exquisite mini streets, mask the little chapels which form a continuous sequence around the cathedral.
The Choir and Chancel, entered beneath a black and gold Baroque screen, culminate in a great rose window and three lancets and a flat, rather than the typically semi-circular apse, east end. Laon is a masterpiece of a building and really like no other Cathedral I have ever visited. It is hugely grand, displaying the finest possible craftsmanship and has a magic and energy to it that falls nothing short of marvelous.
Nearby Vauclair Abbey, hidden deep in trees, is at the other end of the spectrum as there is very little left apart from the unmistakable atmosphere of an ancient Religious settlement. Fish ponds, broken walls and the tall remains of a dovecote are all that is left of a once huge building and the centre of an entire community.
One cant help but reflect upon the different fates of these three buildings; the first rescued from almost certain ruin, the second gloriously commanding its hilltop site as it has done for nearly a millennium and the last a mere footprint of what it was.
Now fast forward a few hundred years and a few thousand feet and in to the Alps!
Like most indigenous architecture which has grown out of working alongside the natural environment, Chalet architecture is home-grown and unmistakable in its style. As I sit in a luxurious modern chalet writing this while the snow and wind howl around outside I am reflecting on the traditional style of this particular house, with its timber construction, balconies and great sloping roofs. Like the Churches discussed Chalets have also followed
an architectural form and the variety of decoration is as varied as the Alpine weather.
The modern chalet grew out of the old Alpine farmstead, with its house with huge wide eaves and accommodation for man and beast. Where there was once a cow stall there is now probably a sauna, but nonetheless, modern conveniences have been fitted in to age old sensible design. The herders, whose houses these would have been, would bring their cattle up to the high ground in the Summer months and spend weeks making cheese and butter to preserve the milk. The modern chalet girl/boy doesn’t know how easy their lot is!
From holiness to holidays, architecture is alive and well in France and Switzerland from sea-level to glacier!