Subject: Travels, Part 2 - Laon, France
Well, travelling friends - we're sure stuck at home today! Not even sticking our heads outdoors yet, as the snow continues to come down. Already 12 inches, and still going strong! The fun is that it's an unexpected free day! Work is closed, so the extra hours at home are great for catching up. What better time to finish our # 2 posting about the latest trip? Here it is: Time to head for the millennium celebrations in Paris. The Thierache region, near San Quentin and Laon, sounded very interesting, so we had planned our travels through there. We wanted to stay in the historic upper area of the cathedral town of Laon, and called ahead for reservations, but couldn#t get an answer. We wound our way uphill into the old section, and found that the preferable hotels were both closed for the month of January. We followed the signs to a no star lodging, hoping that perhaps it would be a charming little b &b or such---but it sure wasn#t! We walked into the lobby # a bar, and asked about a room for the night. The woman behind the counter gave us a key and directed us up the stairs behind a soundproof metal door. Hmmm#we walked up one narrow rickety flight after another, to the 3rd floor, and looked into the room. Not quite what we had in mind! We#re willing to stay in many types of accommodations, but this was beyond my limits! We had noticed a sign for the ever-available and reliable Ibis, supposedly in the upper town, and followed the signs to the outskirts of town, where we got a good clean safe room, and rested well, looking forward to exploring the old upper town the next day.

The digital thermometer in the car read 1 degree celsius when we came down to pack up the next morning. Francois and Tracy, whoever they were, had written their names and left their handprints in the frost on our back window. First stop, for coffee and a croissant, in a warm café on the cathedral square. In addition to breakfast, we enjoyed the informal gallery of watercolors displayed on the walls of the café and adjoining restaurant. Some of our favorite places, such as Collanges-la-Rouge in the Dordogne, were well represented in the artist#s work. On to the glorious cathedral # inspiring inside and out. Glowing with the sun shining through the rich jewel tones of the stained glass, the ceiling seemingly miles above us in the cold morning. Hurrying back to the car, and getting the heat going to warm us up in the winter chill, we began to follow the signposted lanes of the Route des Eglises Fortifees. One-lane roads through the fertile farmland, by bare trees, decorated with multiple balls of mistletoe, beside rolling green fields, we traced the path to towns centering on solid fortified churches from centuries past. These churches were reinforced and enlarged to shelter entire villages during times of war, and some of them even have bread ovens in their towers, to keep the town supplied with the essentials during times of siege.

In the tiny village of Burelles, we entered the church, but the stairway to the fortified tower was locked. We looked around the outside, noticing the arrow slits on all sides of the first level of the tower. We had parked by L#Auberge de La Brune, and looked inside. Who could resist this warm cozy place on a cold day? We decided to have one each of the 98 and 138-franc menus. The delicious courses included a mouthwatering tart of Mairolles cheese - a local choice that I hope I#m spelling right, a superb terrine maison, and rabbit in a dark-as-chocolate sauce of red wine, crème fraiche, and butter. In proud display over the fireplace was the Diplome d#Honneur, awarded by the Confrerie Gastronomique to the chef, Madame Louvet, for l#excellente cuisine de l#auberge de la Brune. This organization was founded to promote the regional cuisine of France by the Ancienne Compagnie des Officiers du Bouche For the non-French readers, that#s the Ancient Company of Officers of the Mouth # don#t you love it?!! And Madame Louvet proved that the cuisine of the Thierache is well worth promoting!

As Monsieur Louvet, the innkeeper, served us, he began to tell us about the village and the area, in response to our questions. As part of his service of hospitality, he held the key to the church tower, and offered to give us a tour when we were done. We were fascinated to see this part of France#s history. Climbing up the winding staircase of the tower, we came first to the guardroom with its circular view, from which soldiers would have protected the village during the 100-year and Spanish Wars. Continuing up to the next level, we stepped across a catwalk, liberally splashed with evidence of the pigeons we could hear cooing in the rafters, and into the refuge. In times of attack, the villagers could live for up to 3 months in this perch. It was furnished with a pallet on the rafters, a fireplace, food, and even wool to spin on the spinning wheel, and gave an enlightening glimpse of life under siege.

Only an hour and a half from Paris # and what a different world!

As we continued on our way, we saw constant evidence of the terrible storms that had battered the country. Many uprooted trees and swathes of trees snapped off about 20 feet up # it looked as if a tornado had ripped through in a devastating path. We saw several people with trucks and trailers cutting firewood.

Approaching Paris, we pulled into an Ibis in Bobigny # one more try for lodging closer than we had been able to reserve before leaving home. We had asked the Ibis in Antwerp, days earlier (and that chain had also been one of many I had called months earlier), to check if there was anything available in the Paris area, and heard the same words we had been hearing during our months of searching for lodging # all full! Expecting another Non, Madame in Bobigny, I wasn#t surprised to be told that they were, of course, full.

After using their facilities, I walked by the desk and the clerk called me over. Madame, you wanted a double room for two nights? Could it be that he DID have a room??? Yes, one of the tour groups from Germany did not need a room they had reserved. WOW! Were we glad! We checked in, put our things in the room, and walked a few meters to the metro, ready to see the sights in Paris.

Our articles in describe the wonderful millennium celebrations there.