A Tour Upon Wheels in 1886 (chapter V)

Chapter V

A visit to Soissons would be incomplete without a visit to Coucyle Chateau. The name is well known from the proud device—”Roi ne suis, ne prince, ne due, ne comte aussi; je suis le sire de Coucy. This, in its simplest meaning, is nothing but the proud boast of a country gentleman of ancient lineage, who thinks himself as good as a peer. But the sight of the castle gives a new force to the words. They imply that the possessor of Coucy is a match for any king or prince in France; and he must, indeed have been a tough subject to deal with. The road from -Soissons to the Castle of Coucy is very good, but rises steeply. On reaching the top of a hill just when Soissons is passing out of sight, the keep of Coucy bursts upon the traveller like the keep of Windsor. It is round and massive, and the castle, like its English prototype, covers a large space of ground. Indeed, Coucy-le-Chateau is a town in itself, nearly if not quite as large as the town of Coucy-la-Ville outside the walls. At Coucy everything is on an enormous scale. It is some time before the eye can accustom itself to the grandiose proportions of the edifice; yet it was all built by a single man—Enguerrand III.—in a very few years. M. Viollet-leDuc suggests that it must have been garrisoned by an army of giants. There is no thought of luxury; everything is for stern defence. A drawing-room, made for some lady of Coucy at a late dute, is cut out of the thickness of the wall. We pass into the inner ward of the castle, and find ourselves at the door of the Round Tower, which bears on the architrave the crest of the Coucys —a man clad in Templar’s armour, with shield and sword, slaying a lion. We climb up the massive staircase, and try to repeople the shell with its jiving inmates. The upper room, with its huge galleries cut out of the stone, suggests a comparison with the great tribunes of Laon cathedral and of the Abbey of St Remi. From the summit the eye ranges over the district which the Coucys held so long in subjection. We cannot see the cathedrals of Noyon and Soissons, but we can see their immediate environs. We then understand how great a noble the Sieur de Coucy was, posted with his colossal fortress on the very frontier of France, and holding in his hand the lives and the power of three of its spiritual peers. Saint Louis must have been a bold and strong ruler to have dared to punish such a subject. The direct road from Soissons to Laon is half pave, and is therefore impassable for tricycles. After much inquiry, we discovered that our best course lay up the valley of the Aisne to a village called Vailly. The morning was hot and oppressive, but the road was good and the scenery pretty. We were again often reminded of the well-known reaches of the Thames. From Vailly we followed the Aisne as far as Soupir, where there is a country house with far-renowned show-gardens belonging to the daughter of a champagne merchant. Here we turned aside, and cutting across ‘country reached the main road again at Vendresse. A short ascent to the summit of a hill gave us a magnificient view. We then ran down a splendidly engineered road for three kilometres without touching the treadles of our machines. Another long ascent awaited us on the other side of the village, and from a cantinc close to a fort on the summit of a lofty hill we saw the fortress-cliff of Laon crowned with its cathedral and its abbey, commanding and subduing the subjected land which surrounds it. A long and rapid run brought us to Bruyeres, where there is a very old Romanesque church full of curious carving, the remains of an ancient abbey. After a very short ride we were at the foot of the cliff of Laon, but had two kilometres of weary marching before we could reach our inn. Our hotel rejoiced in the singular sign of La Hure—the Boar’s Head. We have met with it nowhere else in France. The town was so full of recruits just come in for their twenty-eight days’ service that we had some difficulty in procuring either lodging or board; but when obtained, both were excellent. The cathedral at Laon is one of the most impressive in France. It resembles that of Soissons, but is a little rougher in style. It is a marvel of simplicity and vastness. The huge galleries which surround its entire circuit, and the triforium which runs above them, would hold an immense concourse of people. It is more suited for a great spectacle—such as a coronation—than the cathedral at Rheims. It lacks a special beauty which Soissons possesses in the apsoidal termination of the transept. The cathedral has been thoroughly restored, and is not yet finished. The work has been done well, and with good taste—perhaps too well for doctrinaires, who believe that work of all epochs should be respected, and that the faintest trace of the original carver’s knife should never be meddled with. No one should omit to ascend the towers. They are curious and beautiful in themselves, and, raised above the summit of an isolated rock, they have an unrivalled view. Very strange are the figures of oxen interspersed among the pillars—an act of gratitude to the patient beasts who dragged the materials for the edifice up the toilsome hill. We felt here more ‘strongly, what was .never absent from our minds, the strategical importance of Laon as a bulwark of France against Normandy. Napoleon I., in 1814, failed to capture it from Bliicher; the Prussians, in 1870, entered it without resistance; but an obstinate officer blew up the powder magazine, and not only killed himself but injured the cathedral and the bishop’s palace. This last building is worthy of its destination. A great hall, in which the prince-bishop held his court, is cut up in courts of justice, but its former magnificence can easily be recalled. The archbishop’s chapel is still perfect, while the crypt bears witness to the antiquity of the see.

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