France – Amiens – Via Soissons, Coucy-Le-Chateau, And Noyon

SHORTLY after nine in the morning we left Rheims, on the Paris road. Despite Mater,* wistful glances at the sign “Paris” the car soon swung right, and followed the Vesle val-ley toward Fismes, a town dating back to Roman times. About two and a half miles beyond Fismes we crossed into the department of Aisne (which comprises parts of Picardy, Brie, and Ile-de-France) and, simultaneously, the road changed into the worst encountered during our entire trip. It was paved with granite blocks worn almost round on top, and the violent jarring threatened not only to loosen every nut in the car, but all our teeth as well. To supplement our maps, the Youth had purchased a carte Taride which we were using in preference to anything else since it was of recent date and at a large scale; on it, this road was shown as a “grande” automobile route and marked with the double dash of trottoirs practicables without any M. P. (mauvais pavé) or anything else, to warn us. In the hope that it might improve we kept on but, from a hill, we saw it stretching away, unchanged, for miles; then we sought relief by taking to the track some victims had worn along-side the pavement, but this rose and fell over two-foot and three-foot mounds, making the car sway like a ship at sea.

There was no use in going back, as half the distance was already accomplished. At the village of Courcelles, a cart-track on the left gave promise of escape, for it led to a secondary road entering Braisne from the southeast; but our hopes were dashed by a warning sign that the bridge across the Vesle was dangerous for heavy vehicles, so we were obliged to endure the agony to the end. We are wiser now; motorists should branch off southward on a good secondary road three and a half miles beyond Fismes; then they will not only avoid nearly all the pavé but will also see the old fortified town of Bazoches and its feudal castle.

It was hard to picture the dull village of Braisne as a former residence of Merovingian kings. Anyone would pass it by without a suspicion of fallen grandeur, but for the positively startling sight of a fine Gothic church (St. Yved, once part of a noted abbey) rising in solitary state amid these commonplace surroundings.

Two more short stretches of pavé were encountered before reaching the one-time fortress of Soissons. In 486, Clovis defeated the Roman army here and Sois-sons became the Frankish capital of Neustria. It is a town of abbeys, there being no less than four. As we approached, the fine spires of St. Jean des Vignes loomed up against the sky. With the exception of the cloisters, this is about all remaining of the abbey where Thomas à Becket sojourned for nine years. A very impressive sight—these two fine towers with spires, rising nearly 250 feet high; and, silhouetted against the sky between them, the great portal and a single arch and window of the nave. We had seen churches minus their towers and spires, and churches with their towers separate; but this was the only in-stance we met, of coupled towers standing alone in solitary grandeur, and I think it will stick in our memories as long as anything we saw. There is a peculiar fascination about seeing the sky through openings in the wall of a building; perhaps much of the charm of old ruins may be attributed to this, and, so far as completed structures go, we found a striking example, next day, when gazing up at the towers of Amiens cathedral.

Near the suburb of St. Waast is St. Medard, with scant remains of the world-famous abbey where Abélard was confined and where Louis le Débonnaire (the Pious) was imprisoned by his sons, in the dim long-ago.

Though there is an interesting old cathedral to inspect we did not enter the tortuous streets of Soissons, but turned north through its outskirts toward Coucy; some four miles out, the road ascended a hill, and thus, even before crossing the river Lette and the canal from the Oise to the Aisne, we had a distant glimpse of the château’s great towers.

Coucy-le-Château (as distinguished from Coucyla-Ville) is one of those enormous castle-fortresses for which France is noted and which she owes to the development of military engineering, a science in which she excelled as early as the days of William the Norman—when England was comparatively uncivilized, for all its good hearts and true. The château, built early in the thirteenth century, alone covers an area of more than two acres, and an extension of the walls incloses a little town all its own. Crowning a hill almost inaccessible on three sides, it had, besides the finest donjon in the world (a tower 210 feet high and 0o feet in diameter, with walls 34 feet thick), four huge supplementary towers and dozens of wall towers. Little wonder the possessor of such a fortress should display the boastful motto: “Roi ne suys, ne prince, ne duc, ne compte aussi; je suys le sire de Coucy.”

At the foot of the castle hill, the question arose could the car climb the zigzag road to the southern gate? Pater thought not, and ascended afoot by a short cut; but Bobbie was confident and, sure enough, our Packard made it easily—rolling across the town’s market place and winding through several narrow archways and alleys to the castle gate.

A voluble guide almost smothered us with his flow of French but, noticing that the crescendo of his gestures and an excited nudging of the person nearest at hand (be it man, woman or child) marked the announcement of interesting and important information, we managed to get at the main facts of his discourse without much trouble. Such a thrilling place as it was ! Oubliettes five stories deep underground, secret passages, bottomless pits, places we could not explore because of the danger, others that never had been explored ! Kitchens with ovens still extant ; sculleries, granaries, and the like; remnants of great halls and apartments, upstairs, to be seen only from below—with much craning of necks; chambers in the wall, oratories and recessed window seats; chapels with fragments of color decoration still visible on the vaulting, and so on. Then there was the secret chamber which hid the love affairs of a lord of Coucy and, later, of Louis of Orleans; and, finally, the great donjon with its well—whose depth the guide probed with a burning paper—and its beautiful outlook, enjoyed only after ascending to the roof by hundreds of stone steps built into the very wall.

Everything is pretty well in ruins ; Mazarin dismantled the place and had his way with most of it except the donjon tower. The thirty tons of gunpowder he buried on the ground floor merely blew out the intermediate floors and the roof, and made only one serious crack in the masonry. But he formed the biggest cannon ever fired—and that was something, if he wasn’t too greatly chagrined to think of this.

From Coucy our road led westward, again crossing the Lette and the canal, through Guny and Blerancourt into the department of Oise, which is formed of sections of Picardy and Ile-de-France.

Beyond Pontoise (not the famous one) we crossed the Oise and were soon rattling over the pavé into Noyon which, though small, is a very famous town; here Calvin was born, Chilpéric was buried, Charlemagne was crowned king of the Franks, and Hugh Capet—king of France.

Sixteen miles south of Noyon stands the huge château Pierrefonds, built by Louis of Orleans who once owned Coucy, its virtual prototype. Pierrefonds, completely restored in 1879 under the direction of Viollet-le-Duc, is highly interesting to tourists. That we passed it by as too far off our road—as we had Celle, Hanover, the towns northeast of the Harz, Merseburg, and other places—will impress you with the advantages of touring from centers.

French roads were becoming something of a night-mare; pick up a large-scale map of northern France with the countless spots of paved road dotted all over it, and you will realize that motoring at will through the country is not what you expected. Most roads into Paris are distinctly marked “impracticable pour automobiles” (impassable for automobiles). Even a poor country road is better; and a sand road, for all its terrible strain on the wheel, is preferable. The pavé of France and the narrow high-hedged, winding roads of England will make Germany a favorite motoring country of the future.

From Noyon to Roye there were two spots of paved road on the map, both marked practicable (passable) except for a mile or so. But “once bitten, twice shy” was our attitude, so we made a detour via Suzoy, Dives and Lassigny. Beyond Crapeaumesnil we passed out of Oise into the Somme department, which is the bulk of Picardy with a little of Artois.

Regular luncheon was skipped in the hope of making a quick run to Amiens. Near Coucy we stopped at a village bakery, but the result was not very gratifying; off the beaten track, French pastry gets as unspeakably bad as French roads, and we could scarcely eat the stuff we had purchased. As time passed, the pangs of hunger began to assail us; at Lassigny and Roye we made a tour of the market place in search of a promising hostelry, but gave up the task. Alas, that Germany lay behind us ! There—great or lowly—you are expected to eat well and drink well.

Roye does a big business in grain raised on the fertile Santerre plains. After leaving Roye, on the fine road to Amiens, we saw nothing but grainfields. There were no towns on the way, no farmhouses, no cattle, no workmen in the fields ; nothing but solitude and—grain. Indeed, the vast grainfields of northern France were a revelation; but that we knew our own western states so well, we might have thought this the world’s granary.

With a fine straight road for miles ahead, we saw ourselves safe and sound in Amiens ere long. Never count on your tires until you are home. Bang! went a blowout, and Amiens still ten miles away. Now we were in for it; the shoe was ruined and we were short of shoes. Pater swore he would cable to New York at once for shoes and tubes to be sent to London, but this helped little enough, out among French grain-fields. We had hoped to buy Michelins abroad, but Continental Michelin tires were very different from American Michelins. In desperation, Bobbie tried to put a front shoe on the rear wheel, hoping that, with careful driving, it might carry us into the city; it took three of us an hour and a quarter to get it on, but after pinching a good inner tube to pieces, it had to come off again.

We felt very sorry for Bobbie. As far as we were concerned, the stop gave us the privilege of getting acquainted with French shepherd dogs, an opportunity we should otherwise have missed. You may boast all you like about your Scotch collies and English sheep dogs ; I never saw one that could hold a candle to the French shepherd dog. In Scotland and England it means a loss of from two to five minutes, at least, when you meet a flock of sheep. In France, dogs keep the flock in long, narrow formation that leaves a clear passage, and you may go whizzing by without realizing their presence. The shepherd generally has three dogs ; one, padding up and down on each side of their charges. Should a sheep so much as stick its head too far out of line, the dog comes growling up and pushes it back; should one try to run away, a dog darts out like lightning, trips up the animal and then drives it back again. The shepherd’s third dog is on a leash ; when many sheep start to follow a runaway, or when turning a corner or any special emergency makes it necessary, the third dog is released and the trouble soon remedied. Thus sheep may graze by the roadside without the slightest danger to the unfenced fields, and when he wishes to move the flock, the shepherd need only give a sharp command to his dogs.

Three hours passed before we got under way again, and we rolled into Amiens after dark, with our lamps lit for the first time.

There was some trouble in locating the Hôtel du Rhin owing to its having two entrances—one to its courtyard and garage on the Rue Noyon, the other on the square. Of course we finally reached the wrong one but, as the hour was late, Bobbie was permitted to drive into the covered way in front of the office. The place was crowded with motors, many of them out in the courtyard ; when it began to rain they envied us our choice position and tried to crowd in upon us, one coming perilously near. Bobbie was up in arms at once, but as. the offender drove a Rochet-Schneider (the first Belgian car we had seen) he was soon forgiven—or, at least, forgotten—in the inspection of chassis and tonneau.

In ancient days Amiens was Samarobriva, capital of the Ambiani. The early introduction of Christianity with its ban on unnecessary cruelty, no doubt again spared us the ancient name. In 18o2, the peace of Amiens (between France, England, Spain and Holland) was signed here in the hôtel de ville, a building otherwise uninteresting owing to its recent and complete reconstruction. The Germans took the town, in 187o, after a series of battles in the vicinity.

Amiens’ early history as capital of Picardy, and neighbor and foe of Normandy, is well known ; at present it is the capital of the department of Somme, and a large, lively manufacturing town splendidly situated, so far as water highways are concerned, on that part of the Somme where the Avre, the Ancre, the Noye, and the Selle flow into it.

The Musée de Picardie has fine collections of pictures and antiquities, if such be of interest to you. The churches of St. Remi and St. Germain, the Beffroi (belfry), and the hôtel Morgan—a fifteenth century mansion—are all worth a look. But generally speaking, the stranger has no right to devote time to any-thing but the glorious cathedral whose façade excels, alike, the two, set stories of St. Paul’s, in London, and the poor palace-front of St. Peter’s in Rome.

Baedeker “double stars” the cathedral at Rheims while that at Amiens has to make shift with but a single asterisk; I suppose one may assume this as the German view and, since Baedeker fortifies his position by quotations from Fergusson, it may be the English view as well. I feel no misgivings, however, in asserting that, so far as American ideas are concerned, Amiens should be triple starred, at the very least.

The German complains that the towers are inadequate, and from one distant southwest view this objection may be true; but Amiens does not suffer for lack of spires, whereas Rheims most surely does; he complains that the side of Amiens lacks height, but this is due to the horizontal band of chapels built in between the buttresses—not to a defect in original design; if Rheims escaped those, it is merely a fortunate incident. Then he complains of the heaviness of the building. But this is just the point, mein Herr; it is the presence of a few plain wall surfaces which enhances the effect of the ornament and gives the indefinable suggestion of simplicity, purity, and dignity that makes Amiens the queen of churches. And it is the frittering away of many strong lines that makes Rheims approach so near the sort of thing we call “gingerbread”—appropriate in lace or confectionery, but too much of a tour de force in stone, Surely Rheims is beautiful enough—impressive enough, to forego this claim to being the acme of Gothic art.

As to the interior of Amiens, there probably is but one opinion. Says Professor A. D. F. Hamlin in his “History of Architecture” : “The triforium was no longer a gallery, but a richly arcaded passage in the wall. Nearly the whole space above it was occupied in each bay by the vast clearstory window filled with simple but effective geometrical tracery over slender mullions. The side aisles were lighted by windows which, like those in the clearstory, occupied nearly the whole available wall-space under the vaulting. The piers and shafts were all clustered and remarkably slender. The whole construction of this vast edifice, which covers nearly eighty thousand square feet, is a marvel of lightness, of scientific combinations, and of fine execution. Its great vault rises to a height of one hundred and forty feet. Earlier cathedrals show less of the harmony of proportion, the perfect working out of the relation of all parts of the composition of each bay, so conspicuous in the Amiens type, which was followed by most of the later churches.”

Amiens is built in the style called Rayonnante, which comes between the early French Gothic and the later Flamboyant form, and corresponds to England’s Decorated style. This church is the biggest, boldest, most dignified work of French cathedral-builders and, withal, the finest. For, finer than the extreme ornamentation of Rheims, than the complexity of Cologne and Strassburg, than the severity of Paris, than the flamboyancy of Rouen and York, or the crudeness of Salisbury and Durham, stands the church of Our Lady of Amiens—the most beautiful church in the world.

Even Baedeker admits the magnificence of its exterior sculpture on both front and sides, and bows his head before the Beau Dieu d’Amiens who graces the middle mullion of the west façade’s central doorway.

It is only fair that the French should be permitted an opinion in a matter concerning them so closely. Edouard Corroyer, in his “L’Architecture Gothique,” states; “The cathedral of Amiens, begun about 1220, one of the largest cathedrals of the period termed Gothic, and the one which is known as its masterpiece, grows directly out of Rheims.”

It has become fashionable to “rave” about Amiens cathedral. Reams of paper and a great flow of language have been expended upon it. Indeed, travel books are growing more effusive every year; plain English has no longer any place in them. Do not let their extravagant utterances lead you to overrate matters that, after all, depend solely upon your own special interest and individual taste. Cull out facts, select the places most highly recommended and note the ways to reach these; for thus, only, will you read such books with profit and without eventual disappointment.

Once the cathedral had been duly admired, and the purchase of the ever essential postcards and photo-graphs completed, there was nothing to hold us in Amiens. For the sake of such poor French as he knew, Scoffy was inveigled into a shopping expedition; this duty he performed, though not with high honors. Pater was much amused at the story, but we soon had a laugh at his expense. Although the portier had given elaborate instructions as to the best route out of town, we got confused among the parklike boulevards and had to stop for information. Pater summoned his best French,-

“Pardon, monsieur, voulez-vous me dire, s’il vous plait, où est le chemin à Boulogne ?”

Monsieur considered for a moment, then replied in perfect English, “I think, if you follow the street behind you as far as the square and then turn to the left, you will be on the direct road.”