Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The lonely beauty of northern France

One car is enough

Straw medallions are everywhere at this time of year

I sit in the van on the crest of a hill. The window is open but it's raining softly. Ahead, the road sweeps away, plunging into a deep valley and then climbing to a vanishing point far, far in the distance. Golden fields stretch out on either side of me, dipping and rising in rolling waves. They are scattered with perfectly round bales of straw which gleam bright as coins as they catch odd rays of sun penetrating the clouds. Everything is still. Completely silent, except for the rain drops pattering on the windscreen.

Then I see car lights, just pin pricks for a while until they grow and take form. They charge down the hill, disappearing for a few seconds and then blast over the rise in front of me. Suddenly all is noise as the car rockets past. A huge whoosh of sound and the van shakes. And then all is silence again. There is nothing else here. No building, no sign of life other than these strange straw coins in the well tended fields. It has a haunting, lonely magnificence

This is France in the Picardy region - the department of Aisne to be exact. Koos and I are on a few days' break and are discovering the breathtaking beauty of the north. Neither of us has ever explored this part of the country before and we are both convinced that most others haven't either. There are few tourists here and we largely have the roads and the gorgeous villages to ourselves. Last night we were in Guise, a charming town dominated by the massive ruins of a medieval castle high on its hilltop. Today we spent the afternoon in Laon, a much larger and well known medieval city, famous for its superb gothic cathedral and ancient city buildings. It is a lovely place, shabby, but clean, gracious but lively and oozing history from every ancient stone.

A real french folly - a fantastic gateway in the middle of..well...nowhere

Then this evening brought the highlight of the day. We drove to a tiny village south of Laon called Braye en Laonnais where we saw the entrance to a two and a half kilometre tunnel on the Canal de L'Aisne à L'Oise. Yesterday we had seen the rather sad remains of a collapsed aqueduct on the Canal de la Sambre à L'Oise, so it was great to see this tunnel in good repair and clearly in use. Again, it was incredibly quiet and still and the evening sun cast a marvellous warm light over the hills and scenery around the canal.

The entrance to the 2.5 km tunnel on the Canal de L'Aisne à L'Oise

My phone photo doesn't do this scenery justice

We drove further and at the village of Bourg et Comin, we saw the canal cross the Oise again by means of another aqueduct. Standing on a bridge near the village, we watched a barge pass beneath us on its way to rest up for the night and a little further, we listened to the hushed talk of contented boaters enjoying the quiet of a French canal on a summer's eve.

It is food for my soul to experience this space, this beauty and this almost lonely silence, and what it tells me is that you don't need to go south to find France at its best. It is this, and it is here. It is and has everything I love about the country, and if I could I would settle here and let myself take root in this ancient land of hills and heavenly horizons.

PS I'll post more photos when I have a better connection. The first two are courtesy of Koos.


  1. Every syllable of your wonderful writing reflects the way I feel about this magnificent land.

  2. This reads so beautifully, Val, that it makes me want to go there now. I am reminded of how we watched Les 'Chtis together last summer and how people are just clueless about northern France (and Belgium, and lots of other places that are fabulous).


  3. The flow of your words matches well the waters of the slow moving canal.
    Am happy for you and Koos.

  4. beautiful words, beautiful country. I think with just the words I could have these pictures in my mind.

  5. Thank you all. We had a wonderful few days until the clutch in the van packed up and we had to come home early. Northern France is just so incredibly beautiful. I would love to make it my home.

  6. Your beautiful prose stirs up all sorts of emotions and images, lovely. There is something about Northern France that does grab one. We have sailed there on many occasions and thoroughly enjoy it always. Have a good weekend xxx

  7. It sounds lovely and relaxing. I can really picture it from reading your words.

  8. Sigh .... your wonderful writings and my beloved France and marvellous pictures have whisked me away to "lala land". Makes me want to go back - but alas - instead I'm off to your native land of England for 10 days in October! But, at least I'm getting over to your side of the pond as its been way to long since my last trip!

  9. wonderful you two got away for a few days into Northern France. You are very generous to write reflectively here, in sharing your adventures with us.

    Thank you for bringing us all there across the winding slopes of the hillsides and through the light rain to the canal.


  10. What a lovely descriptive blog! Makes me want to go (just noticed your words did the same to others)...yes move there Val and we will come visit!!!!!

  11. These are lovely photos, Val!

    Is it really that lonely in the north of France? But I guess everything is relative...

    The road with only one car looks much like our roads here - except on summer long weekends when the local population swells to ten thousand or so.

    I love the round straw bales - we have the same here, except it's hay. We've just had our first cut - it was late this year on account of the long, cold, wet spring.

    As for the lovely gateway to either nowhere, I can only guess someone had too much time (and materials) on their hands!

    Oh! And the watery tunnel! Isn't a bit scary sliding through it in the close darkness?

    Thanks for sharing all fo this!


  12. hello Miss Val, how are you? :) x


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