With a history spanning 1,000 years, culture galore and a fascinating Remembrance trail to boot, Aisne is worth a visit. Located just 1 hour from Paris and Lille, and only 4 hours from London, this stunning département is perfect for a short break.
This centenary year is the perfect time to explore Aisne’s wealth of remembrance sites, and soak up the culture while you’re at it…
Tucked in at the tip of Picardy, the gateway to Aisne is Saint-Quentin, a true phoenix from the ashes. A major logistics hub for German forces during World War One, the fortress town on the Hindenburg line was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing in September 1918. But in the years that followed, visionary architects rebuilt Saint-Quentin as an example of everything that was fresh, new and optimistic.
Today the town is one of France’s greatest Art Deco gems, its buildings embellished with geometric patterns and stylised flowers, wrought iron and bay windows. Must-see sites include the Basilica, with its Louis XIV organ and stained-glass windows, and the imposing Town Hall. East of Saint-Quentin, the small town of Guise has remarkable visitor sites that showcase two very different kinds of architecture. The medieval castle is a place to let imaginations young and old run riot with its dungeon and vast network of underground tunnels leading to vaulted halls and the infamous leper’s gallery.
The Familistère is another site of intrigue; built in the 19th century by the leading manufacturer of cast iron stoves, Jean-Baptiste André Godin, the project was a sophisticated vision to bring social justice to workers in the area. Apartments, a mixed school, swimming pool and even a theatre were built for the workers in the hope of improving their living conditions and offering them a better standard of life. Today the site makes for a fantastic historical insight and was voted the 3rd best European museum in 2015.
Laon boasts another spectacular cathedral, originally designed with seven towers but ending up with five when it was discovered that the foundations had been ransacked by local quarrymen, leaving them looking like Swiss cheese! Visitors can climb the towers and discover the cathedral stands, offering spectacular views of France’s most historically protected city- with 83 official monuments. But the highlight of any visit is undoubtedly Les Souterrains – underground passages and bastions which date back to the Gallo-Roman era. Further east, the Chemin des Dames became a tragic sight in the First World War as French, English and German troops fought over this strategic ridge from 1914 to the bitter end of the war; after 4 years of fighting the front had barely moved.
Today, a tour of the Caverne du Dragon tunnels and surrounding sites is a sobering, but essential, experience, showing a place of refuge for French and German soldiers where co-habitation even occurred for 2 months in the darkest hours of the war. Not to miss is the ancient town of Soissons whose roots stretch back to the 1st century BC. The local landmarks are the magnificent gothic Cathedral de Soissons and the ominous ruins of the Abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes. No trip to Aisne would be complete without a tootle down the Champagne Tourist Route and a tour of the Pannier Champagne cellars in Château Thierry.
The landscape of Aisne is a luscious green, and the surrounding area offers the perfect setting for walking and cycling. There is also a magnitude of private parks and gardens to discover for the horticulturists among you.
To pay homage to the thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice on this centenary year, the département is hosting a series of festivals and commemorations.
- The Somme American Cemetery marks the 100th anniversary of the first US offensive with a solemn ceremony at 3pm, May 25th in Bony. The US army has an intimate connection with the Aisne , who invested tremendous efforts to protect the departement.
- The next day, the Aisne-Marne Cemetery acknowledges the centennial of the battle of Belleau Wood at 9.45am with speeches from the military authorities, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony for guests; here the US Marines are remembered fondly for their brave commitment.
- The Oise-Aisne cemetery in Seringes-et Nesles will follow suit with its own Memorial Day ceremony at 3pm.
- May 27 will also see the inauguration of the Château-Thierry American Monument Visitor Center which commemorates American investment in France during the Great War.
- The Château de Blérancourt will join in too, with a brand-new exhibition ‘Winds and Words of War WWI Poster Exhibit’ from June 15 to August 27. The unique exhibit will bring together some 40 American propaganda posters created by such artists as Charles Dana Gibson, Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, and Norman Rockwell to stir citizens’ patriotism.
- On July 28, the Oise-Aisne cemetery will salute the courage of the dauntless 42nd US Infantry Division, known as the Rainbow soldiers;
- On August 7, Somme American Cemetery will honour the fallen at the Bellicourt monument.
- Finally, to end the centenary celebrations in style, a host of ceremonies, exhibits, conferences and concerts will take place between September 14 and 16 in Laon and Soissons. Blérancourt will also unveil a new memorial to the 370th US.
Visit www.jaimelaisne.com for more information about Aisne
For more remembrance information visit www.aisne14-18.com