Cathedrals of Northern France

Planning your holiday around a theme can be fun!  My latest holiday in Paris and Northern France was planned around the theme of cathedrals.  A cathedral is not simply a big church; it is a the seat of a bishop. The bishop is the leader of the Church (whether Roman or Episcopal) throughout a large region. Therefore the cathedrals tend to be fairly widely spaced apart.  Many of the cathedrals in France are very well known and are often photographed, like Notre Dame in Paris and Notre Dame de Chartres. But there are many other cathedrals--and often they have the name Notre Dame (Our Lady)--sometimes this can be confusing.

Rouen’s Notre Dame is located in the heart of that city.  This cathedral was built over several centuries; construction began in 1063.  In 1199 Richard the Lionheart, Duke of Normandy and King of England, deeded his heart to Rouen Cathedral, where presumably it remains.  The cathedral's gothic architecture is a living record of how that style evolved. This is the cathedral whose front façade nineteenth century Impressionist painter Claude Monet immortalized in his famous series of twenty-two paintings.

A cathedral’s presence does not prevent there being many other large churches nearby.  In Laon, the great church St. Martin's was visible from such a distance, high on its hill, that I mistook it for the cathedral.  The city of Laon, not found on most tourist itineraries, is only a two-hour drive north of Paris.  This magnificent cathedral is one of the largest in the world (St. John the Divine in New York city is the largest).  Its interior walls are equally proportioned and are three windows in height.  All the windows are the same size.

The cathedral of Reims (pronounced Rahns) is probably second most famous cathedral in France, after Notre Dame de Paris. It is located in the midst of champagne country and is now on UNESCO‘s World Heritage list. This means that there is lots of money to maintain the cathedral, and to restore the damage done during World War II. The windows behind the altar were destroyed during the war, and Chagall designed the restored windows (left). An original rose window is shown at the top of this page.



Notre Dame de Reims is an example of a “balanced” style of architecture, like that of Notre Dame de Paris--that is, with matching towers. This is uncommon among the older buildings. Though not nearly as large as the cathedral at Laon, Notre Dame de Reims' spectacular windows can easily compare with those of Chartres.

Strasbourg Cathedral was never completed, which is now part of its charm.  Notice how it incorporates the local red brown stone.

Throughout the French countryside you will find Romanesque churches and abbeys as well as Gothic--such as the one here in Rosheim.



St. Bernard founded Fontenay Abbey in 1188. It, too, is in on the UNESCO National Heritage list. The abbey was purposely left unadorned to avoid distracting the monks from prayer.  One large room was the common bedroom for the monks.

Another church found on the UNESCO list is the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalen, Vezelay.  The original building was founded in 858.  The earliest part of its construction is Romanesque, while the later parts are Gothic: it has both rounded and pointed arches.

Look at this wonderful town--Samur en Auxois! 

This gargoyle was outside my hotel window in Paris!


Harriet H. Ahouse | Independent Travel Consultant
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