12 June 2011

Last Sunday in Soissons

A week ago today CHM and I drove through the town of Soissons (pop. 28,500), visited the ruins of a big old church, had lunch, and then walked around in the cathedral for a few minutes taking pictures. The town was strangely quiet and deserted, especially — in hindsight — compared to the crowds of pedestrians and the traffic jams we ran into later in Reims (pop. 180,000), Troyes (61,000), and Sens (26,000).

I like to give population figures because they convey an idea of scale. Reims is a major city in France (like Tours), Troyes a small city (like Blois), and Sens and Soissons are even smaller cities (like Romorantin or Châteauroux). And I give the populations also for comparison with U.S. cities. Have you ever heard of Sunnyvale, California? Walt and I used to live there. Its population is 140,000 and it sits in the middle of a metropolitan area where more than 7 million people live. That's a world away from where we are now, in so many ways.

Street scene in Soissons

Passons. Soissons is an historic old town that existed long before the Romans arrived in Gaul 2,000 years ago. It was a kind of capital city for the « belgo-gaulois » people who lived in the region to the north of the Seine River up into present-day Belgium, and who held sway back then over the island called Great Britain. Julius Caesar described Soissons as a town that was "sprawling and prosperous."

New stained glass in Soissons cathedral

In about the year 500, after the Roman Empire started falling apart, Soissons was conquered by the Frankish king Clovis, who made it his capital or, at least, his main encampment. Several Frankish — French — kings were crowned there over the centuries, and the city was very prosperous in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the 16th century it was besieged and seized by the Protestants. Finally, it lost out to nearby Laon as the chief administrative city of its département at the time of the French Revolution, more than two centuries ago.

Across from the cathedral

In the 1870s, Soissons was shelled by enemy forces during the Franco-Prussian War. Shortly thereafter, the old walls of the town were torn down and replaced by wide boulevards, as happened in most French cities. Finally, Soissons was heavily damaged during the 1914-18 war by the invading Germans. The city was in the middle of major battle zones and changed hands several times over the course of the war. It suffered major destruction again during the 1940-1945 war.

The ruins of the Saint-Jean-des-Vignes abbey church

One of the main landmarks in Soissons is the old abbey church called Saint-Jean-des-Vignes — or what remains of it, which is just enough to be impressive. The monastery was founded in 1076. Several churches were built in succession, including the one that lies in ruins today. The monastery was disbanded during the French Revolution, and the church was gradually torn down. The stone it was built of was used to build houses in Soissons. Like Jumièges in Normandy, the old building was used as a kind of quarry for decades or generations.

Two examples of stained glass windows in Soissons cathedral

After much degradation and abuse during the Revolution and again under Napolean, when it was used as an ammunition dump, the cathedral in Soissons, as in so many other northern French towns and cities, was nearly completely destroyed during the First World War. It has been rebuilt. Some of the stained glass windows are very old — 14th century — and beautiful. Others are modern, and beautiful in their own way.

Statuary inside the cathedral at Soissons

What we did in Soissons last Sunday was drive around on the city's wide streets and boulevards, admire the ruins of the Saint-Jean-des-Vignes abbey church, and walk around in the cathedral. The weather was hot and turning muggy. There was thunder and lightning that night, and it rained heavily, off and on, the next day. But no, the drought — la sécheresse — is not yet over. There has been rain but not nearly enough to make up the deficit.

The crêperie by the cathedral and our waiter
having a cigarette in the doorway

We also had lunch. We didn't see many places open, but we drove past a crêperie near the cathedral and decided to have lunch there. We each had savory buckwheat crêpe, called a galette au sarrasin, filled with ham, cheese, an egg, and (for me) mushrooms. Then I had a dessert crêpe with coconut and CHM had some ice cream.

Une galette « complète » aux champignons et une salade verte

The food was good, and the waiter was funny, talkative, and efficient. I'll keep a good memory of Soissons, which I had never visited before.


  1. Ha! That's so funny! The US town you gave as an example is where I grew up in the 80's! :)

  2. I lived in Sunnyvale in the early 1990s, when I worked at Apple.

  3. We lived in Sunnyvale for two months in the summer of '78 when Paul was a visiting scientist at Xerox in Palo Alto. We rented the home of Philip and Lois Blair. The third month we stayed in Paul's sister's apartment on Gough Street in San Francisco. In Sunnyvale, next to the grocery store was a little "computer shop" which I think was very early Apple. So long ago and far away.

    Sorry to be so diverted from your interesting post about French towns!

  4. It may be colder and rain more in northern France, but somehow, these towns just seem to be more 'French'

  5. Hi Kristi, we lived on Gough Street in San Francisco for 4 or 5 years before we moved to Sunnyvale. What a funny coincidence. We were near Sutter Street and Japantown.

    John-san, I agree with you.

  6. My sil Maria lives in one of those round buildings across from the cathedral. We've borrowed their apartment a few times because they are often in Budapest in the summer. I don't think where you lived is that far away, but my memory is not great.

  7. I have never lived in Sunnyvale or San Francisco, but I'll comment anyway :)))

    The buckwheat crepe meal looks mighty tasty, and I enjoyed your info about Soissons. Are you back home now?


  8. The ruins are very imposing just as they are. Too bad they used the abbey as a quarry - reminds me of what happened in Rome....

  9. Judy, yes, back home now. And it's just starting to rain this afternoon. CHM is spending a few days with us before going back to Paris.

    Kristi, those round buildings were just down the street from us. We lived just behind the Majestic Hotel on Gough.

    Diogenes, oui, c'est ça.

  10. During our first California stint, my office was in Sunnyvale (Scientific Data Systems Branch Office); but we lived in a wonderful Eichler apar4tment complex in Santa Clara.

  11. I think I've heard of Sunnyvale. Wait, let me go look out the window. Yup, it's there.

  12. Cheryl, LOL.

    Bill, maybe a stint in Sunnyvale is a requirement for bloggers and commenters. I worked in Santa Clara, lived in Sunnyvale near the intersection of Fremont and Wolfe.

  13. For some reason, this entry left me hungry.

  14. Don't have a Sunnyvale connection either :-) I lived in Brentwood, LA as a kid.
    Soissons looks an interesting place to visit. Glad they were able to salvage some of the old glass in the Cathedral. We've visited Jumieges a number of times, a beautiful place.

  15. Ken - I hope it was a typing error but World War II was 1939 - 1945.....
    In 1939 after the fall of France Great Britain stood alone

  16. Hello, Charles Henry. How nice to read of your travels with Ken to visit yet another cathedral in yet another town with centuries of history. Mary and I find your blog most interesting. Have a great visit. Some day we'll have to get you to Carmel.

  17. @Ken, my dad worked for Apple in the 80's and then in the early 90's moved to Taligent...
    I used to go around the Apple cubicles with my little red wagon selling Girl Scout cookies - ever see me? lol


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