© Amiens, Cathédrale Notre Dame, Spectacle Chroma | CRTC Hauts-de-France - Stéphane Bouilland

Unrivalled Gothic heritage: 7 stunning gothic cathedrals and basilica

Not sure how to escape life’s daily grind? The 18th century German philosopher Hegel suggested that beauty was key to switching off: “We need beauty to stop thinking, to be able to dare to think differently.”

The Gothic art movement emerged in France during the Middle Ages and spoke to this expression of beauty, which was also shared by Victor Hugo and other French luminaries. In Picardy, the builders of the Middle Ages had the audacity to rise to the challenge. They helped spirits to soar with the construction of six cathedrals and a stunning basilica, huge jewels of Gothic art with towering ribbed vaults and pointed arches. As Hegel suggested centuries later: they dared to think differently, to awaken beauty and to see what was beyond them.

Northern France _ Beauvais _ Cathedral © CRTC Hauts-de-France - Ludovic LeleuNorthern France _ Beauvais _ Cathedral © CRTC Hauts-de-France - Ludovic Leleu
©Northern France, Beauvais, Cathedral|CRTC Hauts-de-France - Ludovic Leleu
Amiens

01. Notre-Dame d'Amiens

Reach for the angels

Take a step back and forget the stresses and strains of daily life. Touch perfection with your fingers at Amiens cathedral, home to a majestic stone bible and a building that’s recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From the courtyard, you get a sense of the dizzying height of the facade and its imposing stature. Start to climb the 307 steps of the towers, taking in the art crafted by the cathedral’s sculptors and masons. As you ascend, you get another perspective. Emerge at the top to enjoy a panorama that is peaceful and engaging, the atmosphere changing subtly according to the time of day. Milky greens shrouded by morning mist give way to purple hues as evening draws near, only to be swallowed up by midnight blue. At the top of the towers, you’re so close to the Gallery of Kings that you can sense the benevolent humanity of these 12-foot (3.75m) giants through their facial expressions and smiles. Anxious to offer perfect work to God, the stonemasons took great care to incorporate and complete details – even if they couldn’t be seen from the ground. Even the spire that reaches to a height of 367 feet (112 metres) will feel close to you up here.

Often likened to a “Gothic Parthenon”, the cathedral gives you a true sense of the audacity of the builders in the Middle Age, craftsmen who lightened the stone to flood the interior with light. The alignment of the columns is simply stunning, drawing your eyes towards the top. French poet Paul Claudel once described the cathedral as “incomparable in its sublime simplicity”.

Laon

02. Notre-Dame de Laon

The summit of a mountain

This “crowned mountain” of Laon looks as if it has been taken straight from a fairy tale. Perched on the top of a prominent hilltop that dominates the surrounding plain, the silhouette of Laon’s cathedral is visible for miles around. There are 210 steps to climb to reach the cathedral from town, but the summit rewards you handsomely with its breath-taking view. As you raise your gaze to the sky on arrival, the cathedral’s vertiginous sides make you wonder how on earth this lattice of stonework got here. In fact, the cathedral in Laon – built in the 12th and 13th centuries – served as a blueprint for the cathedral in Chartres, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and widely regarded as the high point of French Gothic architecture. The ascent of the towers is a chance to see the oxen carved from stone that illustrate the local “legend of the oxen of Laon”. It’s said that while transporting stone to the top of the hill during construction, one of the labourers collapsed from fatigue. Quite unexpectedly, a white ox appeared and helped transport the stones. The nave, meanwhile, covers four levels and is other-worldly with its milky light floating under the vaults. During August, the cathedral is the focus of a light show that illuminates the gargoyles, with a vast array of colours and animated animals bringing the walls to life. It’s a wonderful spectacle.

Noyon

03. Notre-Dame de Noyon

The most harmonious of France’s cathedrals

 

 

It was French sculptor Rodin who called Notre-Dame de Noyon the most harmonious cathedral in France. It has for generations been the seat of religious and political history. It was here that Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was crowned king of the Franks after rising to power in 751. Hugh Capet, too, was crowned here in 987. In fact, the cathedral is the second-oldest in France after Sens. You get a sense of the cathedral precinct’s old-fashioned charm as you enter the square courtyard, which is bordered by the priests’ old houses, instantly recognisable thanks to stone sculptures of their hats. Towers of more than 300 feet (100 metres) are finely decorated with mouldings and beads, or bands of foliage. The early Gothic art here was an important witness to the transition from the Romanesque era to Gothic design – and even today it has the ability to project a sense of reconnection with the wider world.

Senlis

04. Notre-Dame de Senlis

Watched over by angels

From the cobbled square in the heart of Senlis, this relatively small cathedral is a welcoming cocoon for visitors looking for serenity. Not as vast as the cathedral at Amiens, it provides a more personal experience and one more conducive to peaceful contemplation. The building is a delight from the moment you arrive at the entrance. The large doors dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin have had their original colour restored, the surrounding façade of angels providing an uplifting welcome. You can almost feel the history and the depths of time as you realise this 12th century lady was built on an even older sacred site. No wonder then that the 19th century French artist Séraphine de Senlis – born in nearby Arsy – found inspiration here for her acclaimed work, The Tree of Life. As you leave to stroll through the surrounding cobbled lanes, don’t forget to make time for the impressive remnants of the Gallo-Roman era – significant sections of the city’s 3rd century defensive wall still exist, as does its 1st century amphitheatre.

Soissons

05. Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais

Pure and simple

The cathedral at Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais in Soissons may be austere on the outside, but the inside is stunning. You’ll be seduced by the harmonious proportions of this cathedral, where everything seems to flow, from the cylindrical columns to the arcades that lead you to the vaults. The nave stretches over more than 100 feet (30 metres), while the ambulatory opens up on to a chapel with two floors. This is a place of religion as well as art: Adoration of the Shepherds, a Rubens work that depicts the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem, can be viewed in the transept. Other highlights include the massive 545-foot (66-metre) structure that supports 8 swinging bells weighing in at 18 tons. A local story tells the tale of Monsieur Lepaon, a lookout who watched over the city from the bell tower in the 19th century. He grew beans that he distributed throughout the town, giving rise to the famous haricot (beans) of Soissons.

Beauvais

06. Saint-Pierre de Beauvais

The highest Gothic chancel in the world

Beauvais’s cathedral may be without a nave following the collapse of its 500-foot (153-metre) spire, but it’s got its own wow-factor. Its unusual proportions come as a surprise, especially the towering 158-foot (48-metres) chancel, where the clergy and choralists sit, often bathed in colourful light from the magnificent windows. This section of the cathedral in particular is a sublime example of architecture from the Gothic period. But that’s not all! Be transported on another mystical voyage in front of the 50 perfectly synchronised parts of the incredible astronomical clock housed here. Admire the seasons as tides, eclipses and other cycles of nature capture your attention on the beautiful timepiece.

Saint-Quentin

07. The Basilica of Saint-Quentin

Stars in your eyes

For centuries, the Basilica of Saint-Quentin has drawn pilgrims and visitors. The building is unique for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has a unique double transept, an unusual architectural feature that lends the cathedral a slightly English appearance. In a city where so much is built on high, the cathedral keeps watch, guarding its Gothic treasures. The dimensions are breath-taking and the view found 121 feet (37 metres) up is worth the trip alone, with the Somme extending as far as the eye can see. Meet the gargoyles as you climb the 200 steps of the spiral staircase en route to the top of the Basilica, where you will be able to savour the creative genius of generations of architects and builders who have worked their magic here.

One fine example of their work is the five-pointed star that features in one of many gorgeous stained-glass windows. The Art Deco gables, meanwhile, her spire gives her an even greater sense of presence. It’s an unforgettable experience!