I recently visited Langres in the Haut-Marne department. It isn’t as well-known as it should be and I’ll tell you why this is a fabulous place to visit: it is not only one of the oldest towns in France, it’s also stunningly beautiful and boasts the longest ramparts in Europe, a whole 3.5 kilometres and, if you include the ramparts that surround the citadel, they measure an astonishing 5.5km.
This ancient town, founded more than 2000 years ago is perched 475 metres up on a promontory. The first inhabitants were a Gallic tribe who allied themselves with the invading Roman force and there are traces of their time prominent here. A monumental Roman arch survives those days, built into the ramparts. At two millennia old, you’ll understand why the entry to the town built in the 16th Century is known as “the new gate”! Topped by a carving of two naked men with their hands behind their backs, it was a clear warning message to unwelcome visitors several centuries ago and a sign of the sense of humour of the people of this off the beaten track part of France.
The walls that surround Langres are an incredible monument to time, seven gates and twelve towers bear witness to the many centuries of life that has gone on here. The towers are of different styles and sizes including the enormous Tower of Navarre with its 7 metre thick walls, inaugurated during the reign of Francois 1 (1494-1547). Inside you’ll find a presentation of the town’s history and be able to enjoy the ancient artwork on the walls that must have put a smile on the face of the soldiers who once lived here, including some quirky carvings of men mooning!
Langres, Birthplace of Diderot
Langres is where the revered French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot (1713 –1784) was born and lived. He was the chief editor of and contributor to the Encyclopédie. This encylopedia was innovative in several respects, for instance it was the first encyclopedia to include contributions from named contributors, and it was the first general encyclopedia to lavish attention on the mechanical arts. Diderot’s most famous accomplishment though was to ensure the representation of “The Age of Enlightenment (or the Enlightenment or Age of Reason), an era which covers the 1620s to the 1780s. During this time cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority (a hint of the French Revolution perhaps?). It was promoted by philosophers in urban coffee houses, salons, and Masonic lodges. It challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, especially the Catholic Church; there was much talk of ways to reform society with toleration, science and scepticism.
Diderot is honoured in the town with a street named after him, a square, shops, and several plaques and references including at the Jesuit College where he studied.
Langres is famous for its cheese, also called Langres. Made with cows’ milk to a traditional recipe it has a distinctive yellow rind and a dip in the top. Some say that the hollowed out top is for pouring Champagne in, another speciality of the region but I asked lots of locals and they said they’d not heard that one before! It has a strong smell, tastes slightly salty and creamy and is a perfect cheese tray addition for those who like a mature tasting soft cheese. Nobody knows how old this cheese as there are no records but it could go back to the 12th Century. The making of it declined by the early 20th century to be revived in the 1930s since when it has gone from strength to strength and gained AOC status.
It’s an old town that looks and feels very comfortable in its ancient garb. Mellow stone buildings look almost golden when the sun shines, shutters of grey and pale green and light blue are abundant, winding roads and cobble stone lanes meander around the city taking in gorgeous buildings that span several centuries including a beautiful renaissance style hotel particulier that is almost intact. Plus there are plenty of delightful boulangeries, shops, restaurants and bars. The views from the ramparts are beautiful and there’s even a free funicular railway to get you up and down the walls of the town to the free car parks!
Today, the birthplace of Diderot is a city of art and history which is remarkably preserved and brilliant for those looking for authenticity and beauty in a magnificent and ancient French city.