AmiensA city of contrasts
Twice the size of Notre-Dame de Paris and the largest gothic cathedral in Europe, Notre-Dame d’Amiens is a UNESCO heritage site with vibrant stained-glass windows, a labyrinth floor and a 42 metre high nave. It’s very much the heart of the city - but as you follow the cobbled streets away from it, you’ll find there’s much more to discover.
Amiens has its own type of macaroon made from almonds and honey. You can try them at artisan chocolatier Douceurs & Gourmandises, where you can also see the intricate delicacies and chocolate sculptures being made by hand. From there, it’s a short stroll to the Halles du Beffroi covered market where you can buy everything from meat and fish to wine and olives. At fromagier Julien Planchon’s stalls, you can taste local cheeses such as maroilles and bray picard, as well as cheeses from all over France (and some from the UK too). M. Planchon also creates artisanal cheeses including one with a jellied centre made from Somme poppies.
After a drink on one of the many terraces of the Place de Gambetta cafés, explore the shops of the pedestrianised streets or visit Maison Jules Verne, where the author lived at the end of the 19th century.
You might like to have lunch at one of the many restaurants along the canals in Saint-Leu (also known as “Little Venice”), or perhaps enjoy a picnic in Parc Saint-Pierre, followed by a boat ride through Les Hortillonnages - a series of simple privately-owned islands where local people grow vegetables and flowers.
“There’s a market on Saturdays in Place Parmentier which includes produce from Les Hortillonnages,” explains certified tour guide Julia Maassen, “It has a lovely atmosphere. And once a year in June, boats are loaded
Beyond its peaceful cobblestoned streets and ramparts with sunset views, its quaint tea-rooms and charming antique shops, Laon is soaked in history to discover at your own pace.
From the bullock sculptures atop its vast, light-flooded cathedral to the secrets concealed beneath its old citadel, hilltop Laon conceals surprises that delight those drawn here for the medieval streets, laidback tempo and panoramic views.
Go Up High…
Strolling around Laon’s seven-kilometre ramparts is first on most visitors’ lists, but booking one of the fascinating tours arranged by the tourist office is also a must. Most of Laon Cathedral – one of the first Gothic examples in all France – can be explored with the help of an audio-guide, but special ‘behind the scenes’ tours also take you up the narrow staircase spiralling through one of the five towers, for magnificent city and countryside views, then through the spellbinding south gallery with its wonderful stones and sculptures amassed during restoration work.
… and Down Below
The second unmissable tour is of the subterranean labyrinth beneath Laon’s old citadel. A limestone quarry from Gallo-Roman times (spot the pickaxe marks in its walls), it’s also been a grain store and a jail, with inmates across history including Knights Templar and German prisoners.
There’s an even deeper history to this compelling space, however – fossil prints of giant sea snails in its walls bear witness to the fact that Laon was surrounded by a warm, shallow sea a million years ago.
Treat the kids to an unforgettable Christmas including a magical horse show under the dome of Chantilly’s Grand Stables and a stay in Amiens with its festive market and cathedral illuminations.
Chantilly’s historic Grand Stables or Grands Ecuries are worthy of a visit at any time of year, but come at Christmas to enjoy a unique experience – the Stables’ atmospheric dome plays host to a spectacular family-oriented equestrian show on a new theme each year.
Also within the Stables, the Musée du Cheval, splendidly reworked in 2013 under the aegis of the Aga Khan Foundation, is a fantastic day out destination with children, with fascinating displays on horse throughout history and around the world, together with horses, donkey and ponies that you can visit in their pens. Afterwards, there’s the promise of a dessert topped with luscious Chantilly cream in the old kitchens of the Château de Chantilly just a few steps away.
Perfect as a base for visiting Chantilly, the city of Amiens a 90-minute drive away celebrates the festive season in style with France’s northernmost Christmas market, scented by roasting chestnuts and vin chaud. Meanwhile, its famous Gothic cathedral shimmers with a light show in a myriad of colours.
Amiens itself could be tailor-made for families, with a centre full of safe pedestrianised streets and spacious squares. It’s just a five-minute stroll from the cathedral square to the family-friendly Hôtel le Prieuré by traffic-free lanes.
Passing by a wooden lagar, we head through a heavy door and descend 30 metres below ground, to the heart of the hill. The temperature drops, the humidity is palpable.
Low lighting reveals a walkway leading into medieval quarries stretching over a mile on two levels, dug in the time of King Philip II.
‘Try not to lose sight of me’, teases our guide at the Maison Pannier, founded in Dizy in the early 20th century but now located in the home town of poet Jean de la Fontaine, Château-Thierry, just a few hectometres from the Pannier vineyards.
They’re small horses standing between 1.5 metres and 1.6 metres at the withers, sandy-coloured with hair featuring two colours. They live in the open countryside throughout the year and love playing games such as horseball or polocrosse. They’re ideal for riding, even for beginners. Their main qualities are: rustic, “docile and easy-going ”! There are 250 Hensons at the “Espace Equestre Henson Marquenterre” (Marquenterre Henson Equestrian Centre) with just under 40 being born every year. Do you like the sound of these horses? In that case, why not come to see the Transhumance of the Hensons? It take place every year at the end of October [+33 (0)322256864].
with five deep-red petals with a pink blush and light, fruity fragrance. Christened in 2004 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of World War I, it was named for a song written in 1916 by an English soldier and set to music by Haydn Wood. Since then, the song has travelled the world and been recorded by more than 300 singers, including Frank Sinatra and Yves Montand.
In 2014, as if providing a symbolic counterpoint to the blood-red Rose of Picardy, the regional council created the pure white Rose de la Paix (Rose of Peace). And Picardy as a whole is forever producing new rose varieties, in celebration of famous inhabitants or historical sites, including the heady red and yellow Jules Verne, the striking Henri Matisse, and the pink Palais Impérial de Compiègne – the latter with a colour somewhere between sugared almond and porcelain, giving it an apparent fragility that belies its true Picard characteristic: hardiness!
Reawakening colours from the 13th century.
It’s pitch black in the portico of the UNESCO monument Notre-Dame Cathedral…until suddenly, the three gates of the western façade and the gallery of kings are illuminated by an incredible light show. As if by magic, the cathedral’s 13th century colours are vividly brought back to life.
The idea for the multi-coloured displays came about when Notre-Dame Cathedral in Amiens was renovated between 1992 and 1999. As the many statues along the walls were renovated, more and more colours were discovered – evidence that the Cathedral had been much more colourful during the Middle Ages than it is in the present day.
SommeExploring a shared wartime history
The Somme was an enormous shock for the British – at the start of World War I its soldiers were volunteers, often untrained in battle.
Many visitors come to pay their respects to a relative who died here – sometimes they are the first in their family to have had the chance to do so. They are often helped by guides such as Sylvestre Bresson, who is passionate about helping families trace their history: he helped one British-Australian family identify the trench a relative had described in his diary and was moved when they took away a piece of the barbed wire he had been installing there.
British and Commonwealth history in the Somme is unique in that soldiers were buried ‘where they fell’; most French and German who died were repatriated. With the last veteran and eyewitness having died in 2009, there has been a resurgence of interest in a conflict generally less well understand than World War II. Meanwhile, the Internet has made it easier for people to trace their family history.
Whether you visit battlefields, memorials, cemeteries and museums independently or with a guide, to find a relative or out of historical interest, you can’t fail to be stunned by the scale of the loss of life. At the Thiepval Memorial, vast columns are inscribed with the names of the 72,195 British and South Africans who died in the Somme but have never been found. At Delville Wood, a memorial and museum remembers a 3000-strong South African brigade of whom only 145 survived. The wood itself, pocked by shell holes, has been replanted using acorns brought from South Africa.
At Pozières, a memorial pays tribute to the 23,000 Australians who died here – more than in any other battle. At Beauhamel Newfoundland, a path winds through a battlefield still threaded with trenches and dotted by memorials to Canadians and Scots. Lochnagar Crater is the remnant of one of 17 mine explosions designed to wrongfoot the Germans. Musée Somme 1916 in Albert has displays on trench life, while the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne castle looks at the war from the point of view of the common suffering of combatants and civilians of different nationalities.
"Sylvestre takes all visitors to a German cemetery to pay their respects."
A Writer’s WarFollowing Tolkien’s Footsteps in the Somme
"Roses of Picardy She is watching by the poplars, Colinette with the sea blue eyes She is watching and longing and waiting Where the long white road lies. And a song that stirs in the silence, As the wind in the boughs above. She listens and starts and trembles. Tis the first little song of love… "