If you’re planning on a vacation in Europe you really should seriously consider Picardy in France. This is a land of contrasts. From the towering chalk cliffs of Mer-les-Bains and Ault to the leafy valleys of the Thiérache it is a truly spectacular place.
It is a region with the best reserves of game-filled ancient forest in northern Europe, its biggest tidal estuary, and the largest expanse of sand dunes.
Wide skies or secretive marshlands, cosy villages nestling among rolling farmland and orchards, or the more open country of the Haute Somme; Picardy seems to have so much.
Where is Picardy in France?
The Picardy region is in the north of France, not far from the English Channel. In fact, at its western edge it does have a hold on the Atlantic.
It is flanked, to the north by Nord-Pas de Calais, to the east by Champagne-Ardenne, to the west by Haute-Normandie and to the south by the Ile de France. Today, it forms part of the new region of Hauts-de-France.
Travelling to Picardy
Less than an hour after leaving Calais, you slip seamlessly into the Département de la Somme, which with the départements of Oise and Aisne make up the region of Picardy.
On the drive from the port, white roadside sculptures of figures fishing, shooting, riding horses, sand yachting and playing golf, remind you that this is a region renowned for its active outdoor life, its sporting culture and its seafood cuisine.
The capital of Picardy is Amiens, a magnificent testimony to the ability of people to recover from the devastation of war, and rebuild. This was the Gallo-Roman city of Samarobriva, and after the Roman occupation, continued to thrive as a major commercial centre.
Read our: Visitors Guide to Amiens
During the First World War, it served as an Allied communications centre, but during the Second World War, much of the city was destroyed by German bombing. As a result, much of the city is quite modern, but its old heart and the cathedral, somehow survived.
The whole of the region is also famed for its architecture, notably its cathedrals, its fortified churches and chateaux. And for the many beautiful gardens that seem to occur everywhere.
Read our Guide to the Best French castles and chateaux to visit
You’ll discover spectacular gardens from the glory of Valloires in the north to the almost single-handed creations in the Jardins de Viels-Maison on the very southern edge of Aisne.
In Picardy there are sixty-seven gardens in all, renowned for their quality as collections of rare plants, their ingenious design, their originality or quite simply the way they complement the buildings they surround.
Things to do in Picardy France
Visit St Valery
St-Valéry-sur-Somme is a small settlement that grew around a walled and gated medieval town, where in 1430 Jeanne d’Arc was held prisoner en route from Le Crotoy to her trial at Rouen.
More significantly for the British, and almost 400 years earlier, it was from St-Valéry that William the Conqueror set sail for England.
Since then, the seafront houses along the Quai Blavet have been built, and rather chic they look, too, brightly painted and attractive with not a modern architectural blemish in sight.
In reality, there are two towns here, an upper town, with half-timbered houses clustered around its flint church, and a lower town beside the port. St-Valéry is the capital of the Vimeu region, and enjoys a lush and agreeable setting overlooking the Bay of the Somme. If ‘location’ is everything, this lovely village has it in spades.
From the seafront, the shimmering light plays tricks on the imagination, beguiling and at times thunderous, but always capable of producing something a little magical.
Looking west, it is difficult to tell where the sea ends and the sky begins, the opaque luminescence inspiring painters and writers alike. From your restaurant table, you can watch sauterelliers (local fishing boats), egrets and herons glide back and forth along the river, bathed momentarily in a few rays of sunshine that have slipped through a sliver in the cloudy sky’s armour.
Baie de Somme
Nowhere in St-Valéry, however, is far from the Baie de Somme. This is a huge and potentially intimidating place of sandy channels, mudflats and the raised spread of La Mollière.
Here samphire is harvested by students for less than two euros per kilo along with oreille de cochon, a fairly recent addition to culinary salads, although as a plant it has been around for hundreds of years.
On the other side of the bay, Le Crotoy seems lost in the vastness of the landscape. As at St Valéry, Jeanne d’Arc was briefly held captive here.
Centuries later, this modest little town enjoys a vogue as a quiet holiday resort, though fishing is still the mainstay of its economy. Jules Verne stayed here, and spent a deal of time with Jacques-François Conseil, an inventor of submarine technology. From this liaison came the inspiration which led to Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.
But for me, Le Crotoy will always be synonymous with sea food, and in particular the simplest of dishes, mussels in white wine sauce. The mussels come from the bay, and that means they’re fresh.
The same is true of the fish on sale along the seafront, though there are a few oddities among them, not least flancs de saumonette.
An unusual specialty here is the lamb produced by sheep that grace the salt marshes, setting out at low tide to feed, and returning ahead of the tide to safer pastures. The flesh has a distinct and ready-salted flavour…if they grew potatoes out there, maybe we could have ready-salted crisps!
Parc Ornithologique du Marquenterre
North of Le Crotoy lies the Parc Ornithologique du Marquenterre. Here, 3,000 hectares of pine forests, sand and mud flats are an irresistible draw for thousands of migratory birds.
More than 240 species are logged here annually, and over 350 species recorded since the reserve opened in 1973. Birdwatchers in their thousands travel here each year from the USA and UK, but it is as much a destination for less esoteric visitors who simply want to see white storks, spoonbills, egrets, herons, ducks, geese and swans in close up.
Read our Guide to Birdwatching in France
Further up the coast, the seaside resort of Fort-Mahon-Plage, is everything a seaside resort should be, except that it doesn’t have a pier.
This is a fun place, bustling, bright, maybe a little brash, but a popular place with families and people who love what this breezy atmosphere has to offer. Sand yachting (char à voile) and sea kayaking, are just two pastimes that attract the adventurous, while cycling and walking will appeal equally to those for whom something a little more sedate is essential.
But this area is renowned for its excellent international 71-par links golf course, the Golf de Belle Dune, one of twenty-three in Picardy, and one that is remarkably technical, with narrow fairways, and a reputation that attracts British people, often just for the day.
Things to do in Mers-les-Bains
Mers-les-Bains is located in the North of France and is a popular tourist location for both French travellers and people from abroad. There’s plenty to keep you occupied whether you’re here for a weekend or a longer vacation.
Primarily, the beaches at Mers-les-Bains are a huge attraction. The Plage de Mers-les-Bain has a reputation as one of the most stunning beaches in the areas where there is a pebble beach and small sandy patches that are ideal for the little ones to play in.
When you’re done enjoying the sea view, why not head to the Notre Dame de la Falaise which is a monument and lookout with some seriously Instagrammable views. The statue is a representation of the Virgin and her child and was built in 1870. Although during the Second World War, it was partially destroyed and so repaired in 1955.
The Eglise Saint Martin is another major attraction in Mers-les-Bain. Built in 1928, the church is set atop a flight of stone steps giving it a very unique appearance, not to mention the stunning views from the top. It’s free to enter and explore and is home to some of the most elaborate stained-glass windows you’ll have ever seen.
If you’re something of a night owl then the Casino de Mers-les-Bains is certainly the place to be. Not only can you indulge in some of your favourite games here but there’s also a bowling alley and a top-notch restaurant kitted out in a steampunk style.
If you’re travelling with kids or even if the adults fancy a bit of fun, Mers-les-Bains is home to an excellent and well-renowned mini golf course. Wile away a couple of hours with some healthy competition before picking up an ice cream and enjoying those sea views once again.
Why you should visit Picardy
This is a region that has known untold grief and misery, ravaged by wars. But it was also the playground of kings, the happy hunting ground of off-duty monarchs, bishops and sycophants.
It is a pastoral place, with exquisite countryside, gemlike villages with stories to tell, and a history that matches any in France.
There is so much for the visitor to enjoy and a vacation here will be remembered for ever.