Tourist guide to Amiens and the incredible Amiens cathedral

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Amiens is a beautiful town and is renowned for its magnificent Gothic cathedral, the largest in France, which is a World Heritage Site. It’s only a small town but it is perfect for a weekend break or a brief stopover on your vacation to France. Amiens is also the ideal base if you are visiting the Somme battlefields.

Amiens is located in the Somme department in the Hauts-de-France region and is the capital of Picardy.

Things to do in Amiens

Visit Place du Don

When thinking about the town attention, understandably, focuses on the cathedral and its precincts. But north of the cathedral, the Place du Don is a delightful cobbled street with 16th-century houses.

Pavement tables identify those that have bars and cafés; others sell antiques, and one is a tiny shop where the traditional Amiens puppets, the Cabotans are made. In the Puppet Theatre, these roguish marionettes, led by a Punch-like character, Lafleur, take a cheeky dig at society in the old language of Picardie.

Keep an eye open for announcements about their performances; you don’t have to understand all the language to come away with sides aching from laughter.

Picturesque St Leu

Nightime is not the best time to explore the canalside quarter of St Leu, the old weavers’ and dyers’ district. But it is certainly the time to be here for the spectacle of café and restaurant lights reflected in the Somme, for the buzz and for some of the best, and least expensive, food in town.

St Leu in Amiens

During the day, St Leu is formidable, a beautiful display of colourful stucco, half-timbered and brick façades, endlessly varied and attractive. Oddly, but lovably bizarre.

Read our Visitors Guide to Picardy

The floating gardens of Hortillonages

Not so far away, just along the Boulevard de Beauvillé, you can tour the Hortillonages, a fascinating 50km labyrinth of marshland canals that embrace hundreds of smallholdings where, less than a century ago, thousands of people lived and worked.

A floating garden

Inevitably, all this sitting in a punt, watching birds and fresh air is working up a huge appetite; time for ficelles Picardes (pancakes filled with ham, mushrooms and white sauce). Thankfully, St Leu is only a few minutes away; Jules Verne commented prophetically ‘Amiens in 2000, an ideal town’. How right he was.

Jules Verne museum

Jules Verne lived in Amiens for a time, from 1882 to 1900. The house, at 2, rue Charles-Dubois, where he lived was completely renovated in 2006, and today is one of the finest writers’ houses open to the public in Europe.

From the ground floor to the attic, the house evokes the personality, inspirations and memories of Jules Verne. Here, you find the authentic atmosphere of a private hotel with its furniture of the 19th century.

Marvel at the Perret Tower

As skyscrapers go the Perret Tower won’t impress many Americans. It’s only around 360 feet tall. But, this 1950s structure is, as you would expect from the French, incredibly stylish.

It was the first residential skyscraper in France and although you can no longer access the viewing platform there are apartmenst you can rent for your stay.

An interesting addition is a glass cube on the roof which lights up at night. If nothing else take a few photos of the Perret Tower and use it as a reference point when you’re travelling around the town.

Enjoy your lunch

While wandering aroudn the town those hunger prangs are sure to hit at some point. Asw with any town in France, Amiens has wonderful resturants and cafes. But do try the local crepes. Filled with ham and cheese it’s a perfect light lunch which should be enjoyed with a nice glass of wine.

What you need to know about Amiens Cathedral

There are many places, sights, buildings and experiences where superlatives are never enough, where we have to rely on sensory impact to get the message across. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens is such a place, and not without good cause is it listed as a World Heritage Site. It’s a classic case of ‘Don’t take my word for it; come and see for yourself’.

Construction work started in 1220, but it was not unitl 1528 that the spire was erected. It has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1981.

Louis XI described the cathedral as ‘Une des plus belles de tout notre royaume’, one of the best of his reign, its construction virtually coincidental with his time as king (1226-1270). It is certainly the largest Gothic building in France, begun in 1220 and completed in 49 years, a feat that explains its great harmony of style.

Thankfully, it somehow escaped damage during the Second World War, and remains today a monumental testimony to hugely skilful and largely unacknowledged masons and builders. As you stand before the great western face you know, to paraphrase Marcel Proust, that you are seeing something that is truly great.

Amiens cathedral is one of our: Top 10 places to Visit in France

Notre Dame is not the first cathedral in Amiens: that was built outside the city walls, on the tomb of St Firmin. But soon the cathedral and the saint’s relics were moved into the city, experiencing almost centennial misadventure by fire, being largely destroyed in 1019, 1137 and 1218, until the present building was begun.

A few years earlier, in 1206, a time of pilgrimages, crusades and unimaginable religious fervour, the then bishop of Amiens, Richard de Gerberoy, received canon Walon de Sarton from Picquigny, who had just returned from the Fourth Crusade bringing with him a lock of hair belonging to John the Baptist.

This priceless relic, still on view in the cathedral, turned Amiens into a shrine and a place of endless pilgrimage.

At a more secular level, the cathedral is bright and spacious, light and welcoming, majestic without being overpowering. The sculptures and carvings, both within and without, are sumptuous, many still retaining some of their original colouration.

The ‘Gloire’ above the high altar now houses the relics of St Firmin, and glows brilliantly as sunlight reflects from the white columns and walls of the choir. But for a truly moving experience, witness the nightly son et lumiere (April to end of September) that contrives to illuminate the western façade in colours that would match the originals.

As a cathedral song-writer once remarked, neither atheists nor believers can remain unmoved by so amazing a monument.

‘You don’t have to be much of an adventurer to surrender to the majesty of the cathedral at Amiens.’ Jules Verne

A story about Amiens cathedral

It’s approaching ten in the evening as we saunter through the centre of Amiens to the cathedral. En route we pass ‘La Dent Creuse’ where we’d lunched on Escalope de saumon grillé, sauce Béarnaise and pomme au four, washed down by a cheeky little house red that mellowed the moment perfectly.

Crowds are already gathering, and sitting in rows on steps, facing the great western portals of the cathedral. I find a spot, dead centre, and like an infant scramble indecorously on all fours setting up tripod and preparing cameras: my wife affects not to be with me and takes a sudden interest in a passing cat.

‘Ça commence’, someone says behind me as suddenly the lights go out and a sensuous French voice of pure silk – the sort that makes grown men drool – begins the story of Amiens and its great cathedral.

Gradually, lights, subtle at first, illuminate the western façade, picking out in pale, shifting light some of the hundreds of statues of what John Ruskin described as ‘the Bible in stone’.

Then, with ‘Wow-Factor-10’ suddenness, the three main doorways burst into glorious colour, a masterly display of laser-technology that spotlights every detail, returning the doorways to the colours they enjoyed when first decorated. There’s an audible gasp from the hundreds now gathered on the steps.

‘Truly splendid’, says the tourist blurb; something of an understatement if you ask me.

Visit the Somme battlefields

The Somme battlefields serve to remind everyone of the horrors of war, and the sacrifice so many people made. Today, two things are remarkable: one is that these places where so many people died, should be regarded as an ‘Attraction’.

Secondly, that a small tourist industry has evolved to guide visitors around the various sites. On one level, this is black tourism, on another it is a fitting way to honour those who died.

Visiting the battlefields, even so many years on, can be a very emotional experience. The landscape east of Amiens is mainly farmland, alternating long stretches of flat ground with reaches of undulation, and both flecked with stands of mainly pine woodlands.

This in 1918 was the front line between German and Allied forces. Today, dotted everywhere, it seems, are small, neat, well-tended war graveyards, nearly 500 in all – the Dartmoor Cemetery, the Norfolk and numerous Commonwealth War Graveyards wherein rest members of the Australian Cycle Corps and the Royal Fusiliers, sadly, among many others.

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