Amiens is a medium-sized town (pop.: 150.000) 150km North of Paris, on the way to beautiful baie de Somme. Mention it and you get a yawn, or just no reaction at all. It used to be the capital of Picardie, a region sort of stuck between the Paris region, and the North. Amiens is this as un-sexy as it gets. Or is it?
Amiens is famous for 4 things, but only 3 are photo material. The first is ficelle, the local gastronomic delight. Think of a crepe (thin pancake), stuffed with chopped mushrooms rolled in a slice of jambon blanc (plain ham), and cooked in a cream sauce. 100% crème, as far as I am told :-), and flavored with some shallots, and salt and pepper to suit. Sophisticated and pretentious, this is not. But oh, so delicious!
The second of Amiens’ claim to fame is its cathedral. Simply, it is the vastest Gothic cathedral in France, with an inner volume of 200.000 cubic meters. To give you an idea of scale, Notre-Dame de Paris could fit inside…. Only that of Beauvais is taller, except that it collapsed twice, so…. And when you see this cathedral, you cannot fail to notice the decorations which indicate the parenthood with Northern Europe, especially scenes with many small painted statues, which would not look out of place in Northern Germany.
The third item on my list is that Amiens was for decades the home of legendary sci-fi writer Jules Verne. To write sci-fi you need to write about devices that don’t exist yet, and his most famous one is the Nautilus submarine, a key device in his book 20.000 leagues under the sea. His house can be visited, and it incorporates small-scale models of his ficticious visionary designs. I could not but remember the same in the Clos-Lucé, the manor given to Leonardo da Vinci by king François 1er, where you can also see many models of the Italian genius’ inventions. Differences of course are that Leonardo saw himself as an engineer, each of his designs expected to be functional, and Verne had all the litterary licence to create concepts that never would exist beyond the pages of his books. Nevertheless, the contrast -nay the counterpoint- between these two visionary minds is striking, and enlightening.
The fourth and last item are the hortillonnages, a network of shallow, narrow canals crisscrossing some 300 ha. of land. Taking a tour down these canals with a quiet, electric boat is like a trip far removed from civilisation. The faint rustle of the water against the hull of the boat, the weeds growing on the bottom of the canals (clear water, because there is a steady current), the peaceful patches of gardens, specked with wooden huts without electricity or running water. You almost feel like an explorer in the far-way regions of Mongolia or long-lost extensions of Eastern Russia.
In truth, there is a fifth item, the tour Perret, or Perret tower, considered the highest skyscraper in Europe when it was inaugurated in 1950, and the highest building in concrete. But as I consider it a butt-ugly eyesore, I cannot run the risk of showing you an image, it would be grounds for immediate expulsion from the elite corps of DS contributors, if not outright excommunication. So you’ll have to make do with looking up the images yourself -if you must! This by the way is not an indictment of Perret’s ability, as he did great work on rebuilding the port city of Le Havre also after WWII, and that is now a World Heritage site.
So there you have, the un-glamorous, un-sung, un-overrun-by-tourists un-destination Amiens. It is an easy day-trip from Paris and back. How many such days can you put together that combine the best of the past (Gothic marvels, Leonardo, the best of the future (Jules Verne), the uninspired present (Perret), the deep-hidden hinterlands of Russia? With of course, scrumptious food, else all the rest amounts to nothing!
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