To the southeast of the Somme, away from the coast and the main Paris through-routes, the often rainwashed province of Picardy becomes considerably more inviting. Amiens is a friendly city whose life revolves around its canals, while both the Amiens and Beauvais cathedrals are highlights of the region. In the départements of Aisne and Oise, where Picardy merges with neighbouring Champagne, there are some real attractions amid the lush wooded hills. Laon, Soissons and Noyon all have handsome Gothic cathedrals, while at Compiègne, Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoléon III enjoyed the luxury of a magnificent château. The most rewarding overnight stop is off the beaten track in the tiny fortified town of Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, which is perched on a hill between Soissons and Laon.
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Amiens was badly scarred during both world wars, but sensitively restored. Most people visit for the cathedral, but there’s much more to the city: St-Leu, the renovated medieval artisans’ quarter north of the cathedral with its network of canals, is charming, while the hortillonnages transport you into a peaceful rural landscape. A sizeable student population ensures enough evening entertainment to make an overnight stay worthwhile.
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame dominates the city by sheer size – it’s the biggest Gothic building in France – but its appeal lies mainly in its unusually uniform style. Begun in 1220 under architect Robert de Luzarches, it was effectively finished by 1269. The west front shows traces of the original polychrome exterior, in stark contrast to its sombre modern appearance. A spectacular summer evening sound and light show vividly shows how the west front would have looked, with an explanation of the various statues on the facade in French and then in English. The interior, on the other hand, is a light, calm and unaffected space. Later embellishments, like the sixteenth-century choir stalls, are works of breathtaking virtuosity, as are the sculpted panels depicting the life of St Firmin, Amiens’ first bishop, on the right side of the choir screen. Those with strong legs can mount the cathedral’s front towers. One of the most atmospheric ways of seeing the cathedral is to attend a Sunday morning Mass (9am and 10.30am), accompanied by sublime Gregorian chants.
Looking out over the plains of Champagne and Picardy from the spine of a high narrow ridge, still protected by its gated medieval walls, Laon(pronounced “Lon”) is one of the highlights of the region. Dominating the town, and visible for miles around, are the five great towers of one of the earliest and finest Gothic cathedrals in the country. Of all the cathedral towns in the Aisne, Laon is the one to head for.
The magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame, built in the second half of the twelfth century, was a trendsetter in its day. Elements of its design – the gabled porches, the imposing towers and the gallery of arcades above the west front – were repeated at Chartres, Reims and Notre-Dame in Paris. The creatures craning from the uppermost ledges, looking like reckless mountain goats borrowed from a medieval bestiary, are reputed to have been carved in memory of the valiant horned steers which lugged the cathedral’s masonry up from the plains below. Inside, the effects are no less dramatic – the high white nave is lit by the dense ruby, sapphire and emerald tones of the medieval stained glass. Crowded in the cathedral’s lee is a quiet jumble of grey stone streets. South of the cathedral on rue Ermant is the crumbly little twelfth-century octagonal Chapelle des Templiers – the Knights Templar – set in a secluded garden. The rest of the ville haute, which rambles along the ridge to the west of the cathedral, is enjoyable to wander around, with sweeping views from the ramparts.
About 30km west of Laon and 15km north of Soissons, in hilly countryside on the far side of the forest of St-Gobain, lie the straggling ruins of one of the greatest castles of the Middle Ages, Coucy-le-Château. The castle’s walls still stand, encircling the attractive village of Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique. In the past this was a seat of great power and the influence of its lords, the Sires de Coucy, rivalled and often even exceeded that of the king. The retreating Germans capped the destruction of World War I battles by blowing up the castle’s keep as they left in 1917, but enough remains, crowning a wooded spur, to be extremely evocative.
Château de Compiègne
Château de Compiègne
The town of Compiègne plays foil to its star attraction, the opulent Château de Compiègne, with extensive gardens that make excellent picnicking territory. The eighteenth-century château, two blocks east of the Hôtel de Ville along rue des Minimes, inspires a certain fascination despite its pompous excess. Napoleon commissioned a renovation of the former royal palace in 1807, and the work was completed in time for the emperor to welcome his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria – a relative of Marie-Antoinette – here in 1810. The ostentatious post-revolutionary apartments stand in marked contrast to the more sober Neoclassicism of the few surviving late royal interiors, a monument to the unseemly haste with which Napoleon I moved in, scarcely a dozen years after the Revolution. The Théâtre Impérial was first planned by Napoléon III in the historic apartments of the Second Empire. It was only completed with a restoration project in 1991 at a cost of some thirty million francs. Originally designed with just two seats for Napoleon and his wife, it now seats nine hundred and is used for concerts.
To see the Musée de la Voiture in another part of the vast palace, you have to join a one-hour guided tour. It contains a wonderful array of antique bicycles, tricycles and aristocratic carriages, as well as the world’s first steam coach.
You can visit the palace gardens separately. Much of the original French-style garden was replanted on Napoleon’s orders after 1811. The result is monumental; the great avenue that extends 4.5km into the Forêt de Compiègne was inspired by the Austrian imperial summer residence at Schönbrunn on the outskirts of Vienna.
As you head south from Amiens towards Paris, the countryside becomes broad and flat; Beauvais, 60km from Amiens, seems to fit into this landscape. Rebuilt in tasteful but dull fashion after World War II, it’s not a town for aimless wandering, however it is redeemed by its audacious, eccentric Gothic cathedral. It perfectly demonstrates the religious materialism of the Middle Ages – its main intention was to be taller and larger than its rivals. The choir, completed in 1272, briefly 5m higher than that of Amiens, collapsed in 1284. Its replacement also fell and, the authorities having overreached themselves financially, the church remained as it is today: unfinished, mutilated and rather odd. At over 155m high, the interior vaults are impressive, seemingly on a larger scale than at Amiens; though the props and brackets reinforcing the structure internally show its fragility. The building’s real beauty lies in its glass, its sculpted doorways and the remnants of the so-called Basse-Oeuvre, a ninth-century Carolingian church incorporated into (and dwarfed by) the Gothic structure. It also contains a couple of remarkable clocks: a 12m-high astronomical clock built in 1865, with figures mimicking scenes from the Last Judgement on the hour; and a medieval clock that’s been working for seven hundred years.