As we may have told you in previous posts, I (Thomas) come from the North of France. More particularly, I am originally from Amiens, the capital city of Picardie. This is why writing a post about this city has been on my mind for quite a while now. Amiens has seen me grow up; I, in turn, have seen it evolve and reveal itself over the years. So what if I made you discover my birthplace and its most emblematic places to visit during one day? A visit which is far from being exhaustive, but that will give you a first glimpse of the city. We will of course start with a visit of the nationwide famous Cathedral of Amiens before heading towards the picturesque district of Saint-Leu and ending the day with a visit of the Hortillonnages!
I always say that Amiens is a French city that is totally underestimated! Even though it suffered heavy destructions during WWII, it still has a remarkable and rich heritage. It is one of France's oldest city and is worth a visit especially for its famous cathedral, a gem of flamboyant Gothic style, which is the largest medieval building in France and cathedral in Europe. But Amiens is much more than that, there is indeed plenty to do: getting lost in the streets of the Saint-Leu district and taking advantage of the floating market every Saturday morning, strolling along the banks of the Somme river, visiting the Museum of Picardie and the House of Jules Verne, etc.
Peaceful and quiet, Amiens is also famously known as the "Little Venice of the North" due to its floating gardens and well-developed canal district covering around 300 hectares called Les Hortillonnages. The site is very impressive and it looks as if you are in the middle of nature; no city noise and no traffic can be heard! It is the perfect place to relax!
Therefore, for those of you who do not know Amiens, we strongly encourage you to take a tour to discover it for yourself, we are sure you will come back with a different opinion of the city! Furthermore, Amiens is a wonderful gateway to the Baie de Somme (check our post here) and to the Somme battlefields of WWI (check our post here)!
The history of Amiens begins in the Palaeolithic according to archaeological remains which show that the site where Amiens was built was occupied by men 500.000 years ago. In pre-Roman times, Amiens was known as "Samarobriva" which means the "Bridge over the Somme river". But it was Julius Caesar who first named the place in the Book of the Gallic Wars. Due to its geographical location, Amiens has always been a strategic place, and during the Roman era, it was located at the junction of many other Roman roads, which was fundamental for trade and for the spread of Romanization.
During the IV century, the region was christianized by Bishop Saint-Firmin. Attached to the people of Francia since the V century, Amiens was plundered twice by the Normans, in 859 and 882. Recognised by King Louis VI of France in 1113, the city was annexed to the French Crown in 1185. Several other occupations tarnished the image of Amiens, notably that of the Spaniards who, in 1597, attacked the city by surprise: soldiers disguised as peasants came to the ramparts' gates with walnuts and apples. Starving inhabitants opened the gates and the Spaniards took the town by trickery. After six months of siege, Henri IV took back the city.
During the industrial revolution in the XVIII century, Amiens enjoyed a long period of peace, which favored its economic development in the velvet textile industry. The town councillors undertook major urban planning works: the city walls were gradually demolished to make way for wide boulevards around the city centre and the railway was quickly brought into operation, with its first line built in 1846 linking the city to Paris.
The XX century was one of the most somber that Amiens experienced. With the Declaration of war in 1914, Amiens, whose geographical position made it possible to protect Paris, suffered the full impact of WWI. In 1916, the Battle of the Somme took place and was the bloodiest confrontation of the Great War with 1.2 million victims. At the end of March 1918, a wave of intense bombardments destroyed many parts of the city and led to the evacuation of the population. While the reconstruction of the city center, already severely damaged during WWI, was not yet complete, the city was once again the target of numerous bombings during WWII. In 1940, the Germans invaded the city. The French and British units resisted but a final offensive by the German troops broke the Franco-British lock. The city fell and the Wehrmacht was able to continue its breakthrough towards its next objective: Paris. The British army liberated the town on 31 August 1944. Amiens came out of this conflict 60% destroyed.
HOW TO GET TO AMIENS?
Amiens is located in the Somme department in the Hauts-de-France region (former Picardie region). It is halfway between Paris and Lille. For this reason, the city is easily accessible by various means of transportation:
- By car: around 1h30 drive from Paris (via A16 or A1 highways), 1h40 from Lille (via A1 and A29 highways), 2h from Reims (via A26 and A19 highways) and 1h30 from Rouen (via A28 and A29 highways).
- By train: around 1 hour from Paris (more than 20 daily return trips) and 1h20 from Lille.
Amiens is therefore an ideal destination located at the crossroads of many cities. This allows you to get away from these big cities to enjoy a more peaceful day in the capital of Picardie.
1. CATHEDRAL OF NOTRE-DAME D'AMIENS
If you were to see only one thing of Amiens, it would undeniably be its cathedral! It is the emblem of the city, it is grandiose, imposing and magnificent! For many, this architectural achievement looks a lot like Notre-Dame de Paris, but for those who look at it more closely, it's much more than that! While Notre-Dame de Paris has a simpler façade, the Cathedral of Amiens is a real treat for the eyes! Its facade abounds with countless statues and sculptures, it is a true masterpiece!
A bit of history now: the first stone of the cathedral was laid in 1220 by Bishop Evrard de Fouilloy. This piece of architecture was completed around 1290, meaning that it took only 70 years to build the cathedral: a relatively short time for such a gigantic work! By way of comparison, the construction of Notre-Dame de Paris took 182 years (from 1163 to 1345). It is important to know that three edifices had preceded it but that they were either destroyed or burnt. The Cathedral of Amiens was spared during the French Revolution and the two World Wars, which is almost miraculous!
The dimensions of the cathedral are colossal: 42.30 meters high under the vaults and 145 meters long. It is the largest cathedral in France thanks to its gigantic interior volume (200.000 m3) and is large enough to contain two cathedrals the size of Notre-Dame de Paris. The style of the cathedral is a perfect illustration of the transition from the classical Gothic to the more decorative "rayonnant" Gothic. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
Opening hours - daily from 8.30 a.m. - 5.15 p.m. | Admission - free of charge (guided tour: 6 EUR)
| For more information about Amiens Cathedral, check our post here |
2. SAINT-LEU / QUAI BÉLU
Located between the cathedral and the Somme river, this picturesque district is the lively heart of the old town. It is filled with colourful houses and small cobbled streets and offers, in some places, magnificent views of the cathedral. Crossed by the branches of the river, it was built on the water during the Middle Ages and has always been home to the numerous craftsmen and artists of the city. As mills were present in great number in the district, weavers, dyers and tanners gathered around them to carry out their daily activities as they were essential to their work.
In the 1950's, in order to give a boost to the neighborhood, the town council had the idea to set up universities in its heart. This allowed Saint-Leu to regain its charm, poetry and picturesque character. During the 1990's, a gentrification operation was implemented: demolition of old houses, creation on the banks of the river (Quai Bélu) of theaters, bars and restaurants to enliven the neighborhood.
3. LES HORTILLONNAGES
As written above, Amiens is famous for being home to the largest Cathedral in France but what makes the city really unique is the Hortillonnages, which can also be best described as the "green lungs" of the city. The proximity between the city and the site is quite impressive: just a few steps from the old town, you find yourself immersed in a quiet and peaceful world, which you would not suspect before visiting it!
It is almost impossible to discover these floating gardens other than by boat. Therefore, I highly recommend that you visit this unique place in the traditional and charming "barques à cornets" (hornboats). Needless to say that these boats are equipped with quiet electric motors which do not pollute and respect the local fauna. During the visit, which lasts approximately 45 minutes, the boatman guides you through the many canals of the site and tells you the history of this incredible place.
In some places of the Hortillonnages, it feels as if you are gliding through a dense forest, where majestic trees and birds greet you. In other places, the view is wider and gives way to beautiful gardens, sometimes full of wild flowers or impeccably maintained. Many cottages and huts are found in the gardens, often handed down from generation to generation.
Opening hours - daily from 9 a.m. to 12. p.m. - 1.30 p.m. to 6 p.m. (from April 1 to October 31) | Admission - 5.90 EUR
In Gallo-Roman times, the Hortillonnages were only a collection of wetlands and small islands located on the Somme river upstream from the city. However, the fertile land was already being cultivated by Romans to produce vegetables. At that time, the perimeter of the Hortillonnages was not precisely known but it is known that the site extended far beyond its current boundaries; some research shows that the site covered more than 10.000 hectares.
The size of the site kept decreasing over the years: archive documents explicitly mention the site as early as 1492 and at the time, the site covered an area of more than 1.500 hectares. By 1900, it had been reduced to 500 hectares; today, it covers 300 hectares. A dramatic decrease has happened over the years but we can consider ourselves lucky that this site did not disappear from the map and that we can still today enjoy the lush area in the middle of the city.
As I said above, Amiens is a French city that is totally underestimated! It is a medium-sized city that has a remarkable and rich past. This post only describes three main sightseeing attractions but Amiens has much more to offer! Don't forget to check our post dedicated to the Notre-Dame d'Amiens Cathedral (check it here). Indeed, don't forget for instance to visit the Museum of Picardie and the House of Jules Verne.
And now it's your turn to share your experience, thoughts and also tips to visit Amiens. Have you already visited this city? Did you enjoy it? We look forward reading your comments in the section below.