Travels in Rousseau's garden

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The Independent Online
On the trail of Dumas, Rousseau and Jules Verne, Josephine Siedlecka took a weekend break in Picardy.

Giant oxen gaze down from the tower of Laon cathedral in Picardy. Life- size sheep and goats watch silently from their perches high above narrow, cobbled streets. No one, it seems, knows why they are there. When Proust first visited the city he said: "It is as if Noah's Ark sailed by here as the floods were receding. Some of the animals just hopped off."

Built high on a hill, with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, the ancient walled city of Laon is the perfect place to start a tour of this fairytale part of France. The area is usually remembered for its First World War battlefields and cemeteries. But there is much more here. With its Gothic cathedrals, neolithic sites, underground cities, chateaux, museums and galleries, Picardy has more historical landmarks than almost anywhere else in France. Our focus, however, was on the literary riches of the area.

My Japanese friend Reiko and I arrived in Laon one winter afternoon after a two-hour drive on empty motorways from the Dover ferry. After visiting the cathedral - built at the beginning of the 13th century - we strolled around the city ramparts. That evening we stayed at the Hotel de la Banniere, a timbered coaching inn on the old route from Rheims to Switzerland. After an excellent dinner, the owner, Mrs Paul Lefevre, proudly showed us the visitors' book with signatures, many of them English, dating back to 1685.

Next morning we sped off to Villers Cotterets nearby to visit the Alexander Dumas museum. Here rather old-fashioned displays tell the extraordinary story of the Dumas family. It came as a complete surprise to us to learn that the father of Alexander Dumas (also called Alexander) was the illegitimate son of a Haitian slave. A giant of a man more than 6ft 7in tall, he became a national hero as a general in Napoleon's army, and led a regiment of black soldiers. His son Alexander wrote dozens of novels, including, of course, The Three Musketeers. He led a flamboyant life at least as exciting as one of his characters: besides fighting in Algeria, Tunisia and Italy he found time for more than 10 mistresses and had countless children. More than once he lost and regained his fortune through gambling and huge publishing and building projects. He was also involved in the movement to abolish slavery in Guadalupe and Martinique. His son, another Alexander, had an equally complex love-life and was also a prolific writer. His most famous work is The Lady of the Camellias.

Our destination that evening was the Chateau d'Ermenonville, an ideal hotel for a weekend treat. (It does tend to fill up, though - we had to book weeks beforehand.) Set in huge, landscaped grounds, this great moated castle looks like something from the film set of Cyrano. We half expected to see Gerard Depardieu stride by in a flowing cloak. He didn't materialise - but there was plenty to daydream about. The chateau is more than 1,000 years old and has been remodelled by successive owners. Joan of Arc stayed here in 1429 on her way to defeat the English at Montepilloy. The philosopher Rousseau is buried in the landscaped parkland he loved so much.

We spent the final day of our short break in Amiens, where we were duly impressed by the massive Gothic wonder of the cathedral of Notre Dame. And, of course, there was a bookish bent to the day: Amiens was home to Jules Verne. The house where he lived for 18 years is now open to the public and has some intriguing features including a small tower where he used to entertain guests, and a model of the Nautilus - from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - complete with miniature organ.

The water gardens of Amiens are perhaps less well known. Here ancient, man-made waterways meander between 600 acres of flower and vegetable gardens and cottages. Guided by a moustachioed boatman who called himself d'Artagnan, we enjoyed a peaceful cruise in a traditional vessel like a cross between a punt and a gondola.

The next day we drove along the coast so admired by Colette for its quality of light. We enjoyed a very tasty, cheap lunch - crusty bread and fish soup - at a seaside cafe in Le Crotoy, and here our literary trail ended. As we made our way back to the ferry at Calais, we promised ourselves we would come again.

Hotel de la Banniere 00 33 3 23 23 21 44; Chateau d'Ermenonville 00 33 3 44 54 00 26. The Alexander Dumas Museum, 24 rue Demoustier, Villers Cotterets (0033 32 396 23 30) is open daily except Tuesdays and the last Sunday of the month - admission 20F. Jules Verne's house, 2 rue Dubois, Amiens (00 33 32 245 37 84) is currently closed for restoration work but will reopen in March Mon-Fri 9am-12, 2-6pm, Saturday 2-6pm - admission 15F.

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