The complete guide to Picardy

Thousands of British visitors to France whizz through this area on the drive south from Calais. But they're missing out on charming hilltop towns, some spectacular Gothic cathedrals, delicious regional cuisine and the moving memorials of the First World War, says Gerard Gilbert


WHERE IS PICARDY?

WHERE IS PICARDY?

Like a plume of cigar smoke being blown into the north-eastern coast of France, Picardy has a narrow neck at the English Channel and bulges out inland. This sack of land is surrounded by the Pas-de-Calais to the north, Champagne to the east, Ile-de-France and Paris to the south, and Normandy to the west. It comprises the départements of Somme, Oise and Aisne, and its largest city is Amiens. But otherwise Picardy offers a largely agricultural aspect.

OH, YOU MEAN THAT EMPTY AND FEATURELESS PART OF FRANCE YOU PASS ON THE DRIVE SOUTH...

That is the traditional British perception of the region between the Channel ports and Paris, certainly. And to some extent this dismissive vision of sugar beet mounds and hedgeless cereal prairie holds true, especially if you're burning down the A26 motorway towards Reims and Paris. However, get off the autoroute and take time to explore the landscape. A more intimate Picardy offers itself up – one of wooded river valleys, jauntily painted cottages (blue is the colour here) and some of the oddest churches in Christendom. We're in the cradle of Gothic architecture here, and even the smallest rural church has at least half a dozen gargoyles and a spire straight (if that is the right word) out of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.

WHAT EXACTLY IS GOTHIC?

When the great and the godly of 11th-century France (which was then an area roughly north and east of Paris) emerged from the Dark Ages and began building cathedrals, they copied the last people to create such large monuments – the Romans. Hence the thick walls, round arches and heavy vaults of Romanesque architecture. However, then, thanks to better technology (in this case the employment of pointed arches and flying buttresses), cathedrals started getting taller and more ornate. The Gothic style, as it became known, was born in the Ile-de-France, but flowered in the newly rich cloth-making towns of Picardy.

WHERE ARE THE BEST GOTHIC CATHEDRALS IN PICARDY?

They are all pretty spectacular. The Michelin Green Guide to Flanders, Picardy and the Paris region suggests a useful round tour, incorporating the Gothic cathedrals of Noyon (a good example of the early Gothic style), Soissons (which has a starkly beautiful Gothic ruin of L'Abbaye de St Jean-des-Vignes, partially destroyed in Napoleon's time to provide material for Soissons' still unfinished cathedral) and Beauvais. But since you ask, my favourite Goths are the spectacular Notre Dame cathedral of Amiens and Notre Dame in Laon.

Amiens cathedral is a spectacular sight – the largest Gothic building in France – and happily you can see it from most places in the city. This giddy colossus was started in 1218, after a Romanesque cathedral on this site was destroyed by fire. The townsfolk wanted a worthy monument to house the "head of John the Baptist", which had been brought back from the fourth crusade by Wallon de Sarton, Canon of Picquigny. It's comforting to know that tourists were gullible even back then.

Laon cathedral provides a more intimate pleasure. Laon is a treat anyway – a walled hilltop town in airy tranquillity 100 metres above its own industrial suburbs and the endless plains of nearby Champagne. The exterior of the cathedral is a veritable menagerie of gargoyles, mythical beasts and, decorating the west tower, oxen. According to legend an ox appeared miraculously to help a team struggling with repairs. The poor thing was probably just lost. But it is the inside of Laon cathedral that is breathtaking in its purity, thanks to the cathedral's rapid completion. There is none of the mish-mash of styles that can mar some of the slower-evolving cathedrals.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

"The Somme made Picardy as the Nile made Egypt", according to the 19th-century writer Mabille de Poncheville, and, indeed, if you will forgive the local pride in that grandiose comparison, the sluggish river Somme is the major fluvial artery of the region, rising east of St Quentin, and flowing through the centre of Amiens. Here it is temporarily diverted for use in the city's "floating" gardens, the Hortillonages, but more of those later. From Amiens, the Somme makes its way to the sea, with a little man-made help. The Bay of the Somme is a notorious silt trap, with vast tides and an assault course of sandbanks. The Canal de Somme was built in the 19th-century to give a more definite route to a river too easily diverted at this stage by gentle ponds, willow-banked tributaries and lazy backwaters.

THE BATTLES OF THE SOMME

Ah, yes, the Somme – a single word that sums up the horrors of the First World War, or the Great War as it was known then. There is something especially poignant about visiting Picardy's military graveyards and memorials at a time of war, as I did a fortnight ago – a heightened sense of connection with the ghosts of that catastrophic conflict.

"The Somme" was the central segment of a Western Front that stretched from the Channel to Switzerland. Picardy is peppered with war cemeteries in the way other parts of France are peppered with châteaux or vineyards. Some, such as the British memorial at Thiepval, have to be searched out along the backroads. Others appear quite suddenly at the side of major roads – a spread of regimented white gravestones surrounded by a low hedge – and are gone.

The memorial at Thiepval by Sir Edward Lutyens is ugly enough in the spring sunshine; heaven knows how oppressive it would be in the autumn drizzle. It is a vast brick and sandstone Art Deco mausoleum dedicated to the 75,000 British soldiers whose bodies were never found – either atomised by shellfire or lost to the mud. Their names – all 75,000 of them – are carved in the sandstone. Nearby lie buried British and French soldiers whose bodies were found, but who have no name. "Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God" read their gravestones.

About five kilometres from Thiepval is the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park – a hectare or two of preserved trenches maintained in this state by the Canadian government in memory of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, who were butchered at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. The maze of surprisingly shallow grassy trenches gives a vivid idea of the topography of the slaughter.

INTO THE WOODS

As Picardy approaches the Ile-de-France and the Paris basin, it becomes ringed with forests. The most famous of these is the Fôret de Compiègne, along the banks of the river Aisne. It was in a clearing in this forest, along a railway track built for heavy artillery, that Field Marshall Foch received a German delegation on the morning of 11 November 1918, and the Armistice ending the First World War was signed. When Adolf Hitler wished to receive the French surrender in June 1940, he did so in the same railway carriage in the same clearing; like a rapier thrust, Hitler's unerring sense of symbolism revenging the hurt and humiliation of 1918.

The original carriage was carted off triumphantly to Berlin in 1940 where it was later destroyed in an air-raid, but an exact replica now houses a nifty little museum (admission €3). The best things about this museum are several banks of peep-booths, like the old-fashioned "what the butler saw" machines in fairgrounds, which provide 3D images from the First World War of life in the trenches.

A CASTLE IN THE AIR

If you're looking for somewhere to spend the night in this neck of the woods (and you are deep in the woods here), head for the magical small town – a big village really – of Pierrefonds. The village itself, beside a lake and surrounded by forest, is charming enough. But it is overlooked by a huge picture-book vision of a medieval castle. The Château de Pierrefonds (open May-Aug daily 10am-6pm; Apr and Sept-Oct daily 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm) is the equal to anything along the Loire Valley. Go inside, however, and you discover that Pierrefonds is a painstaking 19th-century reconstruction of the 14th-century original, ordered by Napoleon III from the great medievalist architect Viollet-le-Duc.

Just a couple of hours from Calais, Pierrefont is a perfect weekend destination. An excellent place to stay is the delightful Auberge aux Blés d'Or (8 Rue J. Michelet; 00 33 3 44 42 85 91), which has six bedrooms overlooking the castle, at €54 (£37) for a double. Demi-pension (half-board) is €97 (£67), and is highly recommended because the cooking here is very good.

AH, FOOD AT LAST. IS THERE SUCH A THING AS PICARDY CUISINE?

It might not be as recognisable as the food of Provence, but there are plenty of excellent local dishes. My wife's starter at the Auberge aux Blés d'Or was a "ficelle picardie" – a savoury crêpe filled with mushrooms, ham and the pungent local Picard cheese, Maroilles, with its distinctive red rind. If you fancy a lighter cheese, ask for the charmingly named Mont de Cats.

Further north, where the landscape turns watery as the Somme seems to empty into the sea and the sky, frogs and freshwater fish start to appear more regularly on the menus – as does meadow salted lamb, or gigot de pré salé – delicious when served in the springtime with local baby peas and carrots. A particularly fine, out-of-the-way spot to enjoy all these is the Clé des Champs restaurant, in the marshland village of Favieres about 5km south of Le Crotoy. You can't miss it, it's the low white building bang in the middle of the village, but always book ahead (00 33 3 22 27 88 00).

The dark, rich gardens of the hortillonages in Amiens provide a ready source of excellent vegetables, which are often made into hearty soups – as, be warned, are tripe and frogs.

WHAT ARE THESE HORTILLONAGES YOU KEEP MENTIONING?

The hortillonages are France's most unusual allotments, a maze of hundreds of man-made canals dividing up tiny marsh-gardens. It was from these allotments that most of the city's vegetables once came, and which gave Amiens its rather boastful nickname of "the Venice of the North" (although this may have been easier to imagine before the city was badly bombed in two world wars). Nowadays, they are largely private weekend gardens. The Society for the Protection and Safety of the Hortillonages (00 33 3 22 92 12 18) provides trips to this peaceful oasis on small motorised punts, while a larger tourist boat departs from the Embarcadère d'Amont.

DIDN'T JULES VERNE LIVE IN AMIENS?

Jules Verne, science-fiction writer and Amiens' most prominent former citizen, lived in the city from 1856 until his death in 1905. He even produced a book, An Ideal City: Amiens in the year 2000. The Maison Jules Verne at 2 Rue Charles Dubois (guided tours Tue-Fri: 9am-12 noon and 2-5.30pm; Sat and Sun 2-5.30pm) has a model of a flying machine and the Nautilus among other things.

AND I SUPPOSE VERNE TOOK HIS SUMMER HOLIDAYS IN PICARDY?

Of course. Verne had a holiday home at lovely St Valery on the Bay of the Somme, as did the writer Colette. Roughly similar to the Wash in East Anglia or the Baie de Mont St Michel in Normandy, the Baie de Somme is walkable – and there are some adventurous and highly unusual hikes to be had at low tide.

Be careful though. If you want to go walking on the bay itself you must make sure, as signs everywhere make clear, that the tide is at least three-and-a-half hours off being at its height. It can come crashing back faster than you can walk in the boggy mud. Tide timetables can be bought for €3 (£2) at the tourist office in Place Guillaume le Conquérant. That's William the Conqueror to you and me. William stopped here in 1066 on his way to change English history, and all that.

GETTING THERE

It couldn't be much simpler. Calais is an obvious gateway to Picardy. A car is a vital means for exploring the region fully. Motorists can sail from Dover to Calais on Hoverspeed (08705 240 241, www.hoverspeed.co.uk), P&O (0870 600 0600, www.poferries.com) or SeaFrance (08705 711 711, www.seafrance.com), or travel through the Channel Tunnel from Folkestone on Eurotunnel (08705 35 35 35, www.eurotunnel.com). Fares for short breaks are good value if you avoid the Easter weekend and May bank holidays.

Even closer to Picardy is Boulogne. The Dover-Boulogne ferry is due to return in May after a three-year absence. The 50-minute crossing is planned to be operated by SpeedFerries (01304 203 000, www.speedferries.com).

Air travel is plentiful to Picardy, because Paris Charles de Gaulle airport is just to the south of the region, with services from all over the UK. Even more convenient is Beauvais (or Beauvais-Paris as it's called). It is served from Birmingham by MyTravelLite (08701 564 564, www.mytravellite.com) and from Prestwick on Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com).

Birds of a feather flock together

The bay of the Somme is a birdwatcher's paradise

The Somme's annual bird festival – or festival des oiseaux – finishes tomorrow, but you don't need an organised jolly to enjoy the Somme's magnificent bird life. The Bay of the Somme is the largest migratory breeding ground for avian visitors to Europe outside of the Camargue, and the best place to witness it all is at Le Marqueterie Bird Park (open April-Sept daily 9.30am-7pm), 2,300 hectares of marsh and sand dunes reclaimed from sea to the north-west of Le Crotoy.

This is a temporary home to more than 300 species of birds taking a breather from their trips between Russia, Africa and the Arctic. A well-organised set-up offers two itineries: a 2km round-ramble, which takes about an hour, and a more ambitious 6km hike, for which "binoculars are strongly recommended". Between now and the end of May is an ideal time to visit Le Marqueterie, and indeed the Bay of the Somme generally. The whole area is well geared towards its birdlife (for example, there is a service station on the A16 motorway just north of Abbeville that has its own viewing platform), creating some tension between ornithologists and those other keen appreciators of flying animals – the hunters.

"La Chasse" is something of a sacred pastime in rural France, and previous attempts to slightly restrict the hunting season to allow birds a spot more time to procreate were met with a powerful backlash from hunters.

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