Home to the famous World War I battlefield of the Somme Valley, Amiens is a dainty town situated in northern France, just over an hour’s train trip from Paris.
Its quaint houses, peaceful streets and tranquil canals – in addition to its rich history and accessible location – make it a relaxing and enjoyable trip away for everyone. I was lucky enough to spend a weekend in Amiens with some Australian friends last September when I was living in Paris.
By early evening the weather was crisp and breezy, and we strolled along the canals admiring the soft pastels of the buildings and the flowerpots bursting with colour. Searching for a restaurant offering some warmth in the form of meals or electrical heating led us to a cozy ‘Australian’ restaurant by the canal’s edge. The group was ecstatic to get their hands on a steak, but I was just grateful to be warm because I had not adequately equipped myself for the cold (note to the reader: a jumper will not suffice in late September, pack warm).
Amiens is home to the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady (Notre Dame). It is the tallest gothic church in France at a height of 42 metres and was commissioned by the Bishop of Amiens in the 20th century to replace a smaller cathedral that had burned down in 1912. Its intricate, detailed exterior in addition to its stunning, high-arched interior make it a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Visit late afternoon to see Notre Dame turn gold as the sun sets.
From July 8 through September 18 each year, crowds flock to the cathedral to feast their eyes on the 50-minute, free-of-charge ‘Chroma’ light spectacle. During the show, the cathedral is illuminated by various coloured spotlights to mimic how it appeared when it was originally painted; check out France Travel Solutions' social media pages for a sneak peek of the show! The lights are also used to create optical illusions, such as the cathedral swaying from side to side and spiraling inwards. For more information on show times and details, click here.
Take advantage of the peaceful early-morning atmosphere of Amiens’ town centre and explore wherever the cobblestone paths guide you. Some of the most beautiful sights from my whole France trip were found on my hour-long Sunday morning stroll in Amiens. I found a pond full of swans gliding their way through the chilly morning water, and a small street lined with brightly painted houses that lead to a beautiful view of the Notre Dame. As I wandered through town, I caught a whiff of freshly baked pastries and bread coming from a cute corner-store boulangerie. It felt like I'd landed in heaven.
On Sunday around midday, we piled into the tiny hatchback and made the short drive to the Somme Valley to visit the Australian national war memorial. The details of the war are exceptionally documented in the ‘sometimes harrowing, often moving’ John Monash Centre at the memorial. The exhibition includes interactive experiences and an audio tour which I highly recommend.
I entered a small cinema from the main exhibition room, which displayed a five-minute, three-dimensional war video capturing the Somme Battle from the perspective of the ANZACs. The sound effects of bombs exploding and strobe lights to depict gun rounds firing made the experience very realistic. I walked out of that room crying at the horror that many of the Australian men who fought wouldn’t have been much older than me. A warning: some graphics were disturbing (serious injuries, blood) but for me, the experience was incredible despite the discomfort.
Approximately 215,000 Australian service personnel were sent to France during the war. The graves of some soldiers lie at the memorial centre, and the names of 10,719 casualties whose grave locations are unknown line the three enormous wing walls surrounding the memorial’s central viewing tower. The eerily whoosh of the wind hushed me into a solemn silence as I looked out over the dull landscape, seemingly tainted by the tragedies of a once-battlefield.
One quote from the John Monash Centre stuck with me about how every victory celebrated by the French is equally a celebration of gratitude to the courageous and selfless Australians who served as an ally to the country all those years ago.
Before coming to France, my great-uncle assured me, “Don’t worry. The French love Aussies — we helped them in the war!” However, when recalling my weekend to my French host mother, it was unbeknownst to her that Australia was France’s ally in WWI, let alone that a memorial existed in their honour.
Amiens is a hidden gem of the French countryside, packed with opportunities to delve into the cultural and historical aspects of the country. One weekend is enough to visit Amiens but should you be lucky enough to spend more time there, a morning row on the river or a group tour may also be on the cards.
Amiens is one of the locations on the 'Jewels of the North' tour in 2024. Click here for more info or to register your interest.