Amiens was probably the place during our trip where we did the least. It was a rainy day, we didn’t arrive until gone midday and we were both feeling pretty lethargic – excuses, excuses!
The rain came in waves, the puddles in the gutters forming and dissipating with each coming. The grey stone flags of the street were slick with water, offering dull reflections of the lighted buildings above. Being rainy midweek there wasn’t a lot going on and when we reached the Place Notre Dame square, the large square out front was almost empty except for a couple of small tour groups huddled under their umbrellas.
The town has had a vibrant historical past – named Ambianum by the Romans, Amiens was a part of Francia from the 5th Century. The town was raided by Normans in 859 and again in 882. It was recognized by King Louis VI in 1113 and in 1185 it was joined to the Crown of France. There was a six month siege by Spanish soldiers in 1597 and during the 18th and 19th centuries it became famous for its textile production, specifically velour. It was fought over in both WWI and WWII suffering significant damage during repeated occupations by both sides. The Battle of Amiens which was fought in 1918 was actually the opening battle of the Hundred Days Offensive. It was also heavily bombed during WWII and when rebuilt, was done so with wider streets to ease congestion based on the plans of Pierre Dufau.
On one side of the square is a beautiful half-timber house. It was painted rich mustard yellow, which made it stand out against the comparatively plain buildings surrounding it. It is le Maison du Pelerin, and it was built to house the huge influx of pilgrims which were travelling into the town to visit the cathedral. It was originally part of several houses that were located in front of the cathedral but was one of the very few buildings that survived the bombings of WWII.
And then there was the cathedral. Basilique Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens is the world’s largest gothic-styled cathedral, it is also the world’s 19th biggest, regardless of style! It is the tallest cathedral in France and also has the biggest interior of any other cathedral in France. Needless to say it is a very large, very grand building.
It has been a religious site since 4th Century comprising a simple chapel, expanded in the 7th century it was then burned down by Vikings in 850. The Vikings returned again in 1019 and 1107, burning whatever structure had succeeded that last. In 1218 it was demolished completely, leaving nothing but a pile of rubble. The building of the current cathedral started in 1220 and was completed in 1270.
During our visit the cathedral was pretty empty; the quiet shuffling footsteps of the few other visitors could be heard across the expansive room. The outer edge is sectioned into chambers, which house religious icons and statues poised elegantly behind tall black gates. The immense stone columns that run the length of the building rise up, joining in arches far overhead. The centre has a much higher ceiling which is lined with windows that, on this particular day, were letting in as much light as the gloom outside would allow. The back of the cathedral has several sections of enormous, beautiful stained-glass windows all different in design and colour, the different hues trickling down onto the black and white stones below. The cathedral, both inside and out, is full of ornate, detailed carvings and sculptures, grabbing your attention every time you turn your head.
We wandered the city for a short time, stumbled across a ridiculously ornate clock (but failed to take a picture of it – the one below is borrowed!) The Dewailly clock was named for the former mayor of Amiens who left money for it to be built after his death. It was originally built in 1892, but ended up rusting terribly, being removed and the scraps looted so only the statue remained. This replica was built in its place in 1999.
Lunch was had in a delightfully airy little café serving homemade burgers and hand cut chips, the owner was really pleasant and came out to have a chat with us once we had finished our meal. I bought some artsy ‘Jules Verne’ themed stationary and we picked up a couple of slices of delicious looking pie from a small back-street bakery to have that evening… and that pretty much sums up our trip to Amiens. Knowing what I do about it now, it has made it onto the list of places to revisit and explore in more detail – hopefully with some sunshine next time (or at least fewer showers!)