Amiens… France’s Best Kept Secret

Life, we all know, isn’t fair. Amiens and Chartres are each only about an hour from Paris by train, and each has a spectacular cathedral. So when’s the last time you urged visiting friends or relations to make the trip to Amiens? Chartres – which, face it, is pretty much a one-site burg – hogs most of the tourists. Amiens languishes by comparison, in the unjustly maligned north, despite its charmingly restored artisans’ quarter, its ancient network of water gardens and, leave us not forget, its outstanding example of the French Gothic style in full flower, which happens to be the country’s largest cathedral.

The capital of Picardy began as the home of a Belgic tribe, the Ambiani, at a spot where the Somme river formed a latticework of streams, marshes and pools. Market gardening and canalization started under the Romans in an area that survives today as the Hortillonages (from the Latin “hortus,” or garden, the root of our “horticulture”). Now devoted to nature study and pleasure gardening, it is a haven explorable only by foot or boat. Some of the stream-demarked plots are visible from the right side of the train as you pull into town.

Amiens was ideally suited for cloth and leather production, trades dependent on abundant running water, and by medieval times it was a major textile center. It specialized in blue cloth, since local growing conditions produced a wealth of woad (think Mel Gibson’s face in “Braveheart”). Weavers, dyers, tanners and other artisans plied their trades in the St. Leu quarter, which is west of the Hortillonages and similarly criss-crossed with canals. Its low, narrow buildings, now restored and painted rainbow hues, are filled with boutiques and restaurants. A Saturday morning produce market on the quai Parmentier, across from St. Leu’s colorful quai Bélu, often features goods from the Hortillonages. The second Sunday of every month, a flea market is held on the same site.

South of St. Leu, across the canalized Somme, looms Notre Dame d’Amiens, largely built in 1220-70. It’s hard to describe its staggering, dizzying size – in magnitude it’s like a Texan’s idea of a cathedral, or Hollywood’s. Originally – and fittingly, since the place was built with money from the famed “blue d’Amiens” – it even looked like Technicolor: the statuary with which it teems inside and out was mostly polychromed, as was common at the time. Today only faint traces of color remain on the storytelling exterior figures that John Ruskin called the Bible of Amiens.

To preserve these traces while removing modern grime, the west front is undergoing cleaning in a project using an experimental laser technique on the statuary. Unfortunately this means the middle portal is covered in scaffolding for the foreseeable future, but the tourism office (tel:, fax: has put together a fascinating brochure about the project, whose effects can be seen on the newly creamy stone of the south tower.

In a marked difference from Chartres, the local fondness for vivid color no longer extends to the cathedral’s windows, for much of the stained glass was replaced by grisaille in the 18th century. This unfortunate decision had one happy result: the interior is filled with light, an effect that accentuates its vertiginous height: 42.3 meters (140 feet). The choir of St. Pierre Cathedral at Beauvais, some 50 km south of Amiens, exceeds this, but the rest of St. Pierre repeatedly fell down till the builders finally acknowledged their hubris and gave up. In area, Amiens is the champ, with an interior volume twice that of Notre Dame de Paris.

In the transepts and on the choir screen are polychromed high-reliefs, one of which portrays in gruesome detail the story of Salome demanding and receiving the head of John the Baptist. The tale is of particular interest in Amiens because the raison d’être of the cathedral is reputedly this same head, brought from the Holy Land in 1206 as a souvenir of the fourth crusade. Carbon dating and other tests have produced no evidence to disprove that the relic is what believers say it is.

Guided tours of the cathedral are given every Saturday and Sunday at 3pm, leaving from the information center on the parvis (25F). The Saturday tour also takes in a belfry purportedly marking the spot where in the 4th century the Roman soldier known to history as St. Martin divided his cloak with a beggar.

A note of warning: avert your eyes as you arrive in Amiens, for directly across from the train station is the 26-story Tour Perret, Amiens’ least attractive landmark. It is named for Auguste Perret, the architect notorious for the postwar reconstruction of Le Havre. The tower and train station, also by Perret, are brutally unbeautiful in an unmistakable 1950s reinforced concrete style. Perret was to have rebuilt the entire area, but fortunately the funds ran out.

The 16th Amiens International Film Festival, November 8-17, lives up to its name with movies from all over, especially the developing world. Highlights this year include a focus on southern Africa, a Shohei Imamura retrospective and a “world cinema” section featuring, among many others, Israeli, Chadian, Burkinabe and Singaporean films; tel: Other coming events: saxophonist Steve Coleman and Five Elements, November 5, Maison de la Culture, 80F, tel:; and Marivaux’s cross-dressing comedy “La Fausse Suivante,” November 7-20, Comédie de Picardie, 110F, tel: 0322929495.


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