For anyone inspired to travel by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, even if just by the idea of it, Amiens is where the classic adventure novel was written. But the northern French city also has an important place in the history of archaeology. With stone tools from Europe’s earliest humans, an important Roman town, the tallest complete Gothic Cathedral in France and one of the first purpose built, regional art and archaeology museums, Amiens has a fascinating past that goes back hundreds of thousands of years.
Despite suffering greatly during World War I (Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong begins here), and many other battles before this including with the Barbarians, Normans and Prussians, Amiens is still a beautiful city; the administrative capital of the Picardy region, in the Somme Department. A river running through a city certainly helps a lot, and here the Somme River adds a lot of charm and atmosphere – particularly at Quai Bélu where restaurants and bars line the river. As northern French cities go, this one has a lot going for it, and while the archaeology interest is not on a par with some of the cities in the south of France, I think it is definitely worth exploring for a few days if you are in the area or passing through. Certainly think about Amiens as an option for a day trip from Paris. Here’s why …
Early Stone Age HandaxesAs crazy as it might seem to us today, the handaxes we think were obviously made by humans were once thought to be natural or even the result of lightning striking rocks. Two antiquarians working in the Somme River gravels in the mid to later 1800s were the first to show beyond doubt that these handaxes were the tools of early Stone Age people (1.5 million to 100, 000 years ago), and not natural phenomenon.
In 1925 these artefacts were named after a small village just outside of Amiens, now one of the city’s suburbs, Saint Acheul – so archaeologists talk of acheulean handaxes, and it is possible to visit the historic typesite. But be warned, this is for hardcore archaeophiles, or people who like ticking off archaeological typesites. Although there is a small visitor’s centre at the Jardin Archéologique de Saint-Acheul, which has activities for children in summer, all you see at this site is a section of the Somme River gravels from where the acheulean handaxes were recovered. There is more information and other photographs in my article about the Stone Age in the Amiens/Abbeville area.
Samarobriva, Ambianum, Amiens …Samarobriva, or ‘Bridge over the Somme’, was the name the Celtic Ambiani tribe gave to their settlement here. The Romans called it Ambianum, ‘Place of the Ambiani. We may know these names, but wandering through the streets of Amiens today you would never think this was once an important Gallo-Roman settlement. All the remains of the Celtic or Roman towns are either under the buildings or long since destroyed.
On the edge of one of the squares you can peer down into the depths and see the remains of Roman wall, but otherwise that is it! That said, the museum has an excellent series of displays on the Gallo-Roman history of the area – with some truly exquisite artefacts. More about the museum below.
La Cathédrale en CouleursBy far the dominant feature on the Amiens skyline is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, or the Cathedral of Our Lady of Amiens. Today the imposing nature of the cathedral competes with other more modern buildings, and it still wins. Built sometime between 1220 and 1270 AD, this is the tallest completed cathedral in France (over 42 metres high) and the largest interior of any Medieval cathedral in western Europe. Sadly little is known about the construction of this cathedral as these documents were destroyed in two separate fires in 1218 and 1258.
But it is the quantity and quality of the thirteenth century Gothic sculptures, both internal and external, that the cathedral is best known. Recent restoration work revealed that these sculptures were originally painted, and so the façade would have looked very different to what it does now. Just after dark in summer (June to September) and at 7 pm in December, the front of the cathedral is lit up to show what it might have looked like in the Middle Ages. I have seen more than my share of ‘sound and light’ shows, beyond doubt this one is spectacular … Read More about the Cathedral in Colour.
Musée de PicardieThe Museum in Amiens has an amazing collection of western art and archaeological artefacts. The archaeology exhibits understandably focus on the history of the area, from the Palaeolithic to the Medieval period. Understandably there is a substantial display about the international and historical significance of the site at Saint Acheul. But each period of prehistory from then on is well represented in some engaging displays of some fine artefacts. The carved stone that has been taken from the cathedral can also be seen here, allowing a good look at some of the wonderfully carved statues that are on the building.
Of course there are also the obligatory Egyptian and ancient Greek displays – certainly not unusual for a museum of this age and history. It is a grand building, and one of the first purpose built museums in France outside of Paris. Originally the museum was to be called Le musée Napoléon, as Napoléon I was instrumental in its establishment.
Day Trip from ParisAmiens is a perfect destination for a day trip from Paris, by train from Gare du Nord. If you catch the right train, i.e. one that does not stop at every station, the journey only takes an hour and usually runs every hour, more frequent at the start and end of each day as many people commute into Paris. Besides the archaeology mentioned above, there is much to do and see in Amiens, including Jules Verne’s house, a UNESCO listed Belfry and the Hortillionnages – the gardens that have been reclaimed from the swamps of the River Somme.
The Cathedral is lit up from June to September at sunset (so around 10.30 pm in July) and at 7 pm during December.
If you want to see the Cathedral in colour, you would have to catch a late train back to Paris – or stay overnight.
Eating & Sleeping in Amiens
Amiens has a great range of restaurants and hotels. There are 65 hotels listed on the Booking.com Website. Right next to the station is the cheap and cheerful Campanile Hotel, but if you are looking for something a little more classier, the five star Hotel Marotte is well worth its rating. Having stayed in both, I have no hesitation in recommending either. And there are some wonderful restaurants in Amiens for either a midday meal or evening dinner. One of the more popular areas is along the river, below the Cathedral – there you will find an excellent choice of restaurants to suit all budgets and tastes.