Visit: 16th April 2016
Amiens is a city in the French region of Picardy with a history going back to Roman times. But it is the 13th century cathedral that makes it famous today.
Amiens was chosen as the destination for a “lad’s trip” featuring my pals Ross, Chig and Nowell. Ross had recently passed his driving test so was keen to make use of his new skills by driving us to the near Continent for a weekend.
The area close to the Eurotunnel’s southern end is rich in World Heritage Sites. Options included the city of Bruges in Belgium (destination of our first ever lad’s trip back in 2009, when I was driver). There are the 56 Belfries of of Belgium and France, or even the 108 component parts of the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin.
Seeing mounds of slag or individual bell-towers wasn’t quite enough to excite us, though, so the city of Amiens was chosen as our primary port of call.
Nowell and I – who live in Bristol – took the train over to Ashford in Kent, where we linked up with Ross and Chig who had driven down the M20 from London. It was Friday night and the rush hour was over as we headed towards Folkestone to board the cross-Channel train.
We cracked open a celebratory beer as we passed beneath the chalk and marl of the seabed. It was a smooth exit from the tunnel, and, after one false start, we were hurtling down the A16 towards Amiens.
Ross had booked us a hotel rather farther from the city centre than was ideal, but we soon found our way in and spent the first night in the city’s historic centre, drinking by the attractive Somme riverside.
The next day gave us a chance to do some sightseeing. The cathedral was built in the thirteenth century and is one of the best examples of the High Gothic style in existence.
There are quite a few Gothic cathedrals on the UNESCO list, which some people believe makes them overrepresented. I haven’t yet seen enough to have developed ‘Gothic fatigue’, so I was able to enjoy this one and compare it to Cologne Cathedral, which I had been to twice in 2015.
Amiens is cleaner, probably because it sits in a much smaller – and less polluted – city than Cologne. Its façade is its strongest point, being festooned with statuary.
The façade is sometimes referred to as “the stone encyclopaedia of the Bible” for its sheer number of figures from the holy book.
It was notable in its construction for its early use of ‘outsourcing’: instead of having all of the sculptors come to do their work at the cathedral itself, the authorities commissioned the statues to be made at workshops off-site and then brought over and affixed to the cathedral when ready.
This made construction more efficient. The overall efficiency of its builders meant that it was put up in a remarkably short space of time: just 68 years.
In the timescales normally applicable to cathedrals built in the medieval era, this was extremely fast. It meant that the cathedral’s style is unusually consistent, since architectural tastes and techniques did not have much time to evolve during the building of Amiens, so it represents its era especially well.
Inside is apparently a relic that is said to be the head of John the Baptist. I did have a good look for it but was unable to find it.
The ceiling is 42 metres high, leaving a cavernous space into which sunlight streams.
Having finished at the cathedral we exited through the gift shop and I caught the only glimpse of Amiens’ belfry that I was going to get, as the others insisted on going straight for lunch. The afternoon and the evening soon disappeared and before long it was Sunday morning and we were heading off in the car again, driving north toward Calais. We stopped for a while in the town of Arras, where we lunched by the inscribed belfry before having a brief look around one of the Fortifications of Vauban (Louis XIV’s military architect). Thereafter we continued on to Béthune, a small town with another belfry worth ticking off. By this time all of us but Nowell had, one by one, given up on the beers and were drinking sparkling water – but he managed to keep the flag flying to the bitter end.