Picardie, or Picardy in English, is the part of northern France that everybody drives through on their way to the Loire Valley or beyond. However it’s an attractive area with a lot of history, both ancient and more modern. It’s quite well known to the French as a holiday area and its proximity to the channel ports is an added bonus.
Getting there, accommodation and getting about
The obvious way of getting there is via the channel ferry or Eurotunnel. It’s only an hour or so’s drive from Calais, either via the A16 autoroute or more inland via the N/D roads.
Being a French holiday destination there are the usual camping, gîte or hotel options. As is normal with a seaside area the coastal locations are more expensive and a few bargains can be had by going further inland. We stayed in a gîte in a small village called Étinehem, in a wing of a very large old farmhouse. There was a framed postcard on one of the walls showing the house with a postmark date of July 1904 ( below together with the modern view ). We stayed in the wing on the left hand side of the picture and the rooms were enormous with vast, high ceilings. I’m not sure what’s happened to the rather fine edifice on the right hand side though.
There are a few bargains to be had out of season as well. We also stayed for a few nights in a comfortable, modern apartment in Cayeux sur Mer at the beginning of November. You’re obviously at the mercy of the weather and most of the restaurants are shut but it was a pleasant break.
For general seaside activities there are many fine beaches along the length of the coast. For a slightly different experience the estuary of the Somme river is well worth a visit. It stretches from Le Crotoy through Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and to Le Hourdel. It’s very flat and there are plenty of cycle paths and even a restored railway – Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme.
There’s no beach as such partly because it’s a river estuary and partly because the tide comes in amazingly quickly due to the flat terrain which makes bathing a little hazardous. As might be expected it’s a prime bird watching area, especially for winter visitor. The estuary is also home to the biggest seal colony in France.
This part of the coast was heavily fortified during the Second World War. A lot of these fortifications remain but some are slowly being eroded by the wind and weather.
Amiens is the largest city in the Picardie region. It’s situated on the Somme river about 60 km inland and its most famous landmark is the huge Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was built in a Gothic style and during a period when the architects were trying to get more and more light into the building. The result is the largest cathedral in France and one into which its more well-known namesake – Notre-Dame de Paris – would fit with room to spare. The photos below don’t do justice to its enormous scale and it’s well worth a visit.
The area around Amiens is very marshy and this has lead to development of “floating gardens” or hortillonages where local market gardeners grow fruit and vegetables. A tour of these gardens is possible via boat. Elsewhere in Amiens the waterside is very pleasant with restaurants and cafés backing onto the river and plenty of trees for shade in the summer.
Froissy Dompierre Light Railway
In addition to the Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme there is another restored narrow gauge railway near Bray-sur-Somme called the Froissy Dompierre Light Railway ( also called Le p’tit train de la Haute-Somme )
It was originally built by the French Army during the First World War as a supply route. After that it was used to transport the local sugar beet crop before finally closing in the 1970s. Now restored, a round trip takes about an hour and a half including a short tunnel and two reverses to get up a steep hill. When we visited the steam locos only ran at weekends with diesels being used at other times.
I think that this is the railway that the Salvage Squad ( series 2, episode 5 ) tried out their restored Simplex armoured locomotive.
I find that narrow gauge railways normally have much more unusual rolling stock and the small on-site museum has a fine collection of these. Even my long-suffering wife commented that this was much more interesting than the normal stuff that she gets dragged along to 🙂 This article has many more photos of the rolling stock.
A short video of parts of the train ride, apologies for the low quality, it was taken on my point and shoot camera.
Scars of Battle
The name “Somme” is now linked with the brutal battles of the First World War rather than the medium sized river that runs through the region. There are a number of local museums dedicated to the battles of 1914-18 but the one in Albert is particularly good.
Military cemeteries and memorials are relatively commonplace all over France but are particularly numerous in this region. Even the small village of Étinehem has its own immaculately kept cemetery containing over a thousand graves.
Being in the French sector of the front the cemetery at Étinehem has mainly French graves. However it was close to the British sector so, inevitably, there are graves of other nationalities as well. The text on the right hand gravestone, “A Soldier of the Great War – Known Unto God”, is a grim reminder of the harshness of trench warfare.