30 April 2020 - Day 19 – Exploring Amiens
Why Amiens? Well, back in 1999 I made a bicycling tour, intending on hugging the coast of France along La Manche, aka The English Channel. I started in Brussels, heading from Ghent and Bruges to Dunkerque. After a night in Calais, I continued to Boulonge-sur-Mer, which involved two fairly steep and long climbs. Rethinking after looking at the geography and geology (really rugged vacillating terrain), I decided to take the train to Deauville in Normandy. After booking a ticket through Paris, I turned my bike over to the baggage people. Passing through Amiens and curious, I decided to get off for a few days to explore, before continuing on to Paris and then on to Deauville.
So, in 1999, wandering around with 2 film cameras, I visited the great cathedral in Amiens. I absolutely fell in love with La Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens. A favorite shot from that trip is of a broadside of the cathedral at night, slightly blurry as it was probably handheld. When I returned to California, I celebrated my trip and birthday with cake and soda at Chevron, where I worked then. A colleague and I talked about the Amiens cathedral, and he encouraged me to visit Beauvais as the cathedral there has the highest Gothic vault (2 meters higher than Amiens.) Thus began my passion for cathedrals.
So this morning, a Thursday and last day of April, I woke and cleaned up my act, before heading out the door towards Rue de Noyon, less than 100 meters and just around the corner. Entering Maxime's Boulangerie Café, I think I gained 2kg just from breathing the air full of the smell of bread and pastries on the front and back counter. Vivienne, my ViaHero concierge, had recommend I start here, and then I knew why. I had a bowl of coffee crème and a super pain au oeufs (scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon in a baguette.) I left with a smile on my face.
Heading west, I walked past the Parc René Goblet, a city park with space for kids to play, as well as a memorial to those in the Resistance in World War II. A short stretch of my short walk was along Rue des Jacobins: it looked like the main shopping street in the center city. A bit more “a left and a right, another left and finally a right” took me past the Prefecture de la Somme and the library. [France is divided jurisdictionally into departments and regions. Amiens is the capital for both the Department of the Somme and the Picardy Region.] My objective this morning was the Musée de Picardie.
The Picardy Museum had just reopened in late March after being closed 18 months for an extensive renovation. The exterior façade is in the Napoleonic “Second Empire” style, with light colored stone under a slate mansard roof and a centrally placed lead-covered cupola. Through the metal gate along the sidewalk, there are about a half dozen steps to gain the entrance door. Paying the cash entrance fee for a senior, I picked up a written guide in English and began walking through the salons.
Statuary from ancient Greece and Egypt occupied two light-filled rooms. Artwork taken from the Amiens Cathedral created under the Puys d'Amiens, a Medieval confederation of artists, poets and writers covered the walls of salons with high ceilings and great natural light. For the later periods, there are paintings and statues from artists from el Greco and Fragonard, through Vuillard and Corot to Miro, Picasso and Bacon. The two hours planned were just about enough to sample this fine museum without completely overwhelming me.
Exiting and heading easterly, I walked about a kilometer, passing the Square Longueville, which has the Cirque Jules Verne housed in a dodecahedral building at its center. Crossing the Mail Albert 1er, named for the Belgian king, I arrived at the Jules Verne House.
When I was much younger, I devoured sci fi novels, and Verne had entertained me many times. I had learned in 1999 of his connection to Amiens and Picardy, as the university there bears his name. For 18 years Verne and his wife live in the house I came to visit, and the museum is somewhat of an homage to the great writer. Besides the furniture and trappings, there are models of vessels he wrote about and a small garden café. With the Maison closing for lunch at 12:30, it was perfect timing for me, as I had a lunch reservation.
Out past the Place du Marechal Joffre, I followed the Boulevard de Belfort about a half kilometer to Le Bouchon by Marc Hammani. Vivienne had described it as “This is a gastronomique, a well-known address for connaisseurs. Wines are good and the food is known to be excellent. Every ingredient is hand picked by Marc Hammani, a very well-known chef in France.”
Having done my homework aboard the train yesterday, I requested the 3-plate meal with the option of sampling 3 wines. There was a dish featured which showed an eggshell in a straw bowl, filled with foie and caviar, and presented smoked under a wine goblet. A must-have for me, and served with a brut Champagne.
I followed it with the chef’s variation of fish soup, which was filled with pieces of shellfish and local freshwater denizens. This came with a Sancerre. For dessert, a boule of caramel ice cream, with caramel drizzled over it, and them topped with crumbles of cookie and confectionary sugar. A local variation on Calvados was served with the coffee. And, yes, it was pricy, the meal and beverages, with tip, hit 50€, but how many times to I get to eat like this?
Leaving the restaurant, I headed to the cathedral. Approaching the apse or eastern end, I walked along the south face, trying to figure out where I had taken my picture 20 years ago, as buildings seemed to have encroached on the space around the building. Noting the east-west positioning, with the twin towers on the western façade and a fleche similar to the ones places over the crossings at the Orleans Holy Cross Cathedral (the one Violliet-le-Duc copied during the post-“Hunchback” restorations) and the one which fell during the fire a year ago in Paris.
I was on the wrong side. However, wanting to join the 2pm tour, I entered, paid my admission, and joined a group of 10 English speakers. An hour-long scripted talk, we learned about the history and features of this magnificent building. Our guide, Caroline, was a native, and she had grown up attending Mass here, as did her children and grandchildren now. We learned some secrets, and heard of more than a few scandals. She was quite entertaining, and I much enjoyed when she went off-script. On our return to the starting point, she advised me to join the tower tour.
The tower tour takes you up a series of steps in the south tower, to where we looked out over the area I had been exploring last night and today. Dropping back down about half way, we crossed behind the façade in a walkway above the entry doors over to the north tower and climbed again, giving us a change of view into the area of Saint-Leu and the Somme River. I spent some time trying to figure out where to go to get that picture again. Given that it was a cool, overcast day, it would be ideal for recapturing that shot.
My allotted 2 hours at the cathedral expired, so I continued to follow the plan I have from Vivienne, and headed to Le Quartier de Saint-Leu. This district of Amiens is full of small cafés and bars, waterside views and lots of flowers. The plan had three monuments for me to find. The first was the Horloge Dewailly, a clock named for its benefactor, a former late nineteenth century mayor. Made of bronze, the column is in rococo style and features a statue of the goddess of spring, who is represented as almost nude. Despite national furor, the statue was adopted by the Amiénois as “Marie sans Chemise” (Mary without a shirt). The clock is within line-of-sight of the cathedral, and the square is filled with folks, including lovers for whom it is lucky to kiss there
Next I headed to the Beffroi d’Amiens, a civil bell tower. Originally built in the early 15th century, there have been fires and wars that have destroyed it, along with an 11-ton bell whose shattered remains are visible. It now houses a set of chimes. I’d actually passed it on my way to the restaurant. After a brief visit, I headed to the Tour Perret, next on the list. Visible from most of the city, this 27-story residential tower looks east over the train yards. From there I was directed to Rue des Trois Cailloux, which turned out to be a narrow pedestrian street with stores, McDonalds and banks, and is the location for the Christmas Fair.
I should have done a bit more research. The bell tower, apartment tower and the pedestrian street were all close to the hotel and restaurant, and I didn’t get enough time to the north of the cathedral to spend in the Saint-Leu district, which had looked charming. At least while I was there, I found a few potential shots on the cathedral. Next was a trip to the cemetery. Cimetière de la Madeleine is full of historic monuments, lovely gardens and a few famous permanent residents, including Jules Verne. Many of the funerary monuments are embellished with Art Nouveau and Art Déco ornamentation. Arriving a bit after 5, I had less than 90 minutes before closing.
Signs helped in locating the burial spot for Monsieur Verne and his wife. I continued to walk, passing peaceful garden areas, mausoleums with awesome facades, the crematorium and a plot where metal crosses were lined up like soldiers. On a gray day like today, it was a sober reminder that life is short and to enjoy and live every day to the fullest. The walk to the cemetery was long, and I needed to return to the hotel to freshen up before my dinner reservation. I called for an Uber. Within 5 minutes I was being whisked back along the riverside, getting back to the hotel in 15 minutes. Changing from my yellow slicker to the heavier of my two sports jackets. I spent a bit journaling and writing this post before it was time to call for a cab to get to the restaurant.
With an 8pm reservation at Restaurant Le Vivier, I was full of anticipation. The taxi from the hotel took me back toward the river and then north, then west across that part of the city out to the Rue de Rouen. Le Vivier is a bit out of town, a 15-minute ride, but is in a beautiful setting. Welcomed at the door, I stumbled in French a bit before settling at a small table on the side banquet, just where I wanted to be so I could watch the room. At arrival, it was about a third filled, but others soon followed. With both a prix fixe and a la carte menus, I opted for the former, with four courses, the cheese table and the accompanying wine recommendations.
My first course was Carpaccio de Saint Jacques mariné au citron vert et huile vierge à la truffe, served on a large scallop shell with orange wedges. It was served with a very cold, crisp sparkling (alcoholic) cider. Then came the “fish of the day”, a grilled slab of hake placed over a quiche-like pie of vegetables in a custard. Here the wine was a Chablis, dry chardonnay from the region just south of the Champagne district. A small salad followed, with beautiful presentation, which I used as time to make sure I was hydrating and drank water. The cheese table was rolled to my place, and I selected 4 cheeses with the guidance of the waiter, asking for regional varieties that I might not know. I did raise eyebrows when I asked for some bread, but I’m a bit set in my ways on that. A Burgundy was a nice addition to my cheese feast.
Dessert also came from a cart. I was pretty full, so I asked if I might take a macaroon with me. As it turned out, this is a regular request, and they boxed up a delightful presentation of five very colorful cookies with some fruit and nuts to send me off to my hotel and onward. They presented me with a snifter of calvados with the check, so I sated myself while they secured my taxi to return to town. The driver brought me back so as to complete a city circuit, and I didn’t forget my goodies or my gear when I left to enter the hotel.
Once I my room, I shed my jacket and began my ritual – downloading the cameras, charging the phone and batteries, and writing the remainder of today’s blog posting. Checking email, I did send a follow-up to Vivienne to let her know that my day was a total success, and that I would tweak the section for St.-Leu. A message from Florida reported yet more much needed rain, although much warmer than here in northern France. The second visit to my house was reported as all is good. Tomorrow would require an earlier start, with an 8:25 train. I’ll set my alarm and brush my teeth while this gets posted to the blog. Then lots of photos to add – maybe 50?