New this year, 'Phantoms and Nightmares' exhibitions give further insight into WW1 - and Bay of the Somme has been recognised as one of the most beautiful in the world.
La Baie de Somme, with its seemingly endless white sand beaches that merge imperceptibly with the sea and sky, is considered to be one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline of the planet: www.world-bays.com Think fish restaurants, beach bikes, kayaking, fishing or horse riding. A resident seal colony too.
You can rent bikes or kayaks at No Shoes a laid-back sports shop and casual restaurant behind the dunes (03 22 27 11 50; www.noshoes-baiedesomme.com). Or ride the Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme – a little steam train with early 20th century carriages (03 22 26 96 96; www.cfbs.eu)
Inland from the beach, the Parc du Marquenterre (a Picardy word meaning ‘the sea that comes into the land) is a nature reserve and major stopover for migrating birds. Watching from hides in the park (binoculars are available to rent) you may see storks sitting on huge nests, spoonbill, teal, oystercatchers, avocet or nightingales – depending on the time of year. Walks of varying lengths are indicated, or opt for a horse-drawn cart (www.parcdumarquenterre.com; entrance €9.90 adult, €7.90 children). The bistro here (with sun terrace) serves good food including regional dishes such as Moules a la Picarde (mussels in a special sauce, with chips) - starters cost from €7, main courses from €10.
Where to stay in the Bay of the Somme
I stayed at the comfortable Hotel restaurant du Cap Hornu (double room with full buffet breakfast cost €98, children under 12 free) which is set in extensive grounds near the charming little town of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. Ultra-modern bedrooms have been created in old farm buildings, they have a good restaurant, an on-site shop and bike hire facility.
I also had a sneak preview of a classy new 11-bedroom hotel Les Corderies (double room from €120, breakfast €14 per person) in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. It has sea views, a spa, indoor swimming pool and tempting-looking menu (from €30). And the owner, Ambroise Senlis, told me he could arrange 1hr 30-minute trip on the bay in a sea-going kayak with a professional guide.
PICARDY CITY BREAK
For a contrast to the sea and countryside make for the city of Amiens. Don’t miss the fascinating Saint-Leu district on the river bank a few minutes walk from the centre: where restaurants, bars, cafes and antique shops have set up in former workshops once used by millers, weavers and other craftsmen.
Notre Dame Cathedral in Amiens is the largest Gothic structure ever built – and a UNESCO WORLDHERITAGE SITE. Our guide was proud to tell us that “this is the Notre Dame, not be confused with the one in Paris which could fit in here twice over”. And as we entered through the north portal he pointed out the Signs of the Zodiac that once served as a seasonal calendar. From mid-June to mid-September an evening light show colour-washes the façade to show how the cathedral would have looked in the Middle Ages. The shop opposite sells goodies - don't miss the macaroons !
Whilst living in Amiens in the late 19th century Jules Verne wrote ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ and ’20,000 Leagues under the Sea’. A more accessible trip is the 90-minute town walk ‘Following the footsteps of Jules Verne’, and his former home is a now museum (2, rue Charles Dubois; 03 22 45 45 75 www.amiens.com/julesverne).
The Hortillonnages (floating gardens) are an extraordinary feature of Amiens - where the rich soil has been used for market gardening for centuries. Punt-like boats (barques a cornet) criss-cross 65km of narrow canals that link these city hideaways. While seeming to be in the heart of countryside you are within an artichoke’s throw of the cathedral. Beguiling. Boat trips from April to October at 54 Boulevard Beauville (03 22 92 12 18 €5.70 adult, children aged 4-11 €3.80).
Other gardens in the area where you may see those ‘Roses of Picardy’ immortalized in the WW1 song, include Valloires in Argoules www.jardinsdevalloires.com; Chateau of Maizicourt www.jardinsdemaizicourt.com; Rose Garden of the Chateau of Rambures www.chateaufort-rambures.com; Floral Garden of Digeon www.jardin-picardie.com
I stayed at the comfortable new hotel Mercure Amiens Cathedrale yes, it is right opposite the cathedral (double room €87, ask for a cathedral view). Restaurant le Quai (13 Quai Belu; 03 22 72 10 80 www.restaurant-le-quai.com) is a buzzy restaurant in Saint-Leu where local dishes including ‘Ficelle Picarde’ (delectable pancakes filled with mushrooms in cheese sauce) and 'Pates de Canard en Croute' (duck pate in pastry) are on the menu alongside international fish, meat and vegetarian dishes: main courses from €18, child menu €8.
Memorials, museums and Battle Sites of World War 1
Amiens makes a good base from which to visit these emotive sites. I was fortunate to be taken round by Englishwoman Cathy Carnel of Terres de Memoire Battlefield Tours (03 22 84 23 05; www.terresdememoire.eu). This small company was created by Sylvestre Bresson, a Frenchman passionate about Great War history, to facilitate visits to the battlefields for overseas visitors. Earlier this year they organized an ANZAC memorial visit for several hundred Australians. In our group Cathy helped a young woman locate the grave of her great, great grandfather who had died, aged 19, in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. And we went to the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel at the request of the Canadian with us www.vac-acc.gc.ca
To get an understanding of the causes and consequences of WW1 we started the tour at the Historial Museum of the Great War in Peronne. Housed in a castle, it has an amazingly peaceful ambience considering that over 50,000 exhibits evoke the horrors of war. This is the site of one of two major new exhibitons “PHANTOMS & NIGHTMARES” EXHIBITION opened in May. The other is at the Espace Culturel “François Mitterand” in Beauvais. Both regions were deeply scarred by the First World War and the “Phantoms & Nightmares” exhibitions combine the Historial’s First World War collections of uniforms, accessories, everyday objects and representations of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s haunted dreams, with contemporary photographs, installations and videos portraying the ideas of ghosts, dreams and agonies, as recurrences of the traumas of war. Organised in partnership with the City of Beauvais, Visual Arts Mission, the exhibitions explore two specific aspects of phantoms and nightmares. The Historial examines the individual in the face of history and the heritage of war : personal memory, collective memory, symbols, traces and violence. Beauvais takes visitors on a journey through childhood fears from a psychological perspective : secrets, anxieties, fears and madness. Exhibitions open from Friday 13th May (Beauvais) and Saturday 14th May (Péronne) through to 21st August 2011. The Historial de la Grande Guerre is open daily from 1000am to 6pm including Sundays and Bank Holidays. Admission fees : Adults : 7.50 euros ; over 60 - 6.20 euros ; children, students, teachers - 3.80 euros. Groups : Adults guided tour (reservation required) 6.00 euros ; students - 3.20 euros. For more information : www.historial.org / email : email@example.com or call : 00 3 33 22 83 14 18. The Museum of the Great War in Péronne geographically positions the bloodiest battle of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme, in the overall context of the conflict. The losses at the Battle totalled 400,000 British, 335,000 German and 200,000 French. The idea of creating a museum devoted to the 1914-1918 war originated with the Somme County Council in 1986. The project was visualised in the context of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which involved soldiers from more than 20 nations of the world at that time. The museum was inaugurated on 16 July 1992.
Next stop was The Somme Trench Museum in the little town of Albert. The sounds, images and lighting effects in the tunnels give a graphic illustration of the daily life of soldiers (03 22 75 16 17; www.musee-somme-1916.eu); adults €4 children €2.50). At the monumental Franco-British Memorial of Thiepval, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, we mingled with several school groups and learnt that WW1 is on the curriculum for French and British secondary schoolchildren. Much more on www.somme-battlefields.com or www.visit-somme.com.
La basilique, 3 rue Gambetta, in Albert (03 22 75 04 71; www.hoteldelabasilique.fr menus from €16.50) is a delightful family-run restaurant with a choice of menus. Local specialities include those Ficelle Picarde, and fillet of pork with Maroilles cheese; there are gourmet choices such as foie gras, beef fillet with Bearnaise sauce, monkfish and seabass; and vegetarian options. A nice touch here is that the Kir aperitif is made with local poppy syrup (naturally, poppies feature in all kinds of souvenirs).
Over lunch I met another Englishwoman, Diane Piuk, who runs a B&B and does guided tours of the battlefields with her writer husband (03 22 85 1456; www.lesalouettes.net; €65 per night double room includes breakfast, min 2 nights stay). Diane explained that they are members of the Somme Battlefields’ Partners (a group of B&Bs, restaurants and guides who have a thorough knowledge of WW1 and do their best to provide each visitor with most appropriate services www.sbpartner.org).
P&O Ferries www.poferries.com 08716 646464. Dover-Calais (driving time Calais-Picardy 1 hour 40 minutes). Enjoy a meal on board in Langan’s Brasserie. Upgade to the peace of the Club Lounge (an extra £12 per person: includes glass of champagne) and therapists here may offer shoulder and neck massage (they ask you to pay what you think it is worth - suggested price from £8: worth every penny, darling).