Amiens – where the home fires burn

I stopped off in Amiens during the autumn of last year. I have a certain soft spot for it as it somehow represents an early youth period; a connection with aviation and travel. Not for me personally of course but just a suggestion of such things from an earlier period. During the early days of the Great World War in Picardy, young, innocent pilots from the Royal Flying Corps would visit Amiens at the end of their day. The alcohol, music, prostitutes and all the colours of life worked as a means to divert their attention from their inevitable short life expectancy. Life would end for some of them so early the next morning and in such horrific circumstances.

Picardy Museum, AmiensAmiens was also home to Jules Verne who rented a large house there. Jules Verne was one of the greatest French novel and travel writers of all time. He will always be remembered. Verne prolifically produced writings about voyaging and imaginary aviation. His house still stands as a remarkable museum to enshrine his life.

Amiens Cathedral stands proudly to attention in the centre of the city like a timeless, forever present sculpture. The edifice is vast and the architectural features took my breath away. I also stood to attention in front of it, stationery, as I just wondered and gasped at its majesty and presence.

Amiens today is just as unchanging as ever. It is full of light, of life, vigorous commercial activity and French sparkling energy. Restaurants, bars, market activity and river life embellish its culture.

Jules Verne's HouseThe Maison de Jules Verne is a substantial house on the edge of the city centre. Verne and his wife lived there between 1882 and 1900. The house nowadays still contains many of their possessions.  Jules Verne devoted his life to French literature. Many of his famous books originated from the house including ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’. Visitors can see the actual desk where this novel was written surrounded by a vast array of his other, celebrated works. The preserved vast library features works by Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and many other distinguished authors that were loved by Verne. He was the owner of all of the exhibited books in his lifetime.

Verne, of course, also wrote ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ featuring Phileas Fogg. Verne was fascinated so much by travel especially by means of the air and the sea. One whole floor panelling in his office space has been turned into a world map displaying the fictitious balloon route featured in his famous novel. This book has been translated into more languages than any other French publication.

The current museum also displays models of imagined flying machines created by Verne in his mind before aircraft were invented. Externally, the house features on its roof an iron sculpture representing planetary rotation pointing towards the stars. 

Amiens CathedralThe Cathedral is certainly one of the world’s greatest examples of Gothic architecture. It is the largest ecclesiastical edifice in France spreading out over 7700 square meters. It stands in the centre of Amiens with a domineering splendour and permanence.

Outside and inside, the church is encrusted with quite the most perfect and influential examples of religious sculpture and artworks. The Cathedral almost defines France, defines Picardy and defies human conflict that the region has endured over the centuries. During the hours of darkness in the summer months, Amiens Cathedral is brilliantly illuminated over its façade to present a sharp, bright symbol of time and hope everlasting.

The Picardy museum also rests in Amiens. This is a large, robust and imposing building presenting many great works of art. The accent here is very much on regional history, achievement and culture.

The exhibited art is of a very sophisticated nature. The poignant background of modern warfare associated with the timeless Somme River flowing through the city is not neglected. The nearby Somme basin was the location of the most vicious savagery and greatest loss of life in one battle during the Great War. The beginnings of military aviation in 1916 created and supported the most brutal forms of loss of life for such young people during four years of conflict in Picardy.

Tour Perret, AmiensAmiens is also home to one of the first skyscrapers in Europe, the Tour Perret.  A real coming together of the old and the new in the City. This Tower stretches to a height of more than 100 meters, as high as the spire on the nearby Notre Dame Cathedral. The two constructions blend wonderfully together on the City skyline.

The Tour Perret is also illuminated each day on the outside during the hours of darkness. The light show artistically demonstrates the passage of time that seems so appropriate for Amiens.

Amiens today stands for unpretentious, unending normal life. Amiens does not take itself too seriously and does not think itself too important. It somehow seems to always look over its shoulder to see what might be lurking there. I am a bit like that and I find great comfort in a regular routine and optimistic form of life going on around me. Amiens is like a like a dear grandmother’s house, a cosy home to all who love France. Drop by when you are passing and allow yourself a comforting deep breath.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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