With its proximity to the UK and plentiful places to visit, picturesque Picardy is the perfect destination for a weekend away, as Vicky Leigh discovers
Weekend breaks can promise a lot but deliver very little, especially if they involve a trip abroad. While they may seem attractive on the surface, often the reality is that by the time you’ve got there it’s almost time to come home, leaving you with a disappointing number of precious work-free days and under pressure to cram in as much as possible. A whistle-stop tour of the attractions and sights, giving each one barely more than a cursory glance, is probably not what you had in mind.
However, a weekend getaway to picturesque Picardy in northern France delivers everything it promises, and plenty more besides. Just a short hop across (or under) the Channel, and easily accessible from Paris via Eurostar, there are neither lengthy airport check-ins to endure nor seemingly endless coach journeys. Simply pack the car, board the Eurotunnel train at Folkestone and just 25 minutes later you emerge in France ready to make the most of your weekend away, complete with your own transport for exploring the area and no valuable time wasted. So close to the UK and yet so French, Picardy is just an hour from Calais. If you do decide to fly, it’s an easy journey from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.
Turning inland from the Channel coast and in less than two hours’ drive, you can be in the heart of the department of Somme, which is where our visit began. It is an area of profound historical significance. The Battle of the Somme, which took place in 1916, is undoubtedly one of the most well known of all the battles that scarred this gentle landscape in World War I, with British casualties exceeding 400,000 by the time it ended.
The Baie de Somme was invaded once again by German troops during World War II and the entire region of Picardy is dotted with battlefields and memorials to the brave soldiers who lost their lives. The bay itself is a patchwork of lagoons, marshes and dunes, and the views out to sea across the immense stretch of sand are breathtaking. Today, the Baie de Somme estuary is home to around 6,000 black-headed sheep that graze the salt marshes and the salt lamb they produce is a delicacy not to be missed.
The estuary is also home to the biggest seal colony in France, and if you wander along Quai Jeanne d’Arc in St-Valery-sur-Somme you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them at high tide. The best way to travel around the bay is to hop on board the vintage steam train linking medieval St-Valery with other towns along the coast and carries some 120,000 visitors per year.
Before you leave St-Valery, make sure to explore the narrow passageways between the colourful fishermen’s houses, which are decorated with the bright paints left over from their boats, and explore the quaint shops as you amble along the ancient cobbled streets.
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Having spent the night in St-Valery, our next stop was Picardy’s capital Amiens (pictured above) home for 18 years to writer Jules Verne. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the intricately carved Notre Dame Cathedral, for which Amiens is particularly famous, towers impressively over the main square, and is one of the finest examples of Gothic art. Twice the size of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, it is the largest Gothic edifice ever built, and inside you’ll find a relic on display that is said to be the skull of St John the Baptist, stolen by a canon of Amiens and brought back to the city.
Restoration work on the cathedral uncovered traces of the original, vibrant paint and now every evening at nightfall from June to September, and every year at Christmas, the Cathedral in Colour light displays bring these colours back to life through computer-generated light projection, allowing visitors to see it as it was centuries ago.
For fresh local produce to take home, stop by the market place where the twice-weekly market offers plenty to choose from. The macarons d’Amiens and the Picardy g�teau battu, a brioche-like cake in the shape of a chef’s hat, are a real treat.
Our last night in Picardy was spent in Chantilly at the Dolce Hotel, in the heart of the historic Chantilly forest in the neighbouring department of Oise. If you feel like splashing out then this is a fabulous place to stay. With views of the hotel’s 18-hole golf course from each of the elegant, modern guest rooms, and a fitness centre with spa, this is the ultimate indulgence.
For a fine dining experience, reserve a table at the Michelin-starred Carmontelle restaurant, which serves some of the finest cuisine in the region, or sample a gourmet dinner at the �toile.
After a very restful night’s sleep and a sumptuous buffet breakfast, we headed to Senlis, the last stop of our short stay. Here we visited the cathedral and were taken on a leisurely guided tour of the narrow cobbled streets by horse and cart. It was the perfect way to finish a perfect weekend away. Stay... in medieval splendourIf you’re looking for somewhere to stay that is a home away from home and yet offers accommodation with a difference, then the family-run Ch�teau d’Auteuil in Oise certainly ticks both boxes. This is most definitely not your typical B&B. Our hosts greeted us in medieval attire and the guesthouse has been charmingly renovated using period features and fittings, all of which makes for a very authentic experience of a past age. A welcome gift of homemade jam and home-cooked meals make you feel right at home, and the family are happy to meet you on arrival at the airport or the station, both of which are only a short distance away. Horse-riding or bicycle hire can be organised for you – the beautiful surroundings are well worth exploring – and even a massage can be arranged if you’re tempted by a bit of pampering. Rooms start at €115 (�94) per night for two people including breakfast.www.chateaudauteuil.comDiscover... natureThere are 72 parks and gardens in Picardy, so there are plenty to choose from, but make sure you find time to visit the Herbarium in St-Valery-sur-Somme. Originally created by the nuns from the local hospital as a garden for growing medicinal plants with healing properties, it also focuses on ornamental, historical, anecdotal and culinary plants. These different varieties are still represented today in clearly defined sections, all of them growing in harmony around an ancient apple tree, the garden’s central focal point. As you stroll among the Herbarium’s beds you’ll see woad, the leaves of which have been used for thousands of years as a natural indigo dye, which is produced from their blue pigment. Medieval Amiens prospered on woad, and the colour of the dye became known as Bleu d’Amiens, most of which was sold to the British with the proceeds helping to pay for the cathedral. The garden is open from 1 May to 31 October, and guided tours are available.www.jardin-herbarium.frTaste... Chantilly cream
In the stunningly landscaped grounds of the beautiful Ch�teau de Chantilly – now home to one of the finest museums of historical paintings in France, second only to the Louvre in Paris – is an unexpected surprise just waiting to be discovered. Signposts point to the Hameau, a small hamlet with charming thatched cottages close to a gently meandering stream, where in the mid-18th century the Prince de Cond�’s guests first tasted a delicious thick cream with a hint of vanilla, simply called cr�me Chantilly. Its reputation spread throughout France and Europe and the Hameau is now known as the birthplace of Chantilly cream. Make sure you treat yourself to afternoon tea al fresco in the pretty garden, where you might even bump into the cream’s very own ambassador, so famous has it become. Be warned though, strawberries and cream will never seem the same again once you’ve sampled this delectable delight. www.chateaudechantilly.comFact File
For tourist information visit www.weekend-picardy.co.uk
Eurotunnel departs from Folkestone to Calais www.eurotunnel.com
Weekend breaks at the Dolce Chantilly Hotel start at €80 (�65) per person www.dolce-chantilly-hotel.com