We’ve visited the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris a few times including climbing up 422 steps to where the gargoyles stare out at the city and it has always been impressive in size, height, and history. When I read that the similarly named cathedral in Amiens could hold the Paris landmark inside with room left over, I knew that it would be something that we would want to see. That “someday” visit turned into a “let’s go now” trip when I learned that author Jules Verne (Around the World in 80 Days) had lived in the city for 18 years and that his house where he wrote many other novels was now a museum. But those were not the only surprises that awaited us.
Since the holiday apartment we had rented for our stay in Amiens had a view of the cathedral, that seemed to be a logical place to start our tour. Completed in 1288 in only 68 years that was a remarkable feat at the time given that the smaller Notre-Dame in Paris was constructed from 1163 to 1345. The interior, with a height of 42 meters (138 feet) and 126 pillars makes it feel immense adding to the open, bright and airy feeling that is lit by huge stained glass windows.
Although we arrived in Amiens on a Saturday—market day—we got there too late to visit the Marché sur l’Eau, the open air market supplied with fruits, vegetables, and flowers that are grown in the nearby Les Hortillonnages (featured photo above). These marsh gardens have been in use since the Middle Ages and during the summer can be visited on flat bottomed boats but even on foot we got a good view of the 300 hectare (740 acre) site that’s crisscrossed with canals.
We stayed on that side of town and in that medieval period of history as we explored the waterside neighborhood of Saint Leu. This is classic, charming Europe with narrow cobblestone streets, half timbered houses, and sidewalk cafés lining the port. It was the ideal place just to wander without a map but since the spire of the cathedral was almost always in view, we never really got lost.
Only half as tall as that easily-visible landmark, at 52 meters (170 feet) the Belfry was completed in 1410 to demonstrate the independence of the town. Its height provided a great lookout point to warn the citizens of any approaching danger. Over the centuries it also served as town meeting space, arms storage, and a prison. Today the bell chimes out the hours for all the tourists below.
Equal in height to the cathedral’s spire but much more modern is the Tour Perret, one of the first skyscrapers in Europe. Opened in 1952, this 26 story structure was part of the reconstruction effort to rebuild the city following the devastation of World War II. It’s a private apartment building, so we couldn’t go inside but we had to pass by anyway on our way to a dwelling that we could indeed tour.
The Maison de Jules Verne is a 19th century mansion where the author lived from 1882 to 1900. The house was easy to spot since its fanciful stairway tower is topped with what looked to me like a giant gyroscope. Spread across 3 floors are lots of family heirlooms including the desk where he began his novel Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea. On the second floor one room is decorated like a ship’s cabin from a 19th century yacht while the attic features the model airships he created well before any planes took off in the early 1900s.
Just down the street is another building that bears the name “Jules Verne”; the National Center of Circus and Street Arts that the author himself inaugurated in 1889. While constructed to look like a traditional canvas circus tent this genuine bricks and mortar structure houses a year-round circus school with an auditorium for 3000 spectators.
Completed in 1867 with a design to resemble the Louvre, the art museum Musée de Picardie has a range of objects from pre-history to the present. There are archeological treasures from digs around Amiens, sculptures including a work by Bourdelle whom we knew from our visit to Montauban, medieval art, and paintings from names like El Greco and Picasso. Even if you don’t have time to tour the museum, it’s worth walking by simply to admire the beautiful exterior of the building.
Seasonal bonus: If you go to Amiens in the summer or around Christmas, stay until after sundown for a fantastic free outdoor spectacle. Entitled “Chroma” the front of the cathedral appears to come alive thanks to a magical sound and light show that covers the building in moving shapes and colors for 50 minutes.