Spellbound in Amiens

In Culture, Europe, France, Places, Travel on March 17, 2012 at 12:31 am

Amiens, a city in Northern France, on the Somme river.

Amiens. Most tourists visiting France don’t think of going to Amiens. Even if it is an hour and a half by train from Paris. Hell, people living in France don’t think of going to Amiens. I have no idea why we did. Not for very long though. We were there for a day on our way to somewhere else.

Amiens offers you as one of its principal tourist attractions one of the oldest and tallest Gothic cathedrals in France. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Monument and for those who can visualise its proportions based only on numbers, here goes:

Its spire rises to 112 meters above the ground (367.45 feet) with a 42 meters (138.8 feet) high nave, it is 145 meters long with a total volume of 200 000 m3 and a total surface area of 7,700 m.sq. Phew!

It is known for its beautiful symmetrical architecture and a finesse rare for the 13th century. In short, it is an architectural marvel and beauty. However, when you have already been travelling in Europe and seen enough cathedrals to last you a lifetime, unless you are a cathedral lover or an architectural buff, it is hardly going to clinch the decision in favour of Amiens.

View of the Notre-Dame cathedral at Amiens, seen from the city. It is said that in medieval times, the cathedral was built this high and on top of a hill to make it look awe-inspiring and also visible from far away.

We arrived in Amiens one late summer afternoon, quite tired from our travels in northern France and all we wanted to do was nothing at all. It was a beautiful sunny day, which made us want to sleep in the grass and not going up to see the cathedral or anything else for that matter.

However, both C and I are extremely restless. We met this couple while visiting the Andamans who had been on the Havelock island for a week, just enjoying the quiet and the sea. It sounded so tempting to do the same, getting up in the morning, having nothing to do but read a book and watch the sea, have a lazy lunch, go snorkelling, have a quiet dinner. Somehow I doubt C and I can manage to do the same. For a day, yes. Maybe even two days, but for a week? Nah! We both need to get up and walk, to see things, do something.  So after half an hour of lying in the grass, we were already itching to discover what Amiens had to offer.

What we found was an idyllic town on the banks of the Somme river. Since it was a holiday, people were enjoying their time at home, fishing or playing in the park with their children. The only garish noise we heard was a bunch of teenagers honking away to glory in a car that sped down the street in record time. It was so discordant with the ambience of Amiens and so sudden, it made us jump out of our skin.

Much as I like visiting idyllic and laid-back places, I have trouble imagining myself enjoying living there. I think I am ultimately very much a city person. I might get tired of the rush, the crowds, the noise of the city once in a while and need to get away but ultimately I sleep best when I can hear the traffic outside and I am happiest when there are a lot of things happening around me.

The cathedral, as far as my camera could capture!

When we finally made our way to the cathedral, we were amazed at the gigantic-ness of it. Of course we had heard it was huge but it still managed to boggle our minds. Add to that the fact that it did not look chunky nor weighed down by its weight nor by its volume and you had before you something of exquisite beauty. Its namesake, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is of course by far the more popular but I dare say that might have a lot to do with the fact that it is situated in Paris. Did someone say anything about being at the right place?

Someone had explained to me that the reason cathedrals are always built so tall and pointy was to express or symbolise the act of reaching out to god, so high up in heaven. Another reason light comes in only from the top is because it symbolises the guiding-light shown by god who is well, somewhere beyond the clouds.

The main hall and one of the many intricate sculptures inside.

However, what makes Amiens absolutely worthwhile is the Son et Lumière or the Sound and Light show at the cathedral that takes place in the evenings during the summer months and during New Year and Christmas. During one of the laser cleanings of the cathedral twenty odd years ago, it was found that the western façade of the cathedral had originally been in colour. During the light and sound show, via an intricate and advanced lighting system, you get to see the façade as it would have looked in the 13th century. And what is awesome and absolutely amazing is that since the effects are a play of lights, not only does it not damage the structure, but it makes the façade seem amazingly real. We are so used to Gothic churches in white stone, it seems a bit surreal. C says it  resembles a South Indian temple 😉

It does look very real doesn't it? Talk about being precise!

I have only one picture of it myself but you can find enough pictures of the coloured version on the net. If I find willing donors, I will add some more pictures. Till then, I leave you with this picture and a video below which, even though slightly long to my taste, shows off beautifully the architecture and the effect of the light show.

If Amiens tickles your travelling bud, you might want to look at the following links:

Official Tourism site of Amiens

UNESCO website on the Amiens Cathedral

Lonely Planet on Amiens, France

  1. Beautiful photographs, fabulous description, makes you long to be there.

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