Monday the 6th of February and thrilled to be setting out for Eurotunnel, off the island and onward to Amiens. With a population of 136,000 it used to be the capital of the historical region of Picardy and sits astride the river Somme, which set against the ferocious battles fought there, is Celtic for ‘tranquillity’. Why Amiens for us? It’s an hour and a half’s drive from the Channel, nicely reachable compared with some of the other eight-hour treks into deepest Europe, getting too old for all that.
Well, the town isn’t bad, although much destroyed and rebuilt after two wars. For example, the train station (1857) was razed by German shelling in WWI, rebuilt identically, then Allied bombing destroyed it again. Now it is a thoroughly modern structure. Boasting a stunning Gothic cathedral, the biggest in France, Amiens was home to Jules Verne and where the Red Baron was brought down for the last time. We had a pleasant time attending the bars and restaurants. Pretty cold at 2-3° lots of the time but we don’t mind that.
What we did mind was the Airbnb-booked three-storey 18th-century gîte called La maison de Sophie in the St-Leu quartier, with an arm of the river Somme flowing languidly by. It all looked lovely on the website but when we arrived we were greeted by a posse of elderly French-speaking (actually, shouting) fisherman smack bang opposite the house, drinking the time from after 8 a.m. until dark, every sodding day. Lovely. Sophie’s was poorly maintained with a broken window lock, lights not working, an unanchored safety rope on the perilous stone spiral staircase, a filthy rubbish-bin area and an eyesore of a garden. Thoroughly poor value.
A longish walk through dubious streets to the Jardin des Plantes revealed nothing in the beds, and the greenhouses were strictly accés interdit. Well, it is February. Best part, aside from the truly lovely cathedral, were two days driving up and down the Somme, visiting villages, military cemeteries and other old stuff. Most notable was the British cemetery at Crouy, where the majority of headstones showed 248 Aussie war dead. In one corner of the cemetery stood a couple of dozen German graves, suitably but sadly divided from their former enemies. And another time we were at the site of the famous Australian victory at Le Hamel, recently been made into a moving, windswept war memorial to those unfortunate lads of a faraway country.
My lasting impression of the town was one of visible homelessness and poverty, and if you are unlucky enough to be victim of those, you are not persuaded by higher liberal values but of how to make ends meet. If you think Marine Le Pen will get that for you, why wouldn’t you vote for her? Much ado à la Trump.
Home in Ampthill after five days of all this, I almost kissed the carpet John Paul II-like, with thanks for a much-desired homecoming and rebalancing of our dosha.