They call Emmanuel Macron, president of France, the man from nowhere, but he’s not, you know. He’s from Amiens, capital of Picardy. It didn’t vote for him by a landslide in the presidential election, mind you. He got 72.6 per cent of the vote in the second round on a turnout of 71 per cent (in Paris it was more like 90 per cent that voted for him). Prophets are notoriously without honour in their own country but for politicians, different rules apply.
I went to Amiens just before the second round of the election to write about its charms for travellers. Seeing the place does put the president in context. This isn’t far from the Low Countries – in the valley of the Somme. Amiens was behind the front lines in the battle. People visiting the battlefields use Amiens as their base; and for the centenary of the Great War, the city is plastered with big, rather affecting images of soldiers from the war: Tommies, Anzacs and French, grinning at the cameras. It may be a subliminal factor in Macron’s pre-Brexit Anglophilia; it is certainly a factor in his fixation with the EU. Much of the city was destroyed in the world wars.
This is provincial France; Picardy, in the frites and cider zone of the country, where the cooking is good and rich. Take the ficelles as representative… pancakes stuffed with ham and cheese sauce. They like their chocolate here, too: Macron’s scarily skinny wife, Brigette, comes from five generations of chocolatiers, though you’d never think it to look at her. Her brother’s shop is right in the middle of town – Jean Trognon, rue Delambre – where you can buy the best Amiens macarons: the flat, marzipan-flavoured sort and, when I was there, chocolate Flanders poppies.
The market by the medieval belfry is where the locals go to shop; they struck me as sturdy, humorous, down-to-earth people. I’d stock up here on charcuterie, cheese and veg, but then I don’t mind carrying my bodyweight in produce back home. There’s a fabulous cookware shop by the market but, it being Saturday when I visited, it was shut. I salute the willingness of shopkeepers here to forego profit for lunch; it’s way more civilised than the London retail culture.
Don’t bank on going shopping on Sunday in Amiens. When Macron talks about restructuring the labour market, he’s not just talking about the 35-hour week (which may, however, help explain why French productivity is greater than here); he almost certainly has Sunday closing in his sights too. If he can make it work in Amiens, he can make it work anywhere. Unemployment in Amiens is almost 17 per cent – the local Whirlpool factory famously relocated to Poland; this is a place that will test Macron’s policies.
Wherever you go in in this city, you’re always within sight of the cathedral. It dominates the place, and perhaps the imagination of the inhabitants. It was built in record time for the 13th century, 68 years, and it’s wonderful. It’s the tallest Gothic church, twice as big as Notre Dame in Paris with a stunning façade that echoes the interior of the building. Rodin wrote of the ‘golden’ Virgin on the Lady portal, that she ‘rose here, in an era of sincerity, to enlighten and uphold the love of beauty in the hearts of men’.
The cathedral’s prize possession is a head of St John the Baptist, and yes, I know that there’s another in Damascus, and another in Bulgaria. But this one, nicked in Constantinople in the 13th century, isn’t on show; fear of terrorism, apparently. That’s tragic – it has a puncture in the forehead, which medievals unhesitatingly attributed to Herodias stabbing it with a knife, an episode immortalised in the fabulous Tudor-era painted panels on the Baptist. Macron chose to be baptised as a Catholic when he was 12; I bet the cathedral played a part.
Amiens is criss-crossed with canals and one of its attractions is the hortillonnages, the floating gardens – allotments on waterways – which go back to the Middle Ages. You can be ferried round them on a flat bottomed barque. It’s the best way to see the wildlife and the backs of other people’s market gardens. You can buy the produce at the riverside market on a Saturday, where they sell seedlings and big bunches of lilacs.
It’s a quiet town, Amiens; the medieval textile trade has vanished (it did well from woad once) and it has lost much of its industry, so now it’s making the most of tourism. It makes an excellent weekend trip from London, if you travel by Eurostar to Lille, then change for the regional service; and it’s a good base for exploring the Somme valley by bike.
Jules Verne’s house is a local attraction; the great man lived here for the last part of his life. The attic in his tower-house, a treasury of posters and books, is brilliant; straight out of Tintin. You can buy slabs of chocolate with Verne’s face on in Amiens; soon I bet you’ll be able to eat Macron’s face too.
To find out more, visit weekend-picardy.co.uk