When it comes to France, I know that most foreigners think of Paris and Provence. However, I was born in Amiens, the capital of the Somme, one of the departments of Picardy, one of the 22 original regions of France. Since 2015, the 22 regions became 13 and Picardy was fused with the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the northernmost region of France. The Somme is the central 1 department of the new big region. Even if Paris is not that far, everything here is different. Think of the north as being the complete opposite of the south, culturally and culinary.
Here are a few things you should know: take a coat, your sunscreen, some walking shoes and a good camera. Be ready to see a lot: old, new, sad, happy, funny, natural and human made, the Somme is modelled on the human life.
Are you ready ?
From Paris, we pass Beauvais and we enter in the Somme. As we go on, the landscape slowly transitions. Meadows become rarer, the horizon spreads and you can now see quite far. From time to time the car passes next to a group of gigantic wind turbines. We are in the middle of agricultural land. Depending on the season the colours change: Summer is full of warm wheat golds and dark greens; Autumn of earthly browns and oranges; Winter of dark greys ; and Spring of crisp flowery yellows and bright greens. One thing is sure though, we won’t eat tomatoes and olive oil.
Suddenly on the horizon a mountain ! And as we get closer, it isn’t anymore. It’s a white building. We are arriving in Amiens, and this building is its crown: the Cathedral of Our Lady. If you thought Notre Dame of Paris was magnificent, wait until you see Amiens’. It is twice as big, three times more decorated and a million times more beautiful. Amiens was once a glorious medieval city, and there were plenty of houses still standing at the beginning of the XXth century. Unfortunately, almost everything was destroyed in the two wars. Lucky for us, the Cathedral is still standing.
Ah well ! All that medieval grandiosity whet our appetites. Time to eat ! And to find restaurants in Amiens, I know the best neighbourhood: Saint Leu. Further down the Cathedral, along the river Somme, Saint Leu is the oldest area of the city, stuffed with nice little restaurants and picturesque houses. No, the man in the river isn’t real, it is just a statue (dressed by first years of the universities each year as an initiation). Choose a restaurant with the Ficelle Picarde on its menu. That is the most traditional dish around
here. A savoury crepe is stuffed with a piece of ham and finely chopped mushrooms mixed with béchamel sauce. It is rolled, sprinkled with cheese and put in the oven. Pure delight ! Disclaimer : to compensate our lack of oil, we use generous quantities of butter.
For someone with a sweet tooth I would recommend Amiens’ oldest speciality : the macaron. Careful though ! It is not the macaron you probably have heard of. This one is not a meringue, it is rather a biscuit made with almond paste, eggs whites and honey (and sometimes fruits). Have a look around the Trogneux chocolaterie. 2 Full already ?
Let’s go back to the car and en route pour Abbeville! But before let’s stop in a little village called Quesnoy-le-Montant to taste another speciality : the Gâteau Battu (the beaten cake). I don’t know if I should tell you what the ingredients of this fluffy brioche are, but let’s say it involves a LOT of butter and quite a few egg yolks. The cakes are cooked in a high mould, giving them an unmistakable shape. More than its little vanilla taste, it is the texture you would be ready to sell your soul for. 3
To digest a bit, let’s walk along the Somme. You will notice the many canal locks all along the river. It is actually possible to walk on a fully pedestrian path from Peronne (further East than Amiens) to Saint Valery sur Somme (mouth of the river Somme). It is the old towing path and it stretched on 120km.
Back in the car, and still following the river, the landscape changes again. We left the plateaus of Picardy in Amiens to follow the Valley of the Somme. Here we see a few meadows but mainly marshes. Chances are, you will spot quite a few animals: herons, hares, roes, hawks and pheasants.
Once in Abbeville, we can visit one of its many sites: the tiny but worthy museum of Boucher de Perthes, the Saint Sepulcre Church with modern stained-glass windows, or the Belfry. Let’s slow down and enjoy ourselves at the terrace of a café. We will taste the sweetness of the Picardy apple in a juice or something less common, a rhubarb nectar. This sparkling drink, very low in alcohol, is appreciated during the traditional french apéro, a snack centred around a drink before dinner. All gathered around the table, let me explain something about the region.
As you may have guessed already, the northern climate isn’t favourable to grape culture. And therefor, no traditional wine. Although we have abundance of something else: barley. The north of France, as Belgium and England, is a great producer of beers. You can taste local small brewerie beers around the Somme. Just ask for a El Belle, a Gueule Cassée Ambrée, Blonde or a Poppy. The Poppy beer is said to have a First World War taste. Do you know why the english chose the poppy as they commemorative flower ? Because it was the first flower to grow on the graves of their soldiers. It gave birth to a legend. Where there is a poppy, an english soldier fell. The colours at the beginning of summer will never let us forget about the massacre that was the Great War.
On a more joyful note: dinner! And I am taking you back to the car in the direction of the coast. Once again, the landscape is changing. The closer we get to our destination, the less common the scenery becomes. You won’t believe me but sometimes the sea covers the meadows up to the side of the road. And depending on the season, sheep are grazing the salty grass. Those sheep are a speciality around here: the pré salé lamb. It is a meat less strong than a regular lamb, and more tender. We are arriving in the bay of the Somme, the most poetic place around. The bay is a refuge for birds, traditions and mist. Picture vast stretches of white sand. Then imagine it even more vast. You would be half way through getting the real picture. Le Crotoy and Saint Valery are at both side of the bay, sometimes you can walk across the bay from one to another, sometimes.. not often. The tides are enormous. The water is a mix of fresh and salted. It is truly a place of transition. The perfect weather to discover it is a greyish, misty kind of day, with a bit of wind.
Le Crotoy is a small fishing town, with a charming market. If you want tradition and authenticity this is the right place. Small local based restaurants, houses of dark red brick, and a long stretch of fine sand for a beach. The speciality ? Mussels. If you fancy something a bit more classy, I’ll take you to Saint Valery. Unlike Le Crotoy, Saint Valery is a town for upper class vacations. The marina is full of small white boats, apart from a few more authentic ones. Although, Saint Valery will offer you the best in terms of food. The market is filled with interesting stalls and shops that sell local products. If we have time, we will check out the tea shop and its wonderful smells, and the sweet shop, because they have lollipops of all flavours (poppy, cantaloupe, rose, mint, apricot, strawberry, violet..). In terms of history both villages have their share. But Saint Valery stands out for her myriad of famous names: Victor Hugo, Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Verne, Edgar Degas, William the Conqueror who went on to invade England and Joan of Arc before she was send to be burned in Rouen.
Regardless of which town you would have chosen, you will have a great time.
And it is on this last thought and after a final tasty lollipop that I will say: Goodbye!
A note from Joe: HI everyone! I am super excited to bring you this article from our uber talented writer, Marie Drouvin. I visited with Marie about her homeland and her passion about the beauty, history, and culture was overwhelming. I said “we must write this article”. I KNEW it would be good and I wasn’t wrong. Marie, through her writing brings us to the ancient cobblestone streets and the sites and aromas of Northern France, a France that almost no tourist will ever find. Bon appetit’!
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Credits: This article written by Ms. Marie Drouvin, Guest Writer. https://www.linkedin.com/in/marie-drouvin-528229140/