The queen of Gothic religious architecture is not the Parisian cathedral that Hugo’s hunchback called home, but another grande dame in unassuming little Picardy
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Amiens is in the Picardy region, 80 miles (130 km) north of Paris
VISITORS PER YEAR 800,000
WEATHER Summer is usually warm, and spring and fall mild with chilly nights. Winters are cold and damp, but rainfall may occur any time of year
The iconic cathedral of Notre-Dame in central Paris has welcomed pilgrims and visitors through its ornate portals for hundreds of years, drawn here by its dazzling rose windows, elegant flying buttresses and menacing gargoyles, as well as by its deep religious sigificance. But, not far to the north of the capital, towering over a city at the heart of the Somme in Picardy, lies another strong contender for the title of most outstanding Gothic church: the cathedral of Notre-Dame d’Amiens.
France’s largest and tallest cathedral, Notre- Dame d’Amiens dominates the skyline of the city, and has been hailed as a Gothic masterpiece by UNESCO, who awarded it World Heritage status in 1981. It was built between 1220 and 1270, to house the alleged skull of St John the Baptist, brought back from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade by Wallon de Sarton, Canon of nearby Picquigny.
Boasting a 138-ft- (42-m-) high ceiling, an enormous nave, four aisles, and many radiating chapels, the cathedral is intensely luminous inside, making its counterpart in Paris look rather sombre.
As a result, the array of statuary contained within its walls, such as the Stone Encyclopedia of the Bible and the much-loved Angel of Sorrow, as well as the 16th-century carved choir stalls and Flamboyant Gothic screen, are bathed in light. A sacred labyrinth of 1288, in effect, an intricate black-and-white marble road to God, is laid into the floor of the cathedral. The idea of it is that, as in life, believers negotiate their way, straying from and returning to the true path, until they reach the righteous center.
While the interior of Amiens is strikingly simple, the exterior is embellishment gone into overdrive, with three portals celebrating biblical figures – saints, apostles, magi, and angels. Christ (le Beau Dieu) reigns in the center, while St Firmin, the first bishop of Amiens, occupies the left portal, and the Virgin Mary (la Vierge Dorée) is in residence in the right. Above them are 22 stony, life-size kings, stretching across the entire facade beneath the 16th-century rose window. Every element of the carving is of the highest craftsmanship.
A laser cleaning of the facade in the 1990s revealed traces of the polychromatic paint that had once enlivened its 13th-century statues, helping them act as a visual bible to illiterate pilgrims.
Today, in the summer and at Christmas, laser illuminations replicate the breathtaking effect on France’s Gothic cathedral par excellence.
FORGET NOTRE – DAME DE PARIS?
THE BUILD-UP England’s Henry IV was crowned, Napoléon declared himself Emperor, and Joan of Arc was canonized in Notre-Dame de Paris. It has an impeccable architectural as well as historical pedigree, wonderfully creepy gargoyles, a near-perfect setting on an island in the Seine, and an iconic supporting role in movie and literary history.
THE LETDOWN The expectation, gleaned from photos, films, books, and your imagination, set against the hordes of camera-wielding tourists, buskers, and street vendors, can be hard to reconcile. And – there’s no Quasimodo!
GOING ANYWAY? Notre-Dame de Paris is open every day of the year, and it’s free. Get there early to avoid the crowds. For spectacular Paris views and an up-close gargoyle encounter, you can ascend one of the towers. Entrance is outside the cathedral on the left. There are visits from 10am daily, for which there’s an entry fee.
Getting There and Around
The cathedral is in the heart of Amiens, which is just over an hour by car from Paris via the A16, A29 and A1. Regular trains run from Paris (1 hr 30 mins), or the TGV Haute-Picardie station is 45 mins by bus from Amiens.
Use buses or the self-service bike network, Vélam, to get around.
Where to Eat
Le Quai on the waterside in the historic Quartier St-Leu, serves seafood fresh from the Picardy coast and vegetables grown in the Hortillonnages, the nearby “floating” market gardens.
Where to Stay
The Mercure Amiens Cathédrale has stylish modern rooms, reserved parking, and is very close to the cathedral and the Quartier St-Leu.
When to Go
The illuminations are after dark, mid-Jun–Sep and in Dec, when there is also a superb Christmas market. Gregorian chanting takes place each Sun at 10:15am.
Budget per Day for Two
Around US$150 including meals and accommodations.