May 27, 2015

Above: Château Chantilly-PicardyTourism MChretinat

Drive down Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and in about 20 minutes, Picardy ushers you into another world, with vast stretches of lands, serenity in the air and a way of life that oscillates between the past and the present.

Situated in the north of France, Picardy region has three administrative divisions called as 'departments' in French, namely Aisne, Oise and Somme and has Amiens serving as the regional capital. The region involves a history that has been folded in the depths of the people's lives there, taking in royal memoirs as well as World War remnants, a history that would long linger in one's heart.

It was the first week of April when winter was still at its prime and we were a group of four from India including one representative from Atout France, accompanied by a host from Picardy Tourism, as we set off to explore the region over the next four days.

Once we entered Picardie, as the French write it, we drove down the Château de Chantilly which, to me, was clearly the crown on the region's best kept tourist secrets. The Château, whose last resident was the Duke of Aumale, houses the Condé Museum exhibiting a splendid array of paintings, furnishings, medieval manuscripts, books and art, such as the Three Graces (Les Trois Grâces), by Raphaël, The Very Rich Hours (Les Très Riches Heures), by the Duke of Berry and The Serenade Giver (Le Donneur de Sérénades) by Watteau. Belonging to the Renaissance period when it was the residence for the Princes of Condé in the 16th & 17th century, the exterior is beautified by Western landscape gardens designed by French gardener André Le Nôtre who is also known for creating the gardens of Versailles and Fontainebleau.

Chantilly is also known for its equestrian love which is demonstrated by the Grand Stables in its premises; built in the 18th century, it has 30 show horses and offers dressage demonstrations and equestrian shows twice annually. The Chantilly Horse Museum has nearly 200 works of art covering the evolution of horse and horse breeds in the world.

Few other things that one may associate with the place would be the Crème Chantilly and Chantilly lace. After touring the place and watching the horse show, we had a gourmet lunch in the castle restaurant Le Capitainerie, where the head chef showed how to make Crème Chantilly, which we quickly lapped up for dessert.

It was close to two in the afternoon but the weather was interspersed with slight drizzles as our car wound our way to the Chantilly Lace Museum. The world-famous silk lace works, done mainly in black and white, were started in the mid-17th century and as they gained fame, the early black and white 'blonde' silks were replaced by Chantilly lace under the reign of Napolean III. Empress Eugénie de Montijo is known to have patronized this art and to have made black lace fashionable. The museum is presently run by an old lady who is more than happy to explain to visitors about Chantilly lace.

We then headed to Auberge du Jeu de Paume, a five-star hotel in Chantilly for our evening tea. It has 92 rooms and suites, a high quality conference centre and five rooms equipped with the latest technologies.
The evening saw us heading to Castle Hotel Mont Royal Tiara for a two-night stay. Mont Royal Tiara was built by French Jewish composer Fernand Halphen in 1908 for his wife. It was built on a wooded hillock surrounded by lush and undisturbed valley to offer spectacular views for himself and his wife, the property’s decors resound with references to music. The drawing rooms were dedicated to music, while the bas-reliefs on the façade evoked hunting. One can spot the top loops of a few rides of Parc Astérix from the balconies of the rooms facing the woods.

The hotel has 108 rooms and suites categorized as Royal Rooms, Superior Rooms, Deluxe Rooms, Royal Suite, Penthouse Suite and Junior Suite. Guests can enjoy breathtaking views of the forest as well as absorb the regal ambience that radiates luxury across the property. For someone wishing to experience a good accommodation on the lines of a castle at a reasonable rate, not far away from bustling Paris, Castle Hotel Mont Royal Tiara is worth a buy.

We were greeted by rain the next morning as we set forth to visit the nearby attractions in the region. We visited tree nests in the forests and had a look at cosy and compact tree houses that cater to adventure backpackers, small families as well as honeymooners. Summer would be the best time for nature lovers and those with kids to consider spending a night or two on these tree houses. Not very far from here is the Pierrefonds Castle, bordering the Compiegne forest. This medieval fortress was built in the 15th century before getting dismantled 200 years later and rebuilt by Napolean III. We stopped at the local market to take quick photographs of the exteriors of the castle as the rains and paucity of time did not permit us to explore the interiors. Nevertheless, the rain-bearing clouds hanging over the fortress made it look magical in our photographs. Pierrefonds is very close to the UK from Calais, which is just about two hours from there.

We then headed to the Imperial Palace in Compiegne, the royal residence built for Louis XV for summer and autumn. Compiegne was one of three seats of royal government, the others being Versailles and Fontainebleau. Napolean I ordered splendid decorations to be added to the interiors and much later, Napolean III lent it further touches to make it statelier. The palace architecture and the rooms and galleries tell stories of the lives of the royals and the queens, from Napolean I and Marie-Louise, to Napolean III and Eugénie de Montijo. This palace played a key role in lives of the imperial couple, for it was here that the relationship between Eugénie de Montijo and Napoleon III blossomed into romance, and - one month later - marriage. As a result, the empress always had a soft spot for the place.

The residence has grand apartments with most of the furnishings intact as they were in the time of both the emperors. The royal salon, library, private rooms and the banquet rooms took me back in time as I wondered how the sovereigns devoted time to appreciate and live the beauty of the residence while they were so engaged in conquests and expanding their empire. While at the Imperial Palace, one must visit the Museum of the Second Empire and the Museum of the Empress as well as the Museum of Vehicles and Tourism that exhibit collections of the royalty.

We then went to the Jardin des Roses situated in the premises of the residence for some tea and lunch. This dainty eatery, run by a couple, serves an impressive menu of teas from across the globe along with snacks and food; the place has been built to conjure up a meal along the lines of the Empress with her friends. The lady at the eatery dished out hot and tasty delicacies with seasonal vegetables that were mildly spiced to go along with some fine tea and cakes.

From Compiegne, we proceeded to a Champagne tasting trial in a medieval Champagne cellar in Pannier, about an hour and a half from Compiegne. Interestingly, the Champagne tourist route runs along the Picardy region at Château Thierry. Champagne Pannier was founded in 1899 and is the largest champagne house in the western Marne Valley. The valley is landscaped by sloping vineyards and wine-growing villages. We went down the cellar to see the champagne bottles arranged at different angles as they matured. The hosts delighted us with Indian delicacies like samosas, chicken tikka and paneer tikka with Champagne Rosé. The pairing was optimal as it left a pleasant aftertaste on our palates.

The next day we checked out from Castle Hotel Mont Royal Tiara and headed towards Amiens, the regional capital of Picardy, the resilient witness to World War. As we reached the place in about an hour and a half, we couldn’t help noticing bricks largely defining the city’s architecture. Most of the city was destroyed by bombing during the World War and the memories, embedded deep into the minds of the people there, have left some kind of a silence in their lives, said our host. Amiens’ treasure, fortunately left untouched by the wars, would be the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the largest in France and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The guide told us it took 70 years to build the Cathedral whose spire faces the Belfry of Amiens. The Cathedral boasts of Gothic architecture and stands in good stead despite the ravages of warfare and time. We climbed up around 300 steep and narrow steps and though we were puffing and panting as we reached the top, it was worth the effort to soak up the views of the city. The spire is the oldest existing one made of wood and covered with lead sheeting and it rises to a height of 112 m, surpassing the Cathedral roof ridge by 56 m.

The beauty of Amiens is enhanced by the River Somme flowing across its streets; one can see cyclists cycling along the banks while boats too adorn the waterways flanked by abundant greenery. A short walk from the Cathedral took us to Saint-Leu, which is termed as the little Venice of the North. I took an instant liking to this scenic quarter that is dotted with pretty cafes, markets and shops along the canals. Saint-Leu has small houses, each coloured differently from the other and flanked by the canals. There are a number of restaurants, coffee shops, antique shops and pubs that one can stroll along in the evening. The markets here open on Saturdays while all the shops close business at 7pm daily and remain mostly closed on Sundays.

We had a leisurely lunch in this riverside district before stepping down the alleys to the Hortillonnages of Amiens. Hortillonnages of Amiens refers to the floating gardens located in the riverbed of the Somme. In summer, these gardens turn into gorgeous postcard-perfect venues of flowers and vegetables. As we got onto the gondola saying our hellos to the gondola boatman who surprised us with good English, we observed that cultivation had already started here and there, as the boat caved its way past cherry-blossom trees and winged spectators. One majestic, white swan, first reluctant to come near us, suddenly fanned its wings before scooting towards our boat to pose for our cameras.

The sun briefly appeared for a few minutes as the rays cut through the waters; the azure skies, gleaming waters and green surrounds brought everything else to a standstill, leaving us quieter and cheerier. These floating gardens are spread across nearly 300 hectares right in the city centre covering four districts – Amiens, Camon, Longueau and Rivery. Alternately, one can take a walk along the river’s towpath. We stayed at the Hotel Marotte, a five-star boutique hotel run by a couple in the busy square of Amiens.

The next day, and our last day, we went to the Baie de Somme (Bay of Somme), one of the most picturesque bays in the world. We reached there hoping to spot seals but couldn’t spot anything due to less water and no tides. There were different groups of families and hikers accompanied by guides who explained the ecology, flora and fauna of the region. The Bay of Somme is a long stretch of sand, mud and water; the sand lined with pebbles and grasses here and there. The whole tract is a photographer’s delight; we were able to capture different colours of the skies, quickly altering by the minutes. One must wear good walking shoes for such a trail. During high tides, the guide said, one can spot colonies of harbor seals along the bay.

Shortly after, the sun was out in full glory and so were the residents out on the streets. We went to Saint-Valery, a medieval seaside town on the other side of the bay. Along the promenade, one can climb the heights to enjoy bigger views of the bay or stroll down the promenade. After lunch at Saint-Valery, we took a one-hour ride from Belle Epoque station on a vintage train dating from the beginning of the 20th century. The train pulled by steam engines went across Le Crotoy, Noyelle-sur-Mer, Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and Cayeux-sur-Mer.

We returned to Amiens in the evening and walked down the quarters for a quick shopping. Amiens is known for macarons, the region’s specialitys, slightly different from the traditional macarons and packed usually in golden foil. Since it was Easter, we also bought Easter special chocolates as souvenirs. It may also be mentioned that noted French writer Jules Verne was a longtime resident of Amiens and booklovers can surely visit his house to see his memoirs.

I would recommend anyone looking for a different holiday experience in France, especially Paris, to round off their holiday with at least two or three days in Chantilly and Amiens, before taking the flight back home from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, which is one hour and 15 minutes from the region. Amiens is also well connected by rail and road. The region’s unique accommodation facilities that range from chateaus and hotels offer services that are distinct in terms of location, décor and experiences that surpass the value for money that one might spend in a touristy city.

Gallery Images in order:Horse Show Picardy Tourism Guilloux; Tiara Château Hôtel Mont Royal - Vue aérienne; Parc Asterix Picardy Tourism-NBryant 3; Pierrefonds Castle Picardy Tourism JPGilson; Imperial palace Compiègne 3Picardy Tourism ASFlament; Colors Cathédral Amiens Picardy Tourism ASFlament; Quai bélu 2-BT; AmienSt Leu district Picardy Tourism DRaux; Patchwork Bay of Somme-Picardy Tourism PFruitier; Water market Festival Amiens Picardy Tourism

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