Amiens was home to the legendary novelist and one of the earliest science fiction writers, Jules Verne.
Maison de Jules Verne
Have you read any of the more than 80 books written by Jules Verne (1828-1905)? While staying in Amiens we were motivated to find and rewatch old movies of some of his best loved stories, including “Around the World in Eighty Days”, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island”.
The 19th century red-brick house with a tower is where Jules Verne lived in Amiens from 1882 to 1905 and where he wrote most of his “Extraordinary Voyages”. Each of his tales of space, air and underwater adventures were meticulously researched using materials and journals available at the time. Submarine development was in its infancy and the Wright brothers first sustained flight of an airplane wasn’t until December 1903. Jules Verne’s museum-home displays his models of ships, submarines, flying machines and even a rocket equipped with an easy chair and newspapers to read when traveling to the moon.
We continued exploring the museum, winding our way up the circular staircase to each new level. On the third floor one entire side of the room was designed to look like the bridge of the Nautilus submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Photo of nautilus bridge
Throughout the city and parks are placards with interesting pictures and mini stories of Jules Verne’s personal history in Amiens as well as some of his fictional characters. On the outskirts of the city, in Cimetière de la Madeleine, is Jules Verne’s final resting place. The sculptor, Amiens born, Albert Roze, created this beautiful, recently restored, gravestone.
Musée De Picardie
Throughout his life in Amiens, Jules Verne was interested in the Picardy Museum, Amiens impressive main museum. The museum was founded in 1802 in Amiens but the splendid building that is home to the museum today was constructed between 1855 and 1867 and it was France’s first building built exclusively as a museum. The Société des Antiquaires de Picardie had a number of collections they had gathered over decades and in this new building they were able to display their historical pieces.
There is a considerable collection of art and objects ranging from prehistory to the 19th century housed within Picardy Museum. The archaeological collections include artifacts from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Roman and early regional settlers. The museum has a large collection of 12th – 16th century gothic or medieval art masterpieces as well that came out of Amiens Cathedral. We spent hours in this museum, took a coffee break, recharged our phones and cameras and returned until the museum closed. There are so many incredible pieces of art.
French artist Albert Maignan (1845-1908) painted The Green Muse; “Absinthe” in 1895. Absinthe was a popular drink at the time, but it was believed to create alcoholism and insanity. In this painting the “green fairy” takes on the persona of an dark muse who captures the poet’s mind.
The fine arts section of the museum has one large space full of amazing classical sculptures. An entire first grade class was present during our visit and they each had pencils and drawing paper to draw a sculpture of their choice. How lucky to be exposed to such fantastic art and history at that’ll age?
We enjoy discovering artists, painters and sculptors from whichever country we are exploring. In addition to the big named international painters, Museum Picardy had plenty of French artists from the 17th to 20th centuries to study and appreciate. It was Jules Lefebvre’s (1834-1912) most famous work, Lady Godiva, 1890 that may have been our favorite find. The painting is a story about a woman standing up for her beliefs.
The legend says that in the 11th century, Loefric, governor of Coventry, subjected the city to heavy taxes. Exasperated that his wife continually implored him to reduce Coventry’s heavy taxes, he declared he would do so if she rode naked through the marketplace. She promptly agreed, took her famous unclothed ride and he dropped the taxes.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens
Built relatively quickly, between 1220 and 1280, Amiens Cathedral is the largest church in France. So large in fact there is enough room to house 2 cathedrals the size of Notre Dame of Paris. The Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is simply fantastic both inside and out.
The remarkable interior includes the extraordinary gold and white pulpit created in 1773; the eye-catching black and white stone labyrinth inlaid in the floor in 1288 where pilgrims would walk the labyrinth as part of their pilgrimage; the brilliant red and blue stained glass chapels; the delicate looking wrought iron works; the brilliantly carved wooden choir screens from the 1500’s; the early 16th century choir stalls, adorned with thousands of miniature sculptures and reliefs representing stories from the Old and New Testaments, to name our favorites. This Cathedral has much to offer.
In the 1990’s, during a restoration, original medieval paint was discovered confirming that the exterior of the Cathedral had once been beautifully painted. Faded colors can be spotted in a few places. In the summer months a lightshow at dusk projects the colors once used onto the arches of the 3 front doors.
We also learned that it was in Amiens in 354 CE, where one of our favorite saints, Saint Martin shared his cloak with a beggar at the eastern gate of the city, near Amiens Cathedral.
Bleu De Cocagne, Conservatoire Textile Amiens
Amiens, located in the heart of Picardy, became famous in the Middle Ages for its textile industry. Textiles remained the mainstay of economic activity in Amiens through the 19th century. Creating velvets, for clothing and furnishings has been a major economic source of activity for more than 250 years.
Native plants hemp and flax have been cultivated and transformed, plants like Waide (Pastel Blue) and Gaude (Yellow) have been used to produce premium colored dyes and sheep farming provided the wool. Imported silk and cotton were also critical to the region’s success.
Velvet and velour have been around for generations but for many of us it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. Very basically, velvet is a woven material, traditionally silk, with a distinct sheen. Velour is a knit fabric, traditionally cotton, with a slightly duller finish. Each material has loops that make up its pile but, in the case of velour, the little loops are cut off. This creates a longer, loose pile as well as reducing the amount of sheen. We were able to see and touch both fabrics side-by-side and still weren’t able to easily discern velour from velvet.
Bleu De Cocagne, the Textile Conservatory, is creating a “Living Museum” within the old Cosserat Velvet Factory in Amiens. Their worthwhile mission is to acquire each of the old machines used in the 42 step process of creating textiles and producing a finished product. They are buying, restoring, preserving and maintaining those same machines in working order. Finally and perhaps most importantly, they are committed to teaching and passing along knowledge to visitors, guests, students and anyone interested in the textile history and in keeping the information and skillset alive. A little ways out the city and challenging to find, once there, the passion and knowledge this group had was inspirational. We had a thoroughly engaging visit at the Conservatory.
One of the most sought after machines is the textile printing machine, invented in 1775 by Alexandre Bonvallet. It was this machine, due to the fine engraving of its cylinders, that made Toile de Jouy famous. Bleu de Cocagne was able to purchase a textile printing machine 10 years ago (the only one known in Europe) and its restoration is nearly complete. They plan to use it for educational demonstrations. The photo of the Toile de Jouy in the machine below, relays a story of an event that happened in 1783.
“On August 27, 1783: an unassembled balloon, a spherical globe in rubber-varnished silk, 12 feet and 2 inches in diameter, built by the Robert brothers and inflated with Charles’ hydrogen process, rose for the first time from the Champs de March in front of a huge crowd. Heading north, it fell in the middle of the village of Gonesse, near the church of St Pierre, where it terrorized the inhabitants who destroyed it with pitchforks and rifles.”
We saw some glorious samples of Toile de Jouy, (shortened to toile) in Mulhouse, France a few years ago. They create a new and different Christmas fabric each year using old decorative stencils and designs.
Hortillonnages of Amiens
The hortillonnages of Amiens are marshes that, 800 years ago, were transformed into small plots of land to grow vegetables and interspersed with canals. The hortillonnages cover an amazing 740 acres (300 ha) and have 40 miles (65 km) of canals called “rieux” running through them like pathways. What an awesome green lung in the middle of the city.
One sunday morning we booked our tickets and went on the most tranquil 45-minute boat ride imaginable.
The boat is called a horn boat, because it has a flat bottom and to avoid damaging the banks, both ends are raised up. The boats are silent and the boatman/guide occasionally and quietly shared (in French) his knowledge about the history of the hortillonnages. The header picture at the top of this writing is an artist rendering of a horn boat and the photo below is a small horn boat in the garden but it shows the horn boat’s unique shape.
Once exclusively food production gardens, today many plots are owned by people that are searching for peace and quiet. A handful of hortillons remain, cultivating the black and fertile soil of the Hortillonnages and selling their fresh produce on Saturdays at the water market downtown.
Unbeknownst to us, on the day we booked our tickets, it was the Amiens annual reenactment of the Marché sur l’eau d’Antan, loosely translated as “Ye Olde Water Market”. Prior to boarding our boat tour through the rieux, we watched fresh vegetables be methodically stacked high into a couple of horn boats right in front of us. In a third horn boat, a group of 8 “hortillons” or market gardeners, dressed in their traditional velvet costumes, stepped in and took their seats. All 3 boats quietly left the pier just before we did.
After our peaceful adventure through the hortillonnages ended we slowly walked back downtown to the piers and a few moments later the 3 boats arrived. We were surprised that we hadn’t missed the full reenactment of the fresh foods being delivered to the water market by the market gardeners. How it once had worked was an older woman would accompany the boat and at the pier she would get off and set up a chair. Interested buyers would pay her and the vegetables would be passed up from the young men on the boat.
We learned of a Hortillonnages Museum so wanting to further our knowledge and understanding we headed for it. Unfortunately no photos were allowed, a guided tour available in French was the only choice to visit the museum. Our French is minimal and his English the same but our young guide was patient and able to pass plenty of good information. We were pleased with our visit, but photos would help retain memories of what we have seen and experienced.
This small city has two UNESCO sites – the Hortillonnages and the Cathedral. The Picardie is one of the largest French regional museums and Amiens has one of the largest French university hospitals. Located 2 hours northwest of Paris, the city of Amiens was an incredible stop. Au revoir France.
Bonne santé from these Amiénois
Ted + Julia