The Somme department in the region of Picardy just two hours north of Paris, is not on the usual tourist circuit, but nevertheless has a ton of places to visit from natural sites to chateaux and the Somme battlefields of WWI.
You can put down temporary roots in the little burg of Albert with its picturesque park surrounded by typical brick houses. Albert also has a WWI museum that is located in a 230 meter long underground bomb shelter which gives a taste of the dampness of the trenches. In fact the last section of the tunnel is dark and sound and light are used to help you imagine being in a trench during WWI in the dead of night, under artillery fire. The neo-byzantine basilica, known as the Lourdes of the north, was originally built between 1885-1895, then destroyed in 1915. It was rebuilt in identical fashion in 1927-1931 by the original architect’s son. The golden virgin statue on the top of the dome was hit by a shell during the war and dangled in a horizontal position for several years. Soldiers made up stories saying when she finally fell the war would end, luckily the stories did not pan out and the war did end before she ever fell. Albert has a perky main street around the town square and fountain in front of the basilica. There are plenty of shops and the locals are friendly. There are plenty of British tourists since it is a fairly short distance across the channel, but few Americans. In Albert stay and eat at the very pleasant family run Hôtel de la Basilique which has rooms with a view right on the basilica across the street.
Albert is a central spot from which to make a driving or even biking, but the area is pretty hilly, tour of several battlefield monuments. Thirty nationalties fought in this world arena. There are specific monuments dedicated to the New Foundlanders, the Canadians, British, Irish, Welsh, Americans, Australians, South Africans and even Chinese. The South African monument is a personal favorite as it is more recent and thus dedicated more to promoting world peace through memory than the fallen soldier. The Beaumont-Hamel monument to the New Foundlanders is the best spot to view and even walk through actual trenches. Don’t miss the Lochnagar crater in La Boisselle. This crater measures 100 meters across and 30 deep and gives pause to the power of the destruction. Throughout the war zone from the coast near Belgium to the Swiss border bombs and other pieces of war trash are still being found as fields are plowed and land is developed. In 2009 the bomb squad did 1025 interventions and collected 44 tons of ammunition.
Nearby Péronne has an interesting museum called the “Historial” in their renovated citadel. They present many works of art and propaganda from the time period to give you a sense of the general atmosphere. The exhibits are presented chronologically giving a comparative and objective view for the three main nations. They have a unique way of presenting uniforms and accoutrements in cases embedded into the floor. All the museums show the art objects produced by the hands of the poilus in their free time. They used what they had, in particular shells and casings to create vases, lighters, crosses, instruments and other objects that either were used or traded with the locals. The café outside the museum is on a branch of the Somme river and is a pleasant spot to take a break.
On your way to or from Albert, spend at least an afternoon in Amiens. Visit the cathedral which is the largest cathedral constructed in the XIIIth century (twice the size of Notre Dame) and take a walk along the river. Between June and September there is a polychromatic projection on the façade of the cathedral each evening allowing the viewer to imagine how this and other gothic cathedrals were painted (something that is easily forgotten as we tour the now bare stone walls). Jules Verne’s house is also in Amiens. President Macron hails from this city.
The Somme Tourist Information Office has brochures in English or French which are very thorough and interesting. They cover the battlefields (ask for The Remembrance Trail), walking paths and bicycling. For general information on visiting the Somme department see www.visit-somme.com. Or www.somme-battlefields.com to download a free MP3 audio guide and for details of commemorations.
For books to read, documentaries and WWI history closer to Paris, see our article.