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Picardy Travel Guide
Traditional house in Picardy (© vofpalabra | iStockphoto.com)
Traditional house in Picardy.

Introduction

Picardy (Picardie in French) is the region that spreads north of Paris until the Somme River, delineated by Normandy to the west and Champagne to the east. It is a perfectly average French region in term of population (1.9 million) and land area (19,399 km² / 7,490 sq mi).

Picard, an Oïl language closely related to French, is the traditional language of Picardy, as well as of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the western edge of Wallonia. There are still at least half a million native speakers of Picard (mostly among older generations), representing approximately 10% of the population.

The name Picardy is thought to have originated from a Frankish tribe of pike-bearers (picards). The term does not appear until the early 13th century though, and was then applied to all the territory where the Picard language was spoken, and occasionally also Walloon. Picard became a generic term for northern French people who did not speak Flemish.

Famous people from Picardy include (chronologically): the Protestant reformator Jean Calvin, the fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, the dramatist Jean Racine, the philosopher and mathematician Nicolas, marquis de Condorcet, the naturalist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, and the writer Alexandre Dumas.

History

In 486, the Frankish forces under Clovis I defeated the last Gallo-Roman stronghold north of the Loire at the Battle of Soissons, thus laying the foundations of the Kingdom of France (=> see Frankish History). From the 7th century, the County of Vermandois, making up the largest part of modern Picardy, was typically bequeathed to the sons of Frankish rulers (including Charles Martel and Charlemagne), then of French Kings. It was definitively added to the royal domain by Philip II Augustus in 1185.

Located near the new Frankish seat of power in Paris, Picardy thrived during the Middle Ages. The 11th and 12th centuries were golden ages for Soissons and Laon, which were endowed with some of the greatest Romanesque edifices in the country.

The world's second and third Gothic cathedrals were built respectively in Noyon and Senlis in the early 1100's. They were followed in the next century by the great cathedrals of Amiens, the tallest complete cathedral in France and second largest in the world in volume, and Beauvais, which boasts the highest and tallest Gothic choir ever built.

In the 16th century, the French Protestant leader, Louis de Bourbon (1530–1569), inherited the Château de Condé. For the next three hundred years, his descendants, the influential Princes of Condé, would reside in Picardy and erect one of France's most splendid castles, the Château de Chantilly. It now houses the Musée Condé, one of the finest art galleries in the country.

After several centuries of relative stagnation, Picardy was once again in the spotlight during the Second French Empire, when Napoleon III made of Compiègne his favourite residence, and one of Europe's great palaces. The emperor also commissioned architect Viollet-le-Duc to restore the medieval castle of Pierrefonds in the Romantic style - a proud rival of Bavaria's Romantic castles.

The western front of World War I was fought by by British, French, and German forces in the fields of northern Picardy, notably at the infamous Battle of the Somme. 4 million soldiers and 300,000 French civilians died in northern France, most of them in Picardy or in Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The region was so devastated that it hasn't completed recovered today, nearly a century after the tragic events. Nowadays Picardy remains the poorest region of France (excluding the overseas departments and territories) in terms of GDP per capita.

The battlefields and cemeteries of the Somme have become a sort of pilgrimage to the meaningless slaughter and atrocities of war. The main war memorials are the Thiepval Memorial (between Amiens and Arras), honouring British and South African soldiers, the Ulster Memorial Tower in Thiepval, the Somme American Cemetery in Bony (between Saint-Quentin and Cambrai), the Australian National Memorial in Villers–Bretonneux (15 km east of Amiens), the Australian Corps Memorial Park in Le Hamel (between Amiens and Péronne), the New Zealand National Memorial in Longueval (15 km north of Péronne), the South African National Memorial in Delville Wood (near Longueval), and the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (between Amiens and Arras). Visitors can learn about the history and context of WWI at the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne.

Attractions

Département de la Somme

Amiens
Amiens, Picardy
very good Badly damaged in WWI, Amiens still has one attraction worth a detour, its magnificent Gothic cathedral, the tallest in France.

Other attractions

good Abbeville
very good Château de Bagatelle
outstanding Baie de Somme Natural Reserve
good Picquigny Castle (ruins)
very good Rambures Castle
good Rue
good Saint-Valery-sur-Somme
very good Valloires Abbey

Département de l'Aisne

Château de Condé
Condé Castle, Picardy (photo by Aymeri de Rochefort - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
outstanding Ancestral home of the Princes of Bourbon-Condé, the castle passed into the hands of other illustrious families such as the House of Savoy, the Marquis de la Faye and Comtes de Sade...Read more
Laon
Laon, Picardy
outstanding Mostly built in the 11th and 12th centuries, the intact city walls and ruined churches of Laon give it a charm all its own.
Soissons
Soissons, Picardy
very good Once capital of an ancient kingdom, Soissons is well-known among French people for the story of the Vase of Soissons.

Other attractions

very good Chateau-Thierry
good Coucy Castle (ruins)
very good Franco-American Museum inside the Château de Blérancourt
good Guise Castle (ruins)
good La Ferté-Milon Castle (ruins)
very good Parfondeval
good Septmonts Castle (ruins)

Département de l'Oise

Château de Chantilly
Chantilly Castle, Picardy (© 2005 Idarvol - licence Creative Commons Paternité – Partage des conditions initiales à l’identique 2.0 France)
must-see Chantilly is one of the most sumptuous châteaux in France. Home to many princely and ducal families, Chantilly is a set of several edifices of eclectic style. The gardens by Le Nôtre were the...Read more
Château de Compiègne
Compiègne Castle, Picardy (© 2005 Idarvol - licence Creative Commons Paternité – Partage des conditions initiales à l’identique 2.0 France)
must-see Built as a royal palace for Louis XV and restored by Napoleon, Compiègne was one of three seats of royal government, along with Versailles and Fontainebleau. It was the favourite residence of Napoleon III.
Pierrefonds Castle
Pierrefonds Castle, Picardy
outstanding Medieval fortress transformed by Napoleon III in a romantic castle, Pierrefonds is close to the perfect Cinderella castle.
Senlis
Senlis, Picardy
very good Senlis is dotted with Gallo-Roman ramparts and historically significant medieval buildings. It is also home to the Parc Asterix theme park.
Beauvais
Beauvais, Picardy
very good Beauvais' uncompleted cathedral boasts the tallest vault and longest choir in the world.
Noyon
Noyon, Picardy
good Noyon has the second oldest Gothic church in the world.

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