Zagan the motorhome’s parked in sight of the incredible Amiens cathedral, the serenity you might expect to accompany such a sight, alongside a lake and leafy park, is absent though. It’s 5:30pm on a Sunday in July, it’s baking hot, and it’s HEAVING! We’re in a free car park, which motorhomes can stay in overnight, but every woman and her dog are trying to get into it (N49.90003, E2.31070). Three longer motorhomes than us have parked long-ways on, having to take up three car parking spaces, so probably best not to try this place unless (a) you’re not much more than 6m long or (b) you’re feeling brave.
Stepping back in time, we got chatting with a retired-ish British couple Steve and Deb at the aire in among the Champagne vines, and spent a fun evening draining various containers of red wine and talking about, well, everything. Come 1am we’d about run dry of sobriety, and rolled off into our separate vans for a night’s kip. The following day’s two hour drive across Champagne country was therefore accompanied by hangover-induced driver irritability. Yep, while I should have been admiring the plethora of independent Champagne producers and mentally drifting my arms past the leafy-vines, loaded with nascent ‘green gold’ grapes, I was chuntering.
France has a lot of villages. If you don’t use the toll roads, you’ll see many, many of them as you attempt to get anywhere. In an effort to avoid hung-over van-driving idiots like me running innocent village-dwellers over, they’ve all installed a range of traffic-calming measures. From vicious speed bumps to tight little chicanes to speed cameras to one way systems to junction-less traffic lights which stay red until you’re almost at a standstill to otherwise-inexplicable STOP signs on the main road. They’ve stopped short of deploying stingers, but I imagine this to be a matter of time. I know, I know, all of this stuff’s only there as it needs to be, but I was self-impaired, and my nerves were frayed, so I pulled over and Ju took over. My nerves then went from frayed to paper thin to **poof**, gone completely, but Ju was up to the job and calmly steered us the rest of the drive without a single expletive (apart from when she was cut us up at a roundabout exit, then the driver tried to blame us, there were a few choice words at that point as I recall).
Our destination across the back-roads of Picardie was Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique. The bit-of-a-mouthful place name is down to the fact it was once a fortified town, topped off with an imposing 13th-century castle. The castle’s now in ruins, with its tower-keep, which was one of the highest in Europe, completely destroyed. The reasons for the destruction seem to be subject to a wee bit of political censorship, as various signs and websites appeared to dance about the issue. But, as far as I can tell, the main reason is that a retreating German army in WW1 blew it to hell and back in an act of spite.
The town’s motorhome aire is located a short walk from the remaining castle walls, and is a very pretty little place. A bit too little, as the 6 or so places were all full. Fortunately there was plenty of parking around the aire (N49.519595, E3.313109), and we joined a few other overflowers before nipping out for a walk around the walls.
Paul Jackson (of vanvoyage.co.uk fame) suggested to us we visit the castle, “if only to see the mason’s ‘jobbing’ marks on the stones”. In the end we didn’t go into the castle (Charlie’s taking the blame, as he was overheating the poor thing, but it’s more likely four year’s worth of previous international castle viewing’s fault) but you can read more about the fortress and the mason’s marks on Paul’s site, here).
We’re nearing the main entry-exit point to Blighty now, and with it we’re meeting up with a few more British folks as we all get funnelled together. Last night Sharon and Phil (again retired-ish) parked alongside us and attempted conversation. Sadly it was about 9pm at this point and both of us were hungry and wine-weary, so I only managed a brief chat; no repeat performance of the previous night’s 1am-er. Shame, as they were clearly interesting folks and this morning we had another quick chat before they headed off. They were the first guys I’d seen with France’s new Crit-Air sticker, which you now need to drive into Paris, Grenoble and Lyon. They’re only about £3.50 to buy, but it took ’em a while as the system kept rejecting the scanned image of their V5C, for reasons unknown. They’d also been stopped and ‘talked to’ for not stopping (for a minimum of 3 seconds) at a stop sign, as was Craig from ourbumble.com recently, so I’m being especially careful (€120 fine apparently if they feel like enforcing it).
Being outside the aire, no charge was levied for the parking and the cash instead went into a nearby boulangerie for bread and cake. Three months in Morocco, which has plenty cake shops but no cake (only something cardboardy which masquerades as cake), was enough to get us begging for French cake, and cake we’ve had, a lot of cake. Ju’s running it off, this morning doing a lap of the castle, while I’m chunking it on. Back in Blighty, surely I’ll just thin up just like that, with my home nation’s light and healthy dishes? Ahem.
Anyway, we’ve got Charlie booked into a vet outside Amiens, and having read (briefly) about the UNESCO-listed cathedral, we made a smooth, hangover-free cruise up the A roads (well, D roads here), passing a steadily increasing number of war graves. Marked out with green signs by the road, or simply by the sudden presence of a military-array of headstones, these resting places of the dead from WW1 stand silent and beautifully maintained as we pass. I still feel the urge to stop and walk them, despite having done so more times than I can recall, reading the names and, in some cases, the small statements carved into the stone. The German graves are more austere, with many names to a cross. In a wild flight of fancy I imagined the men of many nations, all victims of the same disastrous political failings, side by side in the same graveyard rather than being grouped off into their own separate islands.
After parking up here, a short grassy walk past families mucking about on or by the various lakes and canals, followed by a mixed-quality meal of snails, mussels and steak, and BOOM, we got ourselves a full-on face slap of carvings. The front of the Amiens cathedral’s dripping, nay, fireman’s hose-soaked in oversized kings, gargoyles, angels, small people looking aggrieved to be stood upon, po-faced saints and a thousand other characters. Stood in front of the cathedral, having had to back up as far as space allowed to fit it into a camera lens, I was rushed back to Italy, and to the just bonkers facades the Roman Catholic religion inspired craftsmen to, erm, craft over there too.
Expecting a €6 charge to get in, we were a bit over-excited to find it was actually free to get in, the charge was for a tour. Being an atheist, I have a (only a small) issue with paying to go into churches, but I am more than happy to pay to see them on the basis of the world-class craftsman-ship some contain. Gaudí’s Sagrada Família is another example I found simply stunning, in particular the never-before tried method of keeping the roof up with an array of tree-like internal columns, which avoided the unsightly flying buttresses used here in Amiens – what a gamble that was!
The insides of the cathedral were just as imposing and impressive. Multi-lingual signs relayed how the building had been protected during WW1 (the one at Reims burned to the ground). Alongside quiet diplomacy to keep the 800 year old masterpiece from being shelled, physical protection was implemented in the form of metal frames around the bottom of the building and the wooden, intricately-carved choir stalls, which were then stacked with clay-filled bags. Water pumps were installed inside. In the end a single shell fell into the insides, but failed to go off, so 100 years later we’ve witnessed the same carvings Richard the Lionheart (might have, I dunno) saw.
While Rouen’s cathedral is said to have the Lionheart’s heart, Amiens claims to have John the Baptists’s head. Yep, it reckons to have the 2000-odd year old head of the Biblical character, cut off on Herod’s order. The story goes that the Fourth Crusaders, who utterly failed to get anywhere near the Holy Land and instead turned on their Christian brothers, nicked the head from Constantinople, along with anything else they could lay their mitts on. We didn’t see the skull itself (reserved to those handing over a few €), and whether it’s actually John’s head or not, seems to be debatable (but does it really matter I wonder?).
Once we’d finally finished gawping at the results of incredible skill and willpower, we drifted off back outside into the sunshine and ambled back to the van, just a thin sheen of perspiration to show for three hour’s ‘work’. Charlie was pleased to see us, for 2 minutes, before zonking out again. We’re now watching the car park slowly empty (mainly watching for the guy parked 2 inches from our side) and reading before a spot of dinner and, we hope, a quiet night in Amiens.