If You're after Peace and Quiet, Head for a War Zone; Carol Drinkwater Finds Tranquillity, Hospitality and Real Surprises on a Tour of Picardy

Article excerpt

This summer sees the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, probably the grimmest war modern history has known.

From September 1914 to August 1918, four major battles were fought along the banks of the River Somme in the region of Picardy, France.

These included the 1916 Battle of the Somme, intended to drive the Germans out of France. Tragically, little went as planned.

A two-hour drive north of Paris delivered me to the city of Amiens, capital of the Somme department. At the start of the war, it was the advance base for the British Expeditionary Force. It was captured by the Germans but swiftly liberated.

I booked into the hotel Le Prieure on a quiet street alongside Notre-Dame Cathedral. The locals claim the Notre-Dame in Paris is a mere shadow of this church and they have reason to boast; Notre-Dame of Amiens is the largest cathedral in France and could swallow up its namesake in Paris twice over.

In the tourist office I was given a brochure for the Circuit of Remembrance. My focus was present-day Picardy, but I could not overlook the cemeteries.

I learned that it is principally Australians who make the long pilgrimage to the poppy fields to pay their respects and to see where their relatives fell. Australian regiments liberated entire French towns.

After a stroll through Amiens' old city I dined on the banks of the Somme. Afterwards the cathedral was illuminated, with its thousands of figurines no longer mere sculpted stone, but brilliant works of colour.

The following morning, I walked to the house of novelist Jules Verne (2, rue Charles-Dubois). Visitors can book tours, requesting their guides dress as a character of their choice from one of Verne's books. I was tempted to choose David Niven in Around The World In Eighty Days.

I then headed east, towards Braysur-Somme, and then Albert to visit its museum and from there to Peronne, under German occupation for three years of the war. This stretch of land carries a heavy history as the scene of some of the worst fighting in the war.

I drove slowly, hugging the river where possible, passing through rich agricultural land. …