Visit Picture Perfect Picardy
'We are now in the worse part of Picardy,' said my guide. I looked around at the rather pretty landscape, bewildered as to why a tourist officer for the area should have such a low opinion of it. then my brain caught up with my ears and I realised: we had just entered L'Oise.
Once overlooked by visitors to France, Picardy has made a comeback. The which once had an image problem and when mentioned in conversation it tends to prompt a simple: 'Well, I've driven through it .' Though tiny, the region's coastline varies from cliffs and miles of sandy beaches to the estuary of the Somme River, both sides of which are notable bird reserves. That variety continues inland, from the vast battlefields of the Somme to the hills and forests of the south, often called the 'lungs of Paris'.
A slice of the action
With many Eurostar links getting there is easy. So rather than the over-familiar Paris, Lille or Brussels. Picardy is now a reasonable option and with good reason, given its attractions. Chief among these must be the wonderful cathedrals - representing the greatest flowering of Gothic architecture. Noyon is one of the first and a must-see for anyone interested in the history of this ornate style.
Laon is also from the early period and the town's complete medieval walls add another unique piece of history. The dizzying splendour of Beauvais and Senlis, and its picturesque medieval village, are also essential. However, the greatest of all is Amiens, which Ruskin called: 'Gothic pure, authoritative, unsurpassable.' Started in 1220, it is the tallest of the cathedrals from the classical period and certainly one of the most beautiful, its relatively short building time of about 50 years giving it a wonderful cohesion.
Scenes of scripture
The three tiers provide a light, airy feel to the interior and it has been called the 'Parthenon of Gothic architecture'. Particularly striking is the facade, filled with hundreds of statues representing figures and scenes from scripture. Ongoing restoration work has revealed that these were originally covered in bright, vibrant paint and, at night, a clever sound and light show restores the colour to them. You can imagine the awe these great structures must have created in medieval minds - it's still impressive to our modern ones, used to tall building and Technicolor entertainment.
Picardy's history rolls on through the centuries, right up through the slaughter of World War I in the fields of the Somme. The Armistice with Germany was signed in 1918 in the Compilegne Forest, and Hitler insisted on using the same railway carriage at the same spot as witness to the French humiliation of 1940.
More pleasant memories are conjured up in Chantilly, home of Chantilly Cream and a scenic chateau familiar from many films, most notably James Bond's A View To A Kill. Sitting in wonderful, water-rich gardens, first laid out in the late-17th century, the great chateau was built in 1875 for Henri d'Orleans and shares its 115 hectares with an equally ornate smaller one, once home to princes of Conde.
The art gallery holds one of the finest collections of historical paintings in France, second only to the Louvre, while its library holds such treasures as a Gutenberg Bible. The great chateau's restaurants are the best place to sample the local dessert - an artery-clogging concoction of whipped cream, vanilla and sugar.
Most visitors, however, come for the horses: the famous Chantilly racecourse, Europe's biggest polo club and the remarkable Museum of the Living Horse. Louis-Henri de Bourbon seventh Prince of Conde, believed he would be reincarnated as a what may well be the handsomest - and biggest - set of stables in the world.
They still house magnificent animals as well as 32 rooms stuffed with memorabilia, from beautiful fairground horses to antique carts and tack. A tiny ring provides a daily showcase for the skills of rider and horse - they take up to two years to train for some of the tricks. Coincidentally, I think that's about how long it will take me to work off the Chantilly Cream I ate.