'...bright and spacious, light and welcoming, majestic without being overpowering...'

There are many places, sights, buildings and experiences where superlatives are never enough, where we have to rely on sensory impact to get the message across. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens is such a place, and not without good cause is it listed as a World Heritage Site. It’s a classic case of ‘Don’t take my word for it; come and see for yourself’.

Construction work started in 1220, but it was not unitl 1528 that the spire was erected. It has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1981. © ATOUT FRANCE/CRT Picardie/Sam Bellet

Louis XI described the cathedral as ‘Une des plus belles de tout notre royaume’, one of the best of his reign, its construction virtually coincidental with his time as king (1226-1270). It is certainly the largest Gothic building in France, begun in 1220 and completed in 49 years, a feat that explains its great harmony of style; thankfully, it somehow escaped damage during the Second World War, and remains today a monumental testimony to hugely skilful and largely unacknowledged masons and builders. As you stand before the great western face you know, to paraphrase Marcel Proust, that you are seeing something that is truly great.

Notre Dame is not the first cathedral in Amiens: that was built outside the city walls, on the tomb of St Firmin. But soon the cathedral and the saint’s relics were moved into the city, experiencing almost centennial misadventure by fire, being largely destroyed in 1019, 1137 and 1218, until the present building was begun. A few years earlier, in 1206, a time of pilgrimages, crusades and unimaginable religious fervour, the then bishop of Amiens, Richard de Gerberoy, received canon Walon de Sarton from Picquigny, who had just returned from the Fourth Crusade bringing with him a lock of hair belonging to John the Baptist. This priceless relic, still on view in the cathedral, turned Amiens into a shrine and a place of endless pilgrimage.

At a more secular level, the cathedral is bright and spacious, light and welcoming, majestic without being overpowering. The sculptures and carvings, both within and without, are sumptuous, many still retaining some of their original colouration. The ‘Gloire’ above the high altar now houses the relics of St Firmin, and glows brilliantly as sunlight reflects from the white columns and walls of the choir. But for a truly moving experience, witness the nightly son et lumiere (April to end of September) that contrives to illuminate the western façade in colours that would match the originals.

As a cathedral song-writer once remarked, neither atheists nor believers can remain unmoved by so amazing a monument.

‘You don’t have to be much of an adventurer to surrender to the majesty of the cathedral at Amiens.’
Jules Verne

Gargoyles on Notre Dame cathedral, Amiens. © ATOUT FRANCE/Hervé Le Gac

It's approaching ten in the evening as we saunter through the centre of Amiens to the cathedral. En route we pass 'La Dent Creuse' where we'd lunched on Escalope de saumon grillé, sauce Béarnaise and pomme au four, washed down by a cheeky little house red that mellowed the moment perfectly.

Crowds are already gathering, and sitting in rows on steps, facing the great western portals of the cathedral. I find a spot, dead centre, and like an infant scramble indecorously on all fours setting up tripod and preparing cameras: my wife affects not to be with me and takes a sudden interest in a passing cat.

'Ça commence', someone says behind me as suddenly the lights go out and a sensuous French voice of pure silk – the sort that makes grown men drool – begins the story of Amiens and its great cathedral. Gradually, lights, subtle at first, illuminate the western façade, picking out in pale, shifting light some of the hundreds of statues of what John Ruskin described as 'the Bible in stone'. Then, with 'Wow-Factor-10' suddenness, the three main doorways burst into glorious colour, a masterly display of laser-technology that spotlights every detail, returning the doorways to the colours they enjoyed when first decorated. There's an audible gasp from the hundreds now gathered on the steps.

'Truly splendid', says the tourist blurb; something of an understatement if you ask me.


The cathedral is open daily Apr-Sep 0830-1830; Oct-Mar 0830-1730. Guided tours are available.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens, 80000 AMIENS
Tel: 03 22 71 60 50

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