This bucolic region of north-east France is forever associated with memorials of the first world war, but it has a lot more to offer visitors, from unspoilt countryside to quaint coastal resorts that even few French people know about. The Somme is named for its river, with an immense estuary where it empties into the Channel. The Baie de Somme, as it is known, was where William the Conqueror gathered his army before setting off to fight the English at Hastings, and today these unique wetlands offer a host of ecological and wildlife holiday activities.
Affordable accommodation ranges from camping and glamping to chic B&Bs and friendly family-run hotels. Eating out is also a revelation, with the freshest seafood, speciality charcuterie and cheeses straight from producers.
BAIE DE SOMME AND THE COAST
What to see and do
Bay of the Somme
The vast Somme estuary is an ever-changing landscape as the tides ebb and flow. A three-hour trek across the bay with a qualified guide (€15 adult, €7 child) is a highlight of any trip. Locals head out alone foraging, shrimping and duck hunting, but the tides can be treacherous if you explore tout seul.
Other options include high-tide canoe trips (adult €35, child €20, mabaiedesomme.fr), horse rides across the sand (€45pp, henson.fr), or a more relaxing vintage steam train tour (€14.30/€10.70 return, cfbs.eu) all the way around the bay from Saint-Valery to Le Crotoy. The picturesque port of Saint-Valery has grand seafront villas once rented out by luminaries inlcuding Victor Hugo, Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley.
Parc du Marquenterre
To the north of the bay lie miles of sandy beaches and dunes, and the 200-hectare Marquenterre park, where some 300 species of migrating birds stop over or nest. Nature lovers can rent binoculars and set off on a 7km hike, taking in 12 hides with a guide at each to talk about the birds.
Coastal road trip
The wild coast road running south from the bay as far as Le Tréport passes some wonderfully kitsch seaside towns where little seems to have changed since the end of the 19th century. Cayeux has a long pebble beach lined with brightly painted beach huts. The faded opulence of Ault’s 19th-century villas is overshadowed by the natural beauty of its towering white cliffs, and seafront mansions at Mers-les-Bains have been wonderfully renovated.
Where to eat
Auberge de la Marine, Le Crotoy
The formal decor of the Marine belies the dazzling cuisine of Pascal Lefebvre. Splash out €44 for his six-course tasting menu made with products harvested around the bay: line-fished red mullet or John Dory; cockles and whelks; wild samphire and oreilles de cochon (purslane) from low-tide sand flats. Pork smoked over pine cones is served with beer-braised endives.
• +33 3 22 27 92 44, aubergedelamarine.com
Chés Troés Piots Coéchons, Woignarue
In a quiet village a few kilometres from the coast, the Three Little Pigs restaurant is a brilliant foodie discovery – though come with an appetite as portions can be huge. Presided over by genial chef Frank Galand, the menu ranges from succulent braised hock of ham to lamb roasted with thyme and limeflower honey or an incredible array of homemade charcuterie. The tavern doubles as the village shop and Woignarue’s unofficial social centre. Unforgettable.
• Three-course lunch €17, mains €13-21, +33 3 22 60 54 84 ches3piotscoechons.fr
Le Saint Pierre, Ault
Emma and David, the young owners of this fabulously retro seaside restaurant, have left every detail of the 1960s and 70s decor intact, but surprise diners with a menu of fresh seasonal dishes at very affordable prices. Start with mackerel marinated in white wine and vinegar (€5.90), followed by a steaming bowl of mussels with crunchy frites (€8.90) or the fish of the day – plaice, sole, pollack – straight from the fishing boats of nearby Le Tréport (€12-14).
• +33 9 51 70 29 61, brasserie-ault.com
Where to drink
La Flibustière, Ault
The wonderfully eccentric, craft beer-loving Gerald Pailloux has converted the front room of his cosy seaside home into La Flibustière, a mariners’ pub whose terrace overlooks Ault’s dramatic white chalk cliffs. Don’t miss a large glass of Page 24, an IPA brewed in the neighbouring Pas de Calais département. Telephone first (+33 3 60 26 91 22) to make sure Gerald has decided to open that day. He also has three B&B rooms with incredible sea views, from €70 a night.
This cheese store to die for also has a gourmet choice of smoked hams, saucissons and patés, plus a lengthy wine list, with prices the same in the bar as to take away. This is the magic formula of Hermann Etard’s cave à manger, where an abundant selection of cheese and charcuterie for two costs €15, with fine wines inning atstarting at €9 a bottle
La Buvette de la plage, Saint-Valery
An idyllic spot for a sunset aperitif, this casual bar sits right at the end of Saint-Valery’s promenade, with tables and deck chairs right on the sand, overlooking the bay.
• On Facebook
Where to stay
Chambres d’Hôtes Deloison, Saint-Valery
Sophie and Patrick Deloison run an Aladdin’s cave of an antique shop and two lovingly decorated B&B rooms at the best rates in town. A more chic alternative, at correspondingly higher rates, is Au Vélocipède (doubles €105 B&B) which also has a creative restaurant with local products.
• Doubles from €52 B&B, chambresdhotes.org
Les Pilotes, Saint-Valery
This old-fashioned guesthouse has been transformed into a designer hotel by Parisian Laurence Gauthier and offers breathtaking views over the Bay of the Somme. Friday night happy hour attracts a lively crowd of locals.
• Doubles €98 room only, lespilotes.fr
Les Tourelles, Le Crotoy
Across the bay, the distinctive red towers of cliff-top Les Tourelles dominate the skyline of sleepy Le Crotoy, and this hip hotel offers a fine-dining restaurant, lounge bar and minimalist rooms.
• Doubles from €80 room only, lestourelles.com
AMIENS AND THE UPPER SOMME VALLEY
What to see and do
The largest medieval cathedral in the world, Amien’s immense Unesco-listed Nôtre Dame is about twice the size of what locals call “the other one”, in Paris. Gothic sculptures on the facade are magnificent and there’s a free nightly sound and light show in summer.
• Adult €6, free Sat and Sun afternoon, cathedrale-amiens.fr
Dating from Roman times, the floating gardens of Amiens stretch over 230 hectares of reclaimed marshland and a maze of waterways and lakes. They are the venue for an annual international exhibition – Art, Ville et Paysages, until 15 October – that blends avant-garde art and landscape gardens with extraordinary installations. Some parts are accessible on foot in the centre of town, around the Ile aux Fagots; the rest can be explored on electric boats.
• Boat trip €5.90pp, hortillonages-amiens.fr
Biking and boating
The Somme river meanders in its verdant valley for 70km between Amiens and the coast. The recently resurfaced towpath crosses tiny lakes, locks and canals and makes a great cycling or walking route. The lock keeper’s cottage at Ailly-sur-Somme was reopened as a tourist office this year, with bikes (some electric) and boats for hire.
Visiting the memorials, cemeteries and museums of the Somme is an intensely emotional experience, and can become overwhelming. To get a physical idea of trench warfare, begin with the view over the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel, then head 10km south down the valley to the Somme Museum in Albert for a harrowing underground reconstruction of a soldier’s daily life. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is sombre and reflective, and its newly opened museum looks at the great battle unconventionally, with a giant black-and-white cartoon-style tableau that evokes the Bayeux Tapestry.
Where to eat
Le Retroviseur, Amiens
This local institution is classic bistro, all red banquettes and sepia photos, but serves delicious modern bistronomie, such as seven-hour lamb shank or tarte tatin with thick cream. The lunchtime plat du jour is €10, a three-course meal €25. It also has cocktails, craft beer, DJ sets and live concerts.
• +33 3 22 91 92 70, leretroviseur.fr
La Coupole, Amiens
The original refreshment room of the splendid Cirque Jules Verne building, designed by the writer himself in 1889, La Coupole is always buzzing at lunchtime, serving honest brasserie staples such as steak tartare and a plat du jour for €9.
• +33 3 22 45 50 10, on Facebook
Restaurant de la Basilique, Albert
It’s difficult to find a better lunchtime deal close to the Somme memorials, with two courses for €16 – perhaps rillettes of fresh and smoked salmon or a huge plate of fresh crudités, uicy then steak covered inin maroilles cheese sauce.
• +33 03 22 75 04 71, hoteldelabasilique.fr
Le Comptoir Bleu, Long
In a romantic riverside location, this bright, airy bistro has just been taken over by a friendly young couple, Rudy and Malvina, who offer an ever-changing three-course set lunch for €16, and gourmet dishes such as gin-flambéed veal kidneys in the evening.
• +33 3 64 24 44 52, lecomptoirbleu.com
Where to drink
While the centre of Amiens is pretty quiet, there is an altogether different scene in the more alternative, canal-side Saint-Leu quarter, where dozens of bars are packed out most nights. The tropical punch at Baobar is lethal, and is accompanied by a booming reggae and African beat.
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Au Repos des Pecheurs, Saigneville
Off the beaten track in the Somme valley’s maze of lakes and waterways, this redbrick cottage has been a traditional estaminet tavern for over a century. It has a lovely garden overlooking the river, and inside feels like the owners’ living room.
• 2 Petit Port
La Chapelle, Saigneville
La Chapelle has been a local favourite since the day Corinne and Frank opened its doors. It looks like a fashionable Parisian wine bar, with not just organic and natural wines, but regional craft beer and cider, accompanied by seafood platters (€25), artisan charcuterie and an irresistible honey-roasted camembert (€8).
Where to stay
Le Prieuré, Amiens
An ancient mansion next to Amiens cathedral, this smart but affordable family-run hotel is decorated with eye-catching designer furniture and funky artworks.
• Doubles from €76 room-only, hotel-prieure-amiens.com
Butterworth Farm, Pozières
Amid the battlefield memorials, this comfy, purpose-built wooden farmhouse is named after a missing British soldier. There’s a lovely garden and use of the kitchen.
• Doubles from €80 B&B, butterworthfarm.com
Ocean Villa, Auchonvillers
Avril Williams has transformed a farm into guesthouse, tearoom and eclectic museum. Rooms are basic, but guests can visit a genuine communications trench that runs under the house, restored by archaeologists. Artefacts found there are on display in the tearoom.
• Doubles from €90 B&B, avrilwilliams.eu
Le Presbytère, Saigneville
In a quiet village on the Somme river, Sophie and Antoine Leleux have transformed the parish priest’s grand mansion into a cosy B&B. The brightly painted roulottes (Gypsy caravans) at the end of the garden are excellent for families with kids.
• Doubles from €70 B&B, caravan €80, aupresbytere.fr
Camping Chateau des Tilleuls and Le Clos Cacheleux
These two campsites sit at the point where the valley of the Somme starts opening out into its estuary. Chateau des Tilleuls is more luxury glamping than camping, with a series of spectacular tree house cabins for four at €150 a night. Le Clos Cacheleux offers bargains stays from €80 in either rustic cabins or a psychedelic night in thea transparent plastic “Romantic Bubble”.
Car hire and accommodation were provided by Somme Tourisme (somme-tourisme.com)