I have travelled extensively by car in France over the last twenty five years. As I approach a new town or village that I am not familiar with, I am always confident that I will not be disappointed. The suburbs can sometimes be a little dull but the ‘centre ville’ will always be a shining light to French life style, culture and colour. I once thought though, that I had found an exception to this supposition. It was a couple of years ago when I was motoring through Picardy.
I needed to visit a supermarket and stopped off in a village called Doullens, just a little north of Amiens. I parked at the local Intermarche, collected my goods and wandered off on foot into town, just as I always do. I walked along the streets, visited a news stand and took a cup of coffee. It was a dull, grey day and so was the town. I thought the streets and the shops were so bland and faded. It all seemed so different from the familiar France that I had grown to love. I returned to my car and sped off again to continue my planned journey.
Sometime later when I was back at home in England, I happened to read about Doullens casually in the travel press. I thought of my encounter with the town so many months before and began to realise what I had missed. The travel writer described Doullens as a place of great beauty, French life and familiar style. It was portrayed as a town with an extensive, fascinating history. The accompanying photographs seemed to have so little to do with my recent recollection. I had missed something great and vowed to return on my next motoring trip. Doullens is actually an oasis of classic French culture and antiquity amongst the somewhat uniform Picardy countryside.
In medieval times, Doullens had stood between France and the Spanish ruled Netherlands to the north. It became a natural base for fortification. The older town interior is protected by an extensive and robust citadelle. I just hadn’t seen it earlier.
So I returned to Doullens this year. Parking my car by the town hall close to the centre I saw hanging grandly from the walls were coloured banners depicting Marshall Foch and General Haigh from their days during World War 1. A meeting had taken place in the town hall where representatives from the allied forces had met and agreed to Marshall Foch’s appointment as supreme commander of the French military forces during the Great War. The town hall is a place of significant historical importance for France and Europe.
I strolled into the town and came across the Lombart Museum and gardens. This establishment is a major contributor to the architectural quality of the central town. The building and landscape came from the generosity of a certain Jules Francois Lombart at the end of the 19th century. Lombart was a local chocolate manufacturer and had a sophisticated interest in fine art. The museum contains many examples of paintings by Corot, Daubigny and Chardin. Inside, visitors can read testimonials to Lombart’s life and much information dealing with local history. The gardens are carefully maintained and represent so much the hidden and illusive beauty of Doullens.
I carried on with my visit and stopped by the ancient belfry. Its construction goes back to the 14th century. It is built of rough stone and brick and represents the freedom of Doullens earned from its past and often complex history. The belfry has been included in the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
Not far from the centre, I found the partially preserved ruins of the Church of St. Pierre. The origins of this structure go back to the early 13th century. It is bold and imposing and dominates a section of the town. It is a real feature to behold as it overlooks more modern signs of present day France. The barren remains of it were used as a barn in the 19th century.
Notre- Dame church came along next. This is such a grand building for an apparently modest town centre. It is the principal place of Catholic worship for the town with a population of roughly 7000 people.
The citadelle in Doullens of course, like so many other French towns, represents the dominant architectural character of the village centre. It is undergoing a preservation process at the moment. It can be visited but only by restricted appointment. Ask at the tourist office at the belfry.
Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban carved a name for himself in French history. He became an architect of military defensive structures and was the creator of so many robust citadelles across all of France during the 17th century. He came from a fairly humble, working background but was responsible for the construction of more than 300 city ramparts. He had a unique talent and reputation. The citadelle at Doullens oddly, is the only existing pre Vauban structure anywhere in France. It was, however, the inspiration for the foundation of Vauban’s future career. Vauban retains the reputation of being one of France’s keystone defence pioneers.
In the mid16th century, the citadelle at Doullens was actually built by Robert Mailly. It was originally constructed of sandstone but this material was not able to repel attack. Later, much of it was replaced with a sturdier brick rendering. France was able to re-take much of its local territory later in the 17thcentury and the Doullens citadelle became almost redundant. It was used as a prison for political enemies for a while, including Louis X111’s own brother, Gastion d’Orleans.
Later, during the Great War, the citadelle operated as a hospital. It was bombed by the Germans in 1918 and many hospital staff including nurses and some patients were killed. After WW1, the ramparts were used as a home for delinquent girls. When the Second World War came along, the Germans planned to use the citadelle as their operational base in northern France for V1 and V2 rocket attacks against England. It was not used for this purpose ultimately however.
Victor Hugo, the famous French author, was once introduced to the citadelle in Doullens and was told of its history. He listened carefully and then famously replied that ‘he did not much like citadelles’. Visitors can observe wall inscriptions as they tour the structure. There are preserved writings from people during the First World War and other records from previous centuries. The citadelle has a number of underground tunnels for visitors to see. The area is quite vast and covers around 54 hectares.
I guiltily made my second visit to Doullens on a beautiful spring morning. I looked at the perfect French village layout and reminded myself about what I love so much about France. I still have not worked out why I did not have this encounter the first time around. Doullens has a busy market every Thursday selling fruit and vegetables. It is a busy little town with a street carnival held on the last Saturday of June each year. It had all that I expected of France and with a little bit more on top.
I sat outside a café on a street terrace drinking a coffee. The waiter returned and apologised. He had charged me too much and refunded my extra change. I put my feet up and ordered another one.
Bob Lyons is a former pilot turned freelance writer and a total Francophile.