If a single theme emerged from our 2012 European tour it was cathedrals. Our journey took us to impressive cathedrals in Bordeaux and Angers France. In Spain, the cathedrals in León, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Oviedo, and Segovia are all pilgrimage-worthy. Porto Portugal and Canterbury England also have spectacular churches.
But in truth we were not visiting these places just to see cathedrals. European cities with interesting intact old quarters often have a grand church at their heart. Indeed, tourism in the towns we visited is not a recent phenomenon. The churches and the cities have for centuries been stopovers for travelers on a pilgrimage to Santiago. Acquiring relics and building or enlarging a cathedral was a way to assure that the pilgrims would continue visit. In modern times the pilgrimage continues; travelers carrying scallop shells and tourists clutching cameras still visit the towns and their cathedrals.
Constructed from hand carved stone, cathedrals were built to last. Today large, dramatic churches stand as the most elaborate and best-preserved buildings in the old quarter of many cities. Cathedrals link the past to the present
It is perhaps appropriate that on a cathedral-heavy itinerary, we saved what might be the most impressive church for last. At the end of our long road trip we visited the UNESCO-designated cathedral in Amiens France. For sure Amiens has more to see than a building that holds the throne of a bishop. Its old-quarter is interesting, there’s a belfry that’s part of the UNESCO-designated Belfries of Belgium and France, and the portion of town along the navigable Somme River is particularly pleasant. But without doubt, the main attraction in Amiens is its cathedral. Amiens main church is amongst the most spectacular if not the most spectacular cathedrals that we’ve seen.
What makes Amiens’ cathedral so impressive? The building’s height is a factor. Reaching 369.8 feet at the peak of its spire, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens is the tallest complete cathedral in France. But it is not just the size that impresses. The façade of Amiens’ church, flamboyant Gothic at its extreme, is decorated with deeply carved stone. Less exuberant Gothic details, now clean after a recent restoration, continue around the perimeter of the massive building. Built between 1220 and 1270, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens was completed over a relatively short period of time. The architectural style is unusually consistent.
Striking as it is during the day, the façade of Amiens Cathedral may show its best at night under the lights. When the sun goes down, massive spotlights switch on illuminating the cathedral’s carved details. Stone carvings become more dramatic and imposing at night; contrast of light and dark brings out the relief.
The inside of Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens is predictably stunning. Its three-tier interior elevation makes for a light, spacious, and airy space. As with other grand cathedrals, the open space held beneath the high stone ceiling is astonishing. It is incredible that such structures could have been built so long ago.
Our travels have taken us through countless historic religious buildings. Each grand church is a distinctive delight to see; they are all individually worthy of visits. Indeed, it is impossible for us to choose a favorite cathedral. Certainly though, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Amiens ranks at the top of the impressive churches we’ve seen. If you can only visit one grand Gothic church, Amiens’ cathedral would be an excellent choice.