The name of France's Department 80 evokes sobering images of trenches, battlefields and world-changing events. The Somme is known, perhaps more than any other area of western Europe, for the unfortunate yet pivotal role it played during The Great War. But rather than attempting to erase its tragic history, the department has developed a successful tourism industry around it - attracting thousands of visitors each year from all over the world. And, unlikely as it might seem, Somme nowadays offers a vast range of exciting and family-oriented holiday options and attractions.
Any history prior to 1914 is totally eclipsed by the First World War battles which were fought in the Somme, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of troops of many different nationalities.
Trench warfare was prevalent throughout the 1914-1918 conflict, but the Somme is most infamous for two main series of battles against German forces. The first Battle of the Somme started in July 1916, lasting almost five months. Although regarded as a success for the Allies, and a turning point in the war, a mere 125 square miles of territory were regained from the Germans, at a cost of 600,000 Allied troop casualties and 450,000 German casualties.
The second Battle of the Somme began in March 1918 as the last main German offensive of the war. The German objective was to capture Amiens before marching on Paris. This battle resulted in a further 200,000 Allied casualties, the loss of 190,000 prisoners to the Germans, and around 180,000 German casualties. However, a counter-offensive starting in July 1918 finally resulted in a victory for the Allies, just weeks before the end of the war.
- Saint Valery sur Somme
Coastal areas of the Somme department experience milder winters and warmer summers than southern Britain - even though only a few dozen miles separate the two lands. Inland Somme enjoys hotter summers than the coast, but colder winters. Rain falls all year round with only a few millimetres separating the wettest month of October from the hottest month of July. The winter months are also known to bring fog.
Somme boasts some 20 miles of rugged coastline - with huge sandy beaches, deserted dunes and spectacular white chalk cliffs - stretching from Mers-les-Bains in the south to Fort-Mahon-Plage in the north, with St Valery in the middle having grown up on the banks of the River Somme estuary. Much of that coastline is contained within the Bay of Somme, the largest estuary in North France. The bay and its surrounding marshlands are home to dozens of species of birds, and during migrations attract many more temporary visitors.
Mers-les-Bains is home to breathtaking white cliffs and, as a resort, has managed to retain much of its early 20th century grandeur and elegance. The handsome esplanade is lined with villas and hotels of Art Nouveau architecture which overlook the sandy beach where enthusiasts brave the English Channel waves on their windsurf boards. A mile or two along the coast road is Le Tréport, a lively fishing port and a charming seaside resort in its own right.
At the other end of Somme's coastline is Fort-Mahon-Plage which boasts a seemingly endless beach, a huge sand dune area and a tranquillity sought by visitors who want to be at one with nature. For a more lively beach life, the area is just a stone's throw from the popular resort of Berck-Plage and the chic town of Le Touquet, over the border in Pas-De-Calais.
Much of the department's tourism centres on its role during the First World War. The Circuit of Remembrance takes in many of the important sites of the war, with impressive memorials, preserved battlefields, trench systems and cemeteries. Sombre as it might seem, an enjoyable half-day can be spent by all age groups exploring the region by narrow-gauge train. As well as sites of historic interest, the little train - the same one which was used to take supplies and munitions to the front line during the war - passes through some wonderful Picardy countryside during its 90-minute amble. It departs from Froissy, a little village two miles south of Bray-sur-Somme on the D329, from May to the end of September.
The Marquenterre Bird Park is part of the Somme Bay Nature Reserve. In an area of 250 hectares, comprising dunes, forests and marshland, thousands of birds use it as a stopping off point on their migrations routes from Africa, the Arctic, eastern Europe and Russia. Well-planned observation trails allow the visitor the opportunity to see a huge variety of birds resting, feeding and wading. The park is open throughout the year.
Most people visit Amiens - the department's administrative centre - to see the largest Gothic cathedral in France, Cathedrale de Notre Dame. But once in the town, visitors are often captivated by the picturesque medieval quarter, St-Leu, where shops, restaurants and bars flank the town's pretty canal. Nearby is Maison Jules Verne, the actual house where the famous author wrote most of his works.
Family entertainment and sports
For walkers and cyclists, the Somme ranks amongst the top destinations of northern France. There are many circular walking routes, lasting from an hour to a full day, which are well sign-posted in yellow. The department has more than 100 miles of cycle trails, many of which offer the opportunity to explore some of the region's most peaceful rural countryside and coastal landscapes.
Horseriding, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, sand-yachting and golf are just a small selection of other sport and leisure activities on offer in the department. And, for the more adventurous, the Aerodrome D'Abbeville-Buigny offers flying and gliding lessons, together with spectacular 25 minute tourist flights over the Somme Bay.
If the weather isn't quite right for the beach, the AquaClub Belle Dune, close to Fort-Mahon-Plage, offers water fun for all age groups. A large enclosed area, with a constant heat of 29 degrees, contains a swimming pool with wave machine, slides, whirlpool baths, saunas, relaxation zones and other attractions. For the summer months there are more pools, chutes and games outside amongst the dunes.
Food and drink
Because of its relatively short but very productive coastline, seafood is invariably on the menu of all restaurants in the Somme. The fishing ports of Le Crotoy and Le Hourdel specialise in squid and a fine assortment of shellfish, whilst another fishy delicacy of the region is smoked eel. For those visitors who prefer a little red meat, the grassy sandbanks around the Somme estuary provide perfect grazing for sheep. An ideal accompaniment is a glass of locally-produced Peronne Beer - a range of award-winning varieties is brewed in the town of Peronne, some 30 miles east of Amiens.
Ease of access
Although the department has no ferry ports of its own, Somme is well served by year-round routes to southern England. Calais - with both ferries and the Channel Tunnel - is furthest away at around 65 miles from Abbeville. Slightly closer is Boulogne at 49 miles, but Dieppe is closer still at 40 miles with regular crossings to Newhaven. The Paris airports are a couple of hours' drive away, but Le Touquet, just along the coast, boasts its own quaint little airport with seasonal services to southern England.
Value for money
Somme can cater for all types of holiday - from low-cost family fortnights to pampered breaks in Art Nouveau villas overlooking the sea. The Somme benefits from its close proximity to the ferry ports of northern France - in particular Calais - from where there are short and very regular crossings to southern England. Apart from a gallon or two of petrol, this makes Somme one of the cheapest regions of France to reach from the UK.
Compared with more traditional holiday regions of France, the average cost of renting accommodation in Somme is certainly cheaper, whilst still allowing a wide choice of characterful properties. And because the department is not regarded as a traditional summer holiday destination, visitors are not subjected to tourist prices in restaurants and cafés.
The majority of visitors to the Somme undoubtedly go there to witness for themselves the dramatic and tragic memorial to events of The Great War. The authorities, however, have put much thought into their tourism package and have succeeded in providing genuinely interesting, respectful and educational tours and facilities, without making them too melancholy. Apart from its history, the coastal region in particular is a haven for nature-lovers and for those who enjoy exploring on foot or cycle.