Sometimes I like randomness in practice, other times only in theory. I have this idea that one day I will walk into a train station and get on the next train, destination unknown. But in reality I often prefer knowing if I’m going to need to pack a sandwich. When Mark and I were waiting for our train to St. Malo last month, I looked up at the departures board and the next train was for Saint Quentin. I told Mark, we’re going there. Not today, but we’re going there. It wasn’t a completely random decision, I have a notebook of destinations. Whenever someone tells me about a place, or I read something, I add it to the list. I knew that Saint Quentin had a cathedral (not that that’s unusual, there’s a boatload of them in France. What’s the collective noun for cathedrals I wonder, an awe?) that had a 15c labyrinth. A bit of research and I discovered there was also an insect museum, a number of art deco buildings, a large riverside park with a marsh known for its wide variety of bird species, and that it was a decent sized town, thus no sandwiches required. Sold.
Saint Quentin is the the Picardy region and about an hour and a half northeast from Paris. First stop was the tourist office to pick up a map. When I asked if there was a map noting the deco buildings, they told me there would be a walking tour at 2 pm since they and the other towns of the region were celebrating 100 years of art deco. I didn’t know that art deco originated in France and that it is short for Arts Décoratifs. The northeastern part of France was a hotbed of art deco as the area was heavily damaged during WWI and the rebuilding was often, though not always, in the new style. The tour would be in French of course, Saint Quentin isn’t exactly on the foreign tourist radar, but the lovely man in the tourist office assured me I would have no trouble as I was clearly fluent. I’m not, but who was I to argue in the face of such flattery?
We had enough time for lunch beforehand and we’d spotted an Indian restaurant nearby. It looked to be a husband and wife team. We were seated, and I started to order. The man said, English? and switched languages on me. Damn! From fluent to unable to order lunch in less than 5 minutes!
After lunch we also had time for the cathedral. It’s another Notre Dame, and it was heavily damaged during the second world war. The labyrinth survived. It is said to represent a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in a handy travel-less size. It is supposed to be traversed on the knees. I demurred. But I was happy to be able to walk it, as I’ve already been to both Amiens and Chartres, sites of the other remaining labyrinths in France, and they were covered with chairs.
The evident repairs
Some highlights from the walking tour. We learned the stylistic basics of art deco architecture, and yes, my French was up to the task even though our tour guide spoke a mile a minute. She was clearly very knowledgeable, and being a local she was also able to tell us more detailed histories of the building’s owners.
The lovely modern post office with brick made of that modern miracle material asbestos.
The best part was getting to go into the Town Hall and see the courtroom
The insect museum was a bust with very few specimens. The marsh on the other hand was fabulous. We didn’t see any new bird species, but we did get to sit, soak up some sun and listen to frogs.
Would I recommend Saint Quentin to visitors? Probably not. Frankly, there are so many spectacular places to visit in France that unless you’re parking yourself here as we are, it’s probably not worth your while. Was I happy we went? Absolutely.