Sci-fi author Jules Verne fell in love with Amiens, France, when he moved there to write. Take a walking tour and find out why
- The author of Around the World in Eighty Days moved to the tiny city when he took up writing full-time, and was inspired by its architecture
- From France’s largest gothic cathedral to Jules Verne Square and the writer’s house, it offers a fascinating glimpse into his life
For an author who fuelled the world’s wanderlust with his books, Jules Verne, who penned Around the World in Eighty Days in 1873 (it is the most translated French novel), didn’t do much travelling.
After a day in Amiens, the canal-streaked Picardy town he settled in after relocating from Paris, I’m beginning to understand his reluctance to leave this tiny city, a two-hour drive north of the French capital.
This year, Amiens honoured its former resident with a Jules Verne-themed walking trail – 16 locations lining a route that pays tribute to the sci-fi writer. At each, information is displayed in French and English, with scannable QR codes that unlock further information.
Born in Nantes, western France, in 1828, Verne may have approved of the QR codes, but I suspect he’d have longed for a more creative name for the 2.6km (1.6-mile) Jules Verne Route. “Around Amiens in 80 Minutes,” perhaps?
Nonetheless, the route offers an informative way of gaining an insight into his life. Paris had served him well as a law student and stockbroker, but when he turned his passion for writing into a full-time job, he retreated to Amiens, drawn to its leafy plazas, meandering canals and Gothic architecture.
Some of the route’s sites, such as Amiens’ Unesco-listed cathedral, are stars in their own right. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens was a source of inspiration for Verne, who referenced the towering gothic masterpiece in several novels.
France’s largest Gothic cathedral makes Paris’ Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral (of which it could hold two) look tiny, but the Unesco status was awarded not only because of its size, but also the speed at which it was built – a mere 68 years, which was pretty quick for the 1200s.
Sculptures are everywhere – near the choir stalls, 4,000 wooden statues depict various trades and religious scenes, while almost 1,000 stone figures cover the exterior – but the cathedral’s strangest exhibit is a skull encased in glass and displayed in a side chapel.
Legend has it that in the 1200s, French crusader Wallon de Sarton found the skull in the ruins of a Constantinople palace. Greek lettering on the silver plate on which it was mounted suggested it belonged to John the Baptist, and de Sarton donated it to Amiens.
The city started building a cathedral to house the skull and, barring a brief stint during the French Revolution (1789-1799), when Amiens’ mayor stored it in his house for safekeeping, the skull has remained here ever since.
Other sites on the route don’t just provide an insight into Amiens but prompt discussions about Verne’s books, too. Next to the Horloge Dewailly (Dewailly clock) tower, an allegory of spring showing a bare-breasted woman clutching an apple branch, is an information board that analyses Verne’s female characters.
The sculpture was unveiled in 1999, but is a replica of one that disappeared during the second world war. The original was sculpted by Albert Roze, who also designed Verne’s nearby tomb.
In leafy Jules Verne Square, there’s another statue by Roze: a bust of Verne atop a thick stone column. At the base are depicted a woman and two boys poring over the writer’s books and engraved onto the rear of the statue are their titles.
The statue was unveiled in 1909 and funded by donations collected by the L’Académie des Sciences, des Lettres et des Arts d’Amiens, of which Verne was a member.
The plastic swing sets in Square Jules Bocquet’s Jules Verne-themed playground look plain amid this surreal wonderland, with its rocket-shaped hideout, modelled on the spacecraft in From the Earth to the Moon (1865); replica of the sea serpent from Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864); and submarine-shaped climbing frame inspired by Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870).
The route’s highlight is Jules Verne House – an organised treasure-trove-turned museum that provides an insight into an author who wrote, without fail, from 5am until 11am, before pausing for lunch or a walk to Amiens’ town hall or library.
Verne, a city councillor, was on the library’s Book Inspection and Purchasing Committee, and donated much of the library’s current collection of 20,000 artefacts related to the author, including his beloved globe.
He moved into what is now Jules Verne House with his wife, Honorine, in 1882. He was at the peak of his fame and able to afford a property that had both an abundance of space and features such as a winter garden – a concept popular in the late 1800s, typically used to demonstrate an interest in far-flung destinations.
In the smoking room, where Verne would receive visitors, exhibits include one of his quills alongside handwritten notes, and in the drawing room, faded family photos line the wall – the couple never had children but remained close to Jules’ brother and three sisters.
In one photo, a sister, Marie, spots a bouffant hairdo – one that apparently inspired the nickname Verne gave her: Le Chou (“the cabbage”). The dining room is a veritable treasure trove, with cupboards filled with the Vernes’ monogrammed crockery.
The rooms upstairs are also temples to his craft. Thought your bedside stack of books was out of control? Going by the black and white pictures on display, Verne’s collection topped most others.
The 12,000 books (many still in situ) lining his library provided inspiration for Verne, who referenced them to produce spreadsheets on cyclones, rivers and other natural phenomena, and detailed maps.
In comparison, his study, where he penned more than 30 novels, is sparse. A framed quote from journalist Edmondo de Amicis, who visited Verne in 1896, reveals his desk was “covered with books and maps arranged in symmetrical order. In the opposite corner is a small camp bed, narrow and very low.”
There are constant reminders of Verne in Amiens, from the statues and the museums to the coffee shops and pharmacies onto which his name has been slapped.
By early 2024, an enormous sculpture of an octopus with water-spouting tentacles – a tribute to 20,000 Leagues under the Sea – will be unveiled outside the railway station.
But there are other reasons to visit Amiens, including the Hortillonnages gardens, where wild-flower-blanketed islands are separated by narrow (sadly octopus-free) canals.
A nightly sound and light show transforms the cathedral and the crowded Place Notre Dame, in which it stands.
Apparently, some locals initially felt the hi-tech, rainbow-coloured projections made a mockery of this Unesco-listed place of worship. But I suspect Verne, who was famously ahead of his time and wrote about optical illusions in The Carpathian Castle (1892), would have thoroughly approved.