A rickety train ride away from the Bay of the Somme, Abbeville is a historic city whose beauty is undimmed by the litany of conflicts that have swept the region down the ages.
The UNESCO belfry and extraordinary collegiate church are the top sights and make the headlines.
But there are lots of smaller monuments like the 17th-century textile factory and Carmelite convent, where you can cover fascinating and almost forgotten episodes from Abbeville’s history.
The bay is up there with the most beautiful in the world, and its beaches, medieval heritage and widescreen views are only moments down the road.
Lets explore the best things to do in Abbeville:
1. Abbeville Belfry
Going as far back as 1209, Abbeville’s belfry is among the oldest in France.
It also has UNESCO World Heritage designation as one of many important belfries across northern France and Flanders.
You’ll be lucky to find another as impressive, as it climbs to almost 30 metres with walls that are more than two metres thick at the base.
Crowning the belfry is a pyramidal slate roof that you enter via a spiral staircase.
Further down are the old dungeons, the meeting hall for Abbeville’s aldermen and the treasury room where the town charter and seal are kept.
2. Musée Boucher-de-Perthes
The belfry is in fact an annexe of Abbeville’s museum of fine arts, which is housed in two post-war buildings next door.
The oldest collections here belonged to Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes, a 19th-century antiquarian and archaeologist who by discovering flint tools in the Somme’s marshes proved the existence of Palaeolithic humans.
His world-changing finds are on show and include flints and fossilised animals from the Quaternary period.
Also on display are Bronze Age swords and axes, exquisite medieval polychrome sculptures and paintings from the 1500s to the 1900s by artists like Pieter van Mol, Fragonard and Lethière.
3. Église Saint-Vulfran
This church was built towards the end of the 15th century, at a time of great local prosperity, which accounts for the Flamboyant Gothic decoration on the western facade.
The aim was to create the most beautiful church in the feudal county of Ponthieu, and the complexity of the mouldings, traceries, pinnacles and portal carvings might just leave you lost for words.
Eugène Boudin painted the church in 1884 a few decades before it was heavily damaged in the Second World War.
There have been restoration efforts since the 1980s, which are clearly visible today and which you can read about inside.
4. Parc de la Bouvaque
As municipal parks go, Abbeville’s is something special.
In 60 hectares in the city’s northern suburbs, this tract of wetland was where farmers would bring their cattle to graze.
The park now is arranged around two large ponds that have been left in a semi-wild state, and has little shelters where if you’re patient you can sight waterfowl such as snipes, great crested grebes and egrets.
In summer the water meadows burst into flower with irises and orchids, and you can also spot turquoise pools where natural springs rise from the ground.
Before the war this water was channelled to the city’s sugar refinery.
5. Château de Bagatelle
On summer afternoons this stunning folly opens its doors for you to look around its stately interiors and amble through its the French formal gardens.
The property was built in the middle of the 1700s by a textile industrialist, who hired a crack team of craftsmen to fit the interiors.
Take the wrought iron railing on the double revolution staircase, designed by the Austrian Simon Pfaff de Pfaffenhoffen who also worked on the Somme’s Abbaye de Valloires.
See also the refined wooden panelling in the Salon Rond, and enter the Salon de Musique, which at the dawn of the 20th century paid host to eminent composers like Vincent d’Indy and Erik Satie.
6. Parc d’Émonville
Up to the Revolution this English-style park was in the grounds of Abbeville’s Benedictine priory, before being sold to one Arthur Fouques Émonville, a botanist who had a passion for camellias.
He established a hotel in the centre, which after he died became the municipal library, while the gardens were opened to the public after the war.
In the English tradition there are statues, a grotto and a pond with a pretty footbridge next to lawns and flowerbeds.
While the legacy from Émonville’s time can be seen in its diversity of unusual species like the Asian wingnut trees, sophoras, sweet gum and bald cypress.
7. Manufacture des Rames
In Abbeville’s eastern Hocquet district is a former linen factory founded by the Dutch weaver Josse van Robais in 1665. He had been drafted in by Louis XIV’s Minister of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert to produce fabrics and tapestries for the French crown.
In its day this was one of France’s largest industrial operations, employing 3,000 people by 1724 and exporting to all of Europe’s great courts.
Although the factory isn’t marketed as an attraction, you can view the handsome baroque factory that was built in 1710 to bring the various workshops around the city under one roof.
July to September you can arrange a guided tour of Abbeville’s former Carmelite Convent with the city’s tourist office.
The Carmelite order’s relationship with the town lasted long after the Revolution: The nuns were kicked out of their previous convent on Rue Saint-Gilles and spent the next 30 years without a permanent home before moving into these fine 17th-century buildings next to the Parc d’Émonville in 1821. They remained here until 1998 when the property was bought by the city to preserve its restful formal gardens and historic architecture.
9. Château d’Eaucourt-sur-Somme
Minutes beyond Abbeville’s southern limits are the ruins of a castle that was erected around the start of the 15th century.
The property had been hotly contested all through the middle ages but was left unoccupied from the end of the 18th century.
Since the 80s though the site has been turned into a kind of feudal activity centre in summer, when you can bring children to get involved with old-time trades like stonemasonry, ironworks and carpentry.
Kids can also don medieval armour and test their aim with a crossbow.
10. Véloroute Vallée de Somme
Bring your bike to Abbeville, because the city is on a 120-kilometre trail that hugs the Somme River and promises an easy, family-friendly course to historic cities or sensational natural spaces.
To make a day of it you could go east to Amiens, and on the way ride through the fabled Hortillonages, historic market gardens criss-crossed by canals.
If the First World War interests you the countryside is pocked with important sites and monuments a little further east.
In all there are 26 official belvederes, and the trail is served by eight “valley houses” that are designed for cyclists to stop grab a drink or snack or light meal.
You won’t need more than ten minutes to get to this village just east of Abbeville.
Your motive for making the short trip is to visit the abbey, which was founded as long ago as 625. In its early years King Dagobert I in the 800s, and later Angilbert, Charlemagne’s son-in-law was an abbot.
The 15th-century Gothic facade can be compared to Saint-Vulfran in Abbeville, and the park around it is dreamy and planted with some 300 fruit trees, including walnut, plum, cherry, pear, apple, hazel and peach.
If you’re on the UNESCO belfry trail then Saint-Riquier has a distinguished example, built in 1283 and rehabilitated a few times since because of sieges and war.
12. Baie de Somme
Abbeville is dubbed the “Gateway to the Bay of the Somme”, where the river empties into the English Channel.
You’ll be in a limitless expanse of ponds and salt marshes where you can meditate over big skies and wide horizons.
Nature rules here in this habitat for France’s largest colony of harbour seals and a rest stop for thousands of migratory birds from more than 300 different species.
Artists and writers Degas, Sisley, Camille Corot and Jules Verne were won over by the bay and had homes here.
Away from the estuary the landscapes are actually rather diverse: Head down the coast for a few minutes and you arrive at the vast chalk cliffs of Ault, while Fort-Mahon has one of those boundless sandy beaches backed by dunes.
13. Chemin Fer de la Baie de Somme
Allow 15 minutes to get to Noyelles on the Somme Estuary and you can trundle around the bay as Degas and Jules Verne would have done in the Belle Époque.
The line from Noyelles to Saint-Valery was laid in the 1850s and later connected with Crotoy on the north side of the estuary in 1887. After being used mainly for freight after the Second World War the railway fell into disrepair in the 1960s.
But the line was regenerated in the 1970s and has a fleet of superb steam locomotives that date back a century or more.
You can step off the train at this endearing town by the water.
Saint-Valery’s limestone ridge is a rare break in the low-lying landscape and made the town a strategic goal for a catalogue of armies.
William the Conqueror, Harold Goodwinson and Joan of Arc all spent time in the high town, where historic towers, medieval walls and an abbey church offer thrilling clues about its storied past.
By the water is the Courtgain quarter, with old sailors’ houses fronting a boardwalk that you can amble along for miles.
Also go in for a closer look at the sea lock, which regulates the flow of the Somme.
15. Forêt de Crécy
The largest forest in the Somme department is a 4,000-hectare swathe of ancient beech and oak woodland that has witnessed some epoch-changing events.
The 100 Years’ War began at this very spot when in 1346 Philip of Valois’ forces were defeated by Edward III of England at the Battle of Crécy . The battlefield is marked by a wooden belvedere, which is at the exact site of a historic mill where Edward would have surveyed the countryside.
Dating back more than 600 year are 20 “remarkable trees” to track down via eight different hiking trails.