Three reasons to visit St Quentin, Aisne, France.
Why visit St Quentin? The largest City in the Aisne, at the beginning of the 13th Century it was a thriving city thanks to the wool textile industry and its proximity to the Champagne region and to the cities of Flanders.
Saint-Quentin Town Hall with its flamboyant gothic facade overlooks the central square which could indeed be from across the border in Belgium or the Netherlands. You may arrive in St Quentin because you are exploring the history of the First World War or you may just be touring Aisne. There’s plenty to see here – but three things, in particular, makes this city a ‘must visit’ for me.
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A Showcase of Art Deco Architecture:
Thanks to the location of the city, there are only a few buildings left from before the First World War, though what does remain is a good reminder of the wealth of this city in the past. Much of St Quentin was destroyed during the Great War, firstly by the battle of St Quentin and then by ongoing German occupation with the city bisected by the German Front, the so-called Hindenburg line which was a major defensive position during the winter of 1916-17.
The population were evacuated and the town looted while fighting destroyed many of the buildings. But, instead of rebuilding in the same style, the architect Guindez helped coordinate the rebuilding of much of the city in Art Deco style. With over 70% of the old city destroyed, that meant many new buildings were needed, both public buildings and private houses.
While the stunning facade of the Town Hall remains, inside the Council Chamber was completely refitted by Guindez, with coordinating desks, chairs, lamps and chandeliers complemented by wooden cartouches around the walls.
The Post Office, built in 1929 is decorated with striking Art Deco frescoes and the covered market and halls were extended by Guindez in art deco style.
And, scattered throughout the city, there are a wealth of stunning Art Deco private houses and shops.
The Tourist Office has a self-guided walking tour with street plaques to mark important sites. Or if you prefer, there are tour guides to show you around this unique city.
The Stunning Basilica:
While the art deco architecture of St Quentin is notable, any visit to the city should include the Basilica. Although there has been a church on the site since at least the mid-7th century, the oldest parts of the Basilica date back to the 12th century.
Throughout the years, the building was damaged at various points. By a large fire in 1545 and then again during the Spanish siege of 1557. Then during the French Revolution, it was damaged by Jacobins who converted it first into a ‘temple of reason’ then into a fodder store and stable. It was shelled during the Franco Prussian war too. But, it was during the First World War, when the city was occupied by German forces that the worst damage to the Basilica occurred.
Not only was it damaged by allied bombing but when French forces recaptured St Quentin, they discovered 93 holes had been dug into the walls and pillars and filled with explosives, ready to blow up the entire building, which was already severely damaged.
The basic restoration took 25 years. Amazingly, some of the original 13th century stained glass windows survived and were reinstalled in 1948. Those which had not survived were replaced with beautiful Art Deco style windows.
It’s possible to take a guided tour up into the bell tower and then across to look out over St Quentin. As you climb the stairs, you’ll pass the stunning organ, which dates in part back to 1702. During the First World War, the pipes were melted, the mechanism destroyed and the cabinet damaged. It wasn’t fully reconstructed until between 1961 and 1967.
You also get a birds-eye view of the 15th century Labyrinth made of black and white paving stones and 260 metres in length. My first sight of a religious labyrinth I was fascinated to learn that the concept was intended to provide an alternative in the middle ages to travelling on a pilgrimage. Instead, worshippers follow the labyrinth, sometimes on their knees, meditating and opening their heart to God.
From the rooftop, visitors can see the damaged flying buttresses and some of the bullet holes left by the continued fighting during the First World War. It’s a poignant place to spend some time, especially when you remember how close it came to total destruction.
Perfect Pastels at the Antoine Lecuyer Museum:
If you’ve spent your life collecting art and if you’ve focused on one particular artist, how do you make sure your collection is preserved properly? In the case of the Picard banker Antoine Lécuyer, the answer is to bequeath everything, together with a stunning building which can be used to exhibit the works and a fund to make sure they are properly managed.
That bequest is now the Antoine Lécuyer Museum. Like most of St Quentin, the building was almost completely destroyed during the First World War, but the art had already been sheltered and the new pavilion, built on the model of a Parisian 18th-century mansion was designed to house the collection of pastels by Maurice Quentin de la Tour.
If, like me, you have an image of pastels as saccharine sweet drawings of ladies in floaty dresses, prepare to be amazed by this collection. The portraits are so realistic they could be photos – and they provide a wonderful insight into French society in the eighteenth century.
Fact Box- Information Restaurants and Accommodation in or near St Quentin:
My visit to St Quentin in Aisne was part of a longer trip around the region and I didn’t stay there. My guide for the afternoon from the local tourist board offered to provide some recommendations for accommodation and food in St Quentin for those who have a chance to stay longer.
Here are her suggestions:
For downtown St Quentin, she recommends
Close to the centre of St Quentin is Echappée Zaisne, a self-catering apartment for 2 people with its own spa, sauna and hamman facilities
Right in the heart of St Quentin is La Filature, a charming Chambre d’Hôtes
If you are looking to eat in St Quentin I can recommend Le Grand Café l’Univers at 11 Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, where I enjoyed a traditional lunch in the Art Deco style restaurant, just across from the Hôtel de Ville.
My guide also recommends:
- Chez Jean, 4bis Rue de Lyon, 02100 Saint-Quentin, where she says the owners are warm and welcoming people, found of Art Déco and of the heritage of the town
- Le Troubadour, 5 Place du Palais de Justice, 02100 Saint-Quentin, run by an enthusiastic young team who are passionate about cooking.
- Or for classical French cooking, try Auberge de l’Ermitage
In the Tourist Office itself, you’ll find a lot of local craft products including beer, champagne, honey and bespoke artisan gifts together with literature about the City. They offer audio guides of the city to help visitors explore.
I was a guest of the Aisne Tourist Board . You can find more about this part of Picardy on their website and I will be sharing more over the next few weeks.
Thinking of visiting? Why not pin this post for later
Please check my previous feature for more ideas about easy trips from Paris.