by Norman Smith
No matter how many times I go to France - which is as often as possible - I always find something new. And on a recent visit I found it in the valley of the Somme, an area I knew little about and had frequently driven past on the way south, to the sun.My discovery was one of the sublime combined with the poignant, and sometimes the harrowing, because this is where hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and the landscape, towns and villages ravaged in the horrific battles of the First World War.Even today, you can see the scars, particularly of the deadly trench warfare of 1916 when so many young men from Britain, France, the Commonwealth and, of course, Germany died in bitter fighting. The effects of warfare can still be seen - in the trenches, some carefully preserved, the shell holes and most notably in the huge mine craters such as the one of Lochnagar at La Boisselle.It is 300ft in diameter and 90ft deep, created by a massive explosion after British sappers had dug their way under no-man's land. The blast was intended to disrupt German defences, but made little impression. It makes a striking impression now however, as a memorial.There are memorials, and cemeteries, all over the battlefields area. Thousands of the graves bear no names and many of the memorials name thousands with no known graves. You can get some grasp of events and their history by following the poppy-marked Circuit of Remembrance between the cities of Albert and Peronne. It's a moving journey.Perhaps the most impressive memorial is the Franco-British one at Thiepval, a 45m-high monument designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens as a tribute to more than 73,000 soldiers with no known graves. The Thiepval Visitor Centre has an impressive range of displays and exhibits giving insights to the Battle of the Somme and what is described as the Great War.Human remains and the machinery of war are still being found in the countryside.Another site well worth a visit is the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel, with its trenches and caribou monument. The Newfoundland forces were decimated in the Somme and they are remembered here in a striking tribute, which has a visitor centre staffed by volunteer Canadian students.Australian, South African, Irish, Indian, Welsh, French, German and more - all are represented and remembered at various spots.Superb museums and cultural centres have been established in the area, most notably the Historial, Museum of the Great War - a modern structure almost built in to an old chateau in Peronne - and the Somme 1916 Museum set up in a tunnel that became a Second World War air raid shelter in Albert. Compelling glimpses of a bloody past.At times you need escape from what appears to have been futile waste and there are plenty of places to pause for thought and refreshment. We stopped off for lunch in Albert at the Basilique restaurant, which is close to the museum and seemed appropriate.Away from the battlefields, this is a huge area with so much to see and do that you could not fit it all in during a brief visit, but there are short breaks with specific themes such as golf, bird-watching and a city break in Amiens to tempt you into frequent trips or longer stays. And not much temptation will be needed.You could spend days exploring the Bay of Somme on the Picardy coast - a huge expanse of sea, marshes, mud flats, vegetation and sand dunes. The tides fluctuate over miles, with seals and sheep among the regular residents. However, for me, the birds are the star attraction.In the Parc du Marquenterre trails with carefully positioned hides let you watch the thousands of migratory and native birds that occupy the bay's nature reserve. Enjoy close-ups of spoonbills, storks, grebes, egrets and ducks of all shapes and sizes, among the huge range of species, some extremely rare.I could have spent many hours there, but there was more to see. You can discover this beautiful area on foot, by bike, on horseback, by boat or on the vintage train of the Bay of Somme Railway. The water-sports enthusiasts will be in their element, and the Somme department is a fishman's paradise.We spent the night and had dinner at the Cap Hornu Hotel in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, but you can take your pick from a large number of places to stay and, for a bit of pampering, try the spa at Les Corderies across the bay.Cities don't usually hold much appeal for me, but having been driven inland to Amiens, I found more of the sublime, not least in the magnificent Notre-Dame Cathedral, an immense Gothic limestone structure that dwarfs the Notre-Dame in Paris. Inside and out, Amiens' cathedral is breath-taking and, in the summer, light shows restore the medieval colours to the statues of apostles, saints and others that adorn the portals and arches.The cathedral is open all year round and you can get guided tours. What you will learn is fascinating.More delight came in a small boat, called a barque a cornet, which gently cruised through the Hortillonnages - known as the floating gardens - more than 300 hectares of small, cultivated island gardens interspersed by miles of narrow, river-fed waterways rich in wildlife. Picture an uncaring grebe with chicks on her back. Tranquility.There are active pursuits as well, for Amiens also has a bustling side and a lively night-life with loads of bars, bistros and fine restaurants. Lots of places to stay too, from bed and breakfast to hotels like the Mercure Cathedral, a modern establishment in a city steeped in history. It's not difficult to see why Jules Verne chose to settle here, though having married a local girl may have helped.Having been on a journey of dramatic contrasts, I will go back, perhaps to explore different aspects one at a time. It could take a while.FactfileFor tourist information go to www.visit-somme.com and for a wide range of weekend breaks www.weekend-picardy.co.uk will guide you to what you need to know.We travelled by P&O Ferries (www.POferries.com or phone 08716 646464) from Dover to Calais with a crossing time of one hour, 30 minutes. Fares start at £30 each way for a car and up to nine passengers; an upgrade to Club Lounge with free Champagne, newspapers etc., costs £12 per passenger. The drive time to Picardy is about one hour, 40 minutes.LD Lines' crossings from Dover to Boulogne start from £35 single for a car and two passengers. Crossing time time is one hour, 45 minutes and drive time to Picardy one hour, 15 minutes.LD/Transmanche Ferries have two return sailings daily between Newhaven and Dieppe with a crossing time of four hours. Drive time to Picardy is one hour, 30 minutes. Fares start from £55 each way for spring summer offers for a car and two passengers. Check it out on www.ldlines.com or phone 0844 576 8836.Other cross-Channel operators are Eurotunnel (www.eurotunnel.com), SeaFrance (www.seafrance.com) and Norfolkline (www.norfolkline.com).