Compiègne has not only been a royal town and the seat of an imperial power and its palace, it is also an old city full of charm, with winding streets and half-timbered houses, affording delightful strolls.
On leaving the Hôtel de Ville, the Rue Saint-Corneille leads directly to the abbey of the same name, built on the site of the Merovingian palace. The Abbaye Notre Dame, which was to become Abbaye Saint-Corneille, was consecrated in 877 by Charles the Bald, who attempted to turn Compiègne into a second Aachen. In fact the Saint-Corneille Abbey played an important role for the monarchs of the Middle Ages. Many of them were crowned or buried there - the last to be laid to rest here was Henri III whose body (after his assassination) was to remain there for 21 years. All that remains of the Benedictine monastery today is the cloister and surrounding buildings dating from the 14th century and the remains of the 12th century south bell tower.
Continue down the Rue Saint-Corneille to Rue Jeanne d'Arc. At the end of the latter road stands the Hôtel Dieu Saint-Nicolas. This medieval hospital, founded by Philippe Auguste and rebuilt by Saint-Louis, contains a chapter house with carved wooden decoration and painting, and a chapel with a splendid Baroque sculpted wooden reredos. The building is however only open during exhibitions. Facing the hospital is the Tour Jeanne d'Arc (also known as the Tour Beauregard and the Grosse tour du Roi), the remains of a 12th-century royal keep. It formed part of the defences for the old bridge over the Oise. The first arches of this bridge can still be seen on the opposite bank of the river at the end of Rue Jeanne d'Arc.
Crossing the river into Rue d'Austerlitz brings you to the Musée Vivenel. Constructed in 1801, the building houses a remarkable collection of antiquities from the region, as well as an exceptional display of Greek vases. There are also Egyptian and regional antiquities, ivories, bronzes, and Flemish, French and Italian paintings. In fact the Greek vases come from the collection of Antoine Vivenel, an entrepreneur who helped in the building of the Paris Hôtel de Ville, and it is the largest collection of such items outside the Louvre. The museum is situated next to the Songeons park in which stand the arcades of the cloister of a Jacobin convent. (Musée Antoine Vivenel, 2, rue d'Austerlitz 60200 Compiègne tel.: +33 (0)3 44 20 26 04)
Go back up the Rue Austerlitz to the Eglise Saint-Antoine, built in the 13th and 17th centuries. The typically Renaissance porch, choir and ambulatory are interesting, but they are surpassed by the chevet with it apse and the smaller apses and their openwork balustrades. The Tournai stone fonts date from the 13th century and come from the Saint Corneille abbey. Of particular interest is a statue of the Virgin by Caffieri dated 1775.
Walking down the Rue Saint-Antoine and going beyond the Place au Change, you come to the very fine Neoclassical façade of the Salt Store, situated at the very beginning of Rue des Lombards. This rusticated portal with pediment was built by Claude Nicolas Ledoux in 1784 and at one time it formed the entrance to the Salt Store - the salt tax, the Gabelle, was one of the most hated. Today the store is a fish market. Continuing up the Rue des Lombards, at number 10 stands the Vieille Cassine, the oldest half-timbered house in Compiègne. This typically 15th-century house was once the residence of the Bridge Masters, that is, the boatmen.
Go on down this road as far as the Rue des Cordeliers and turn left where you will see the Eglise Saint-Jacques. This ancient royal parish church, made wealthy by gifts from Louis XV in 1765, was founded during the reign of Saint-Louis. It possesses some remarkable architecture, notably the openwork clerestorey and the balustrade of the choir which once surrounded the bed of Louis XVI at the palace of Compiègne. A side chapel houses the relics from the Saint-Corneille abbey, most notably a piece of the Virgin's veil. The bell tower has a lantern which was added in the 17th century. On 18 May 1430, Joan of Arc came to pray in Saint-Jacques and she returned again on 23 May, the day of her arrest.
Continue on towards the château and turn right onto the Rue des Minimes. Off to one side on the left stands Saint-Pierre des Minimes, the oldest church in Compiègne, dating from the 12th century. Deconsecrated many years ago, the building has been much rebuilt, however vestiges of coloured decoration in the pediment can still be seen. The building is soon to be used as exhibition space for temporary exhibitions.
Outside this circuit which goes round the centre of the town, the streets Rue de Vermonton and Rue de Fossés, Compiègne's ancient city walls (12th to 17th centuries), have been converted into a very pleasant walk.