It’s not often that I’m lost for words. Some say if there was a medal for talking, I’d win gold. But, when I went to Amiens and discovered les hortillonnages, I was dumbstruck. How had I visited before and missed this incredible natural treasure of the city? Apparently many people miss it, but if you go, definitely make time to visit this absolute jewel of northern France.
The Floating Gardens of Amiens
A short walk from the centre of this busy city, following the line of the river which runs along the quay of the historic Saint Leu district, brings you to Les Hortillonnages. A vast patchwork of market and floral gardens, they cover a whopping 1.6 square miles and are criss-crossed by more than 40 miles of small canals. And the best bit is – you can hop in a boat and take a guided tour. Or hire a boat and float around. Explore some of the islands. Spot wildlife and soak up the very special ambience of these ancient waterways formed by the Somme River and their astonishing floating islands.
When King Louis XI visited Amiens in the 15th century he called it “my little Venice” referring to its watery arteries. And it’s easy to see why. The hortillonnages are an oasis of wild nature. Tamed patches are full of flowers, small boats are the preferred form of transport to get to the quirky buildings and beautiful huts.
Hortillonnages is not a word you’ll come across often and possibly not outside of Amiens. And me telling you that it means market gardens won’t in any way convey just how utterly amazing they are. From the middle ages, the hortillonnages have made Amiens famous throughout France. An enormous network of ancient canals peppered with island gardens. They lie in the shadow of the world famous Cathedral, right on the edge of the city.
It’s incredible to find that one moment you’re in a teeming metropolis and the next in tranquil waters. Dragon flies, butterflies and birds flit about, water lilies bob on the surface. There are still around ten professional gardeners growing vegetables and fruit here. They sell their produce at the weekly market in the medieval St Leu district, alongside the river. Most of the gardens are worked by keen owners, handed down through families for generations.
Market gardens of the Middle Ages
The market gardens go way back in time, probably to the days of the Romans. But it was in the middle ages that gardeners started to plant the floating gardens and grow vegetables. It’s said that the great Cathedral of Amiens was built on a field once used to grow artichokes, donated by gardeners in the 13th century to the church.
For centuries, market gardeners grew vegetables here. They piled their punts high with fresh produce and poled their way to the market in Saint Leu. The market is still there, every Saturday morning, stalls laid out along the waters edge, but the goods arrive by road now.
The little wooden chalets where the growers lived have been replaced by weekend huts and bungalows. There are just a handful of commercial growers left, known as hortillons. The rest of the islands are filled with flowers. It’s very beautiful and very tranquil. It’s easy to spend a few hours here daydreaming and listening to the birds sing, bees buzz and frogs croak.
Once a year, in June, the Town Festival takes place. Locals dress in traditional costume and row their boats up the Somme, loaded with fruit and veg, to the market in Saint Leu.
Visit Les Hortillonages
You can explore this lush mosaic of wetlands in an eco-friendly electric flat bottomed boat from April to October. Take a guided tour from Boulevard Beauvillé, which is necessary as you could easily get lost on this watery labyrinth. www.hortillonnages-amiens.fr
Or hire a boat from the other side of the water, it’s a long walk or a short drive to the departure point at Port à Fumier, rue Roger Allou, Camon district.
Each year a unique Art & Garden festival takes place in the hortillonnages – an outdoor art gallery which spills into the water and on islands and riverbanks. From June to October some 50 artworks are installed on the islands and in the water, some of them monumental, all of them extraordinary.
The only way to see them all is by electric boat and you can take a self-guided tour. Follow the circuit, all the islands featured in the festival have pontoons where you can tie up your boat and then wander freely. Read more about the Art & Garden Festival of Amiens
And, if you ‘d like to taste the delicious produce, head to the Saint-Leu district on Saturdays to buy direct at the water market.