We had learned for the Office de Tourisme that it is possible to visit the floating gardens called “Des Hortillonnages” in electric powered boats in the shape of the traditional “horn boat” of the “hortillons” which take visitors through the channels for about 45 minutes. You can also kayak or walk on some towpaths.
Known as Des Hortillonnages, the floating gardens of Amiens is a space of 300 hectares of former marshes located east of Amiens, drained and channelled (probably in the Gallo-Roman times) to create usable fields for cultivation vegetables. The floating gardens have been cultivated for about 2,000 years. Today, due to urban sprawl, there are only 300 hectares of the original 10,000 hectares. A thousand people lived on floating gardens of vegetable growing.
This activity has been in decline since the 1950s and was at risk of being lost when in 1974, the construction of a ring road through the site threatened the floating gardens. In 1975, the Association for the protection and preservation of the floating gardens (Association pour la Protection et la Sauvegarde du Site de L’Environnment des Hortillonnages – APSSEH) was created. The association now works for its preservation (clearing and bank stabilization). It also has maintained the “Water market” at Place Parmentier at the foot of the cathedral and has organized since 1982 boat tours of the site for the general public.
Most of the floating gardens have been transformed into ornamental gardens but in recent years, there has been a gardening revival with two organic farming market projects; the Garden Virtuous (ecological and educational landscape garden) and the Moon Hortillon (Jean Louis Christen, producer maraicher),and others are in the pipeline.
The channels are fed by the waters of the Somme and its tributary the Avre. The floating gardens are composed of a multitude of alluvial islands, surrounded by 65 kilometers of waterways called “rieux” in Picard and ditches that serve as drainage and the irrigation. The traditional horn boats once used by hortillons are on the decrease.
So we walked over to the office of APSSEH and tried to buy a ticket. “Non” said a rather rough looking chap behind the desk. We had to wait til 13.30 to buy tickets. We wandered off to get some lunch and return at 13.30. On returning there were people milling around uncertain of what to do with the office door locked – for lunch of course. These were French people who obviously could not read the sign in French which we had mistakenly read as Purchase tickets before 13.30. So we lingered at the gate until a pleasant plump French woman came to the gate and let us in and all the French followed.
Having purchased the ticket we waited at the quay until the horn boat was ready. We climbed in and the voyage commenced. For a moment we thought some part of the journey would include an English commentary. The “gondolier” asked if we spoke English. Then he said “keep your hands inside the boat”. That was it for the English commentary.
Even though we could not understand the commentary, it was a pleasant cruise which at sometimes was quite cool. We passed a fisherman trying his hand, sailed up shady canals passed “weekenders” and some ploughed fields, a boat which although out of service was still useful as a pot plant, a local doing a bit of gardening (note the radishes), some scarecrows and some recent residents of the channels.
After the tour we strolled back to the apartment via the Spa store and picked up some supplies to help us drink that bottle of Bordeaux. After catching up on our sleep we farewelled Amiens, Henri and Isobel early in the morning to catch the 12.30 ferry from Calais.