The Retirees go Abroad – Des Hortillonnages

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.

The Retirees go Abroad – Exploring Amiens France

We had arrived in Amiens the previous day and now we are exploring the old city. It is always a good idea to check out the Tourism information available for the city and its surrounds. We had located the train station from which our bus to the Australian War Memorial would depart at 03.15am tomorrow so we did not plan to exert ourselves too much. After finding the train station we obtained a map of the city and located the Office de Tourisme near the Cathedral Notre Dame.

Once in the Office de Tourisme, we learned that we could take a self-guided walk through the old city. Armed with the map and brochure, we set off. The first stop was the Cathedral in the Notre Dame quarter. Behind the cathedral we found the Bishops gardens. Sedate, green and colourful it was a pleasant change to the noise of the city. From the garden we passed into the lower town and entering the Saint – Leu quarter and Rue du Hocquet. This is where one will find the oldest houses of Amiens sited on the bank of the canal. Originally they were designed with a shop or merchants stand on the road level with living quarters above. Many had been restored but others were not even fit or safe for the pigeons. Some even needed bridges across the canal to their front doors.

Our journey followed the canals past the Church of Saint Leu and the Universite de Picardie Jules Verne. Amiens reminded us of Venice in some ways. This had also been a centre of industry with 25 watermills operating grinding wheat and woad leaf and other industries. We passed a number of different building styles but one building caught our eyes – this building had no right to be standing. A little further along we came to the Place Aristide- Briand where the typical building style of weatherboard at the ground floor and a first story in cob (a mixture of straw and clay pasted over slated timber then plastered. We also saw some of the residents of the canal.

From there we entered Rue Motte and its myriad of smaller streets echoing the trades of the past – rue des Arches (archers), rue des Clarions (bugles), passage des coches (horse drawn carriages). We were now close to the finish of our tour and we found ourselves in Rue Belu and near our apartment. Rue Belu is also known as Quai Belu but its former name had far more charm – Rue de la Queue de Vache (Cow Tail St.) as it was here that animals were brought to drink from a public trough. The drinking trough for animals is gone and replaced with human troughs – Restaurants.

So we returned to the Apartment to rest as we would be arising at 02.00am the next morning to travel to the dawn service. On the way we passed Pont du Cange the oldest bridge in Amiens still showing signs of the old fortifications that once protected the city and the Water Market where the “hortillons” (marsh vegetable farmers) brought their goods via the canals to the market. A market continues to operate on the site every Saturday. We planned to visit des Hortillonnages but after our rest.