If you like out-of-the-ordinary getaways and beautiful disheveled gardens, this cruise is for you. In the Somme, a few steps from the center of Amiens, lies a lagoon bristling with willows and poplars, dotted with tiny islets, interspersed with canals flowing a tobacco-colored water. A hidden world that one can discover the first beautiful days in autumn. Once up the boulevard of Alsace-Lorraine and past the bridge of Beauvillé, it is necessary to go down some narrow steps which sink under an arbor: there, opens an unsuspected marsh where all is more than tweets, croaking and lapping.
Powered by two rivers, the Somme and the Avre, this aquatic labyrinth is a haven of peace. The locals have always called it "hortillonnages". Derived from the Latin hortus (garden), this Picard name alone tells a long story. For nearly two thousand years, from Antiquity to the post-Second World War, these parcels of land were cultivated in huge floating vegetable gardens. "The soil has always been incredibly rich and permanent irrigation: there is no better way to grow vegetables!" Enthuses Jean-Louis Christen, one of the last professional market gardeners in the area. A century ago, more than a thousand farmers like him were still active. They sold their produce every day in the markets of Amiens and the surrounding area. In the 1960s, farmers almost disappeared, it was decided to fill the marsh to grow ... a ring road! It was to forget the visceral attachment of the Amiens for this eden feeder. An association fought for its preservation and gradually transformed it into a delightful refuge for Robinsons with the green hand.
Today, the hortillonnages still extend over 300 hectares (against 1500 at the Revolution). Hundreds of Sunday gardeners, nicknamed "hortillons", come to pamper their lost piece of land in the middle of the water. The most accurate maps and plans have given up long ago to reproduce the entire maze. But whether one has the seafoot or not, it is easy to navigate. Many owners have no choice but to row each day to join their plot. The widest waterways, which the Picards call "rieux", are explored in many ways: in canoes, private boats, electric minibikes. You can also follow a towpath by bike or on foot.
For a first approach, the ideal is to enjoy a guided tour aboard the electric gondolas chartered by the House of Hortillonnages. Ten meters long, they are the replica of the old "cornet boats" formerly used by market gardeners to transport vegetable cargoes. The walk is fabulous. Accompanied by a guide-boatman who knows the place like his pocket, we wander for an hour through the canals, discovering old manure ports and peat bogs, passing under wooden bridges and willows weeping more than ever .
If it allows only a quarter of the site to be discovered, this introduction makes it possible to savor the poetry of the pens that each owner arranges in his fashion with, in line of sight, a distinction at the annual flower gardens contest. Depending on the time of the season, you will witness explosions of tulips or peonies, the parade of battalions of arums or irises, armies of strawberries or leeks ... Here, a bed of grass and flares drawn four pins. There, a bohemian gardener decided to let nature do the job. Further on, plaster animals and garden gnomes adjoin a "logette", this wooden shed where tools and barbecue are stored.
On foot, by boat ...
In total, the hortillonnages form an extraordinary vegetable marquetry of 2500 cadastral lands. So many different universes. So many walks possible, according to his desires. We selected three:
- Sports version: to explore more deeply the canal network, nothing beats its own boat. Le Vert Galant restaurant, on the towpath, offers boat rentals (€ 5.50 / person). Our favorite goes to the Nautical Club Rivery, on the north shore of the hortillonnages, which organizes sporting outings but very accessible by canoe or kayak (to from 12 €/ person, 03 22 91 63 75 or hortillonnages-canoe.com). Accompanied by a state-certified guide, the walk leads to large fish ponds where mallard duck, gray heron and even some pairs of dwarf gophers, the smallest European herons, a rare species, flourish.
- Arty way: the marsh of Amiens welcomes one of the most interesting Land Art events in France. Launched by Gilbert Fillinger, the bubbling director of the House of Culture of Amiens, the festival Arts, Cities and Landscape Hortillonnages confronts contemporary creation and nature. A dozen installations are realized in situ each year by French or foreign artists. In addition, there are nearly twenty gardens, set on islands rehabilitated as part of the festival. We access these creative nuggets in an electric boat. The opportunity to see the places in a new staging and to walk in a part of the site that you never visit. Next edition: from June 11 to October 16, 2016, maisondelaculture-amiens.com.
- Spirit green hands. Most owners are passionate horticulture retirees. Real sinks of science! Wandering on the towpath and stopping to chat with those working in their garden can keep you busy for a whole day. To go further, visit Pascal Goujon, aka Paco. This young landscaper-gardener has created an exceptional space: the Jardin des virtueux. A park on the edge of the water to go without fail, especially if you are with your grandchildren. The place is made up of a giant kitchen garden, a gardening school and an educational park, with its woven willow labyrinth, its market garden hut and the Violet donkey, helped by two Ouessant sheep to mow the lawns. . Open from May to October, lejardindesvertueux.fr.
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