We were drifting along a tracery of slender channels over which little wooden bridges arched steeply. Waterfowl ducked and dived around the boat, part of a wildlife menagerie of more than 100 bird species found here. My guide Alexis Lefevre was steering us through a network of more than 65km of public channels, known in French as rieux. A quiet electric engine pushed us gently through lily-covered water with minimal disturbance to the tranquil surrounds.
We were in the Hortillonnages in Amiens in northern France, a unique urban wetland that Lefevre described simply as "paradise in the city". Here, the River Somme does far more than wind through the town; since medieval times, the river's marshy hinterland has been slowly fragmented and moulded by the city's inhabitants to create a 300-hectare watery kingdom.
The Hortillonnages came into being in when locals started to dig peat from the marshy earth to burn as fuel. Over centuries, the complex network of trenches they cut filled with water from the ceaseless flow of the Somme, creating an intricate filigree of channels that have led Amiens to be dubbed "the Venice of the North".
The waterways also created hundreds of tiny, fertile islands or "floating gardens", which have been used for eight centuries by locals for cultivation and recreation. The islands were farmed by growers known as hortillons – also the ancient word for each small, cultivated patch – derived from the Latin hortellus, meaning "little garden".
The slender channels of the Hortillonnages are connected by bridges and traversed by boat (Credit: Claude Thibault/Alamy)
That Latin derivation nods back to Amiens' ancient roots. Known in pre-Roman times as Samarobriva, Amiens became Ambianum under Roman rule, when it was a key centre of the Roman Empire in France (or Gaul, as it was) and boasted at least twice the population of what is now Paris, 120km to the south.
That eminence is reflected by the presence of France's largest cathedral, a soaring 13th-Century Gothic landmark whose facade is exuberantly decorated with more than 1,000 statues and carvings, from saints and tradesfolk to depictions of sins. In a neat act of communion uniting the twin glories of Amiens, legend has it that the epic cathedral was built on an artichoke field donated by one of the hundreds of medieval farmers who cultivated the fertile soil of the Hortillonnages. Legend also suggests that in return for his act of charity in providing the land, the cathedral builders placed a statue of the artichoke farmer on its façade.
While past centuries saw several hundred hortillons working here full-time, the arrival of modern conveniences, like supermarkets from the 1950s onward, spurred a sharp decline in their numbers, and there are now only around 10 or so full-time market gardeners cultivating crops in the Hortillonnages. Those remaining, however, still transport a tempting array of fresh produce and flowers from their plots every Saturday to pile high in an atmospheric outdoor food market on the river quayside at Place Parmentier in the heart of Amiens.
In the past, the hortillons would ferry their produce in traditional vessels nicknamed barques à cornet (horn boats) – long boats with a raised pointed end, whose shallow draught and wide flat decks were tailormade to navigate the channels of the Hortillonnages. Today, many of these striking boats have been pressed into service to carry visitors along various routes through the maze.
On Saturdays, produce from the Hortillonnages is sold at an outdoor food market at Place Parmentier (Credit: Norman Miller)
In addition to food allotments and tourism, the vast array of tiny islands now also features eye-catching art installations, as well as areas of wilderness that provide a natural resource not just for relaxation, but education and social well-being programmes, too.
Some of these diverse uses come together at a place like Le Jardin des Vertueux (The Garden of the Virtuous). Created more than 15 years ago, and still overseen by Pascal Goujon (more commonly known to locals simply as Paco), this abandoned and overgrown spot in the wilder eastern section of the Hortillonnages has been transformed into a quirky Garden of Eden celebrating ecology, sustenance and creativity.
A sense of its former wildness remains alongside vegetable plots and giant artworks – which Goujon describes as "vegetal sculptures" – crafted with local materials, such as willow, by local artists working with schoolchildren. Goujon and his small team of helpers, like Lefevre, also take children out on boating safaris to discover the natural workings of the Hortillonnages– an ecosystem judged distinctive enough to earn Ramsar status accorded to wetlands of international significance.
When I visited, Goujon rattled off an impressive list of the crops he grows here: beans, potato, courgette, radish, tomato, melon, corn, berries, apple, pear and plums. "The ground here is very, very good – we can have three harvests a year," he said. There are unusual new crops planned too, such as the herb angelica. "We are going to use it to make perfumes," said Goujon , telling me of its long-time historical role as a source of musky aromatic notes in luxury scents.
A few miles from central Amiens in the satellite village of Rivery, I stepped into another boat to discover a very different side of the Hortillonnages: a remarkable "gallery" of art installations set into the landscape, many fashioned from natural materials. Often known as "land art", these creations stretched from the northern section of the Hortillonnages toward the city centre.
As we glided around the rieux near Rivery, I admired a 2019 piece by Simon Augade called Affaisement. It rose from the bank of an island out into the waters of a little lake called Étang de Clermont, and featured an angled rising line of thin scorched wood holding up a pale column – a metaphor of fragile nature holding up an example of a man-made structure for millennia.
Art by Patrice Dion livens up a trail on an island in the Hortillonnages (Credit: Norman Miller)
These works amid the Hortillonnages are the fruit of the International Garden Festival, inaugurated in 2010 to provide a stirring canvas for artists and landscape designers to create site-specific works within the marshscape. Over its dozen years, more than 180 pieces have been shown, though most are removed each year to make way for fresh ones. Just fewer than 50 installations have been kept as a more long-term collection, however, to which a dozen new works have been added for this year's showcase.
"The festival is about helping inspire young creatives," explained Nahil Wehbe, who oversees boat tours around the festival artworks. As she steered our boat, she told me of the diverse background of contributing artists. "This year we have artists from Togo, Japan, Belgium, the US and Taiwan – but also local art students from Amiens."
We have long-term unemployed come to help take care of the gardens around the works
There are social benefits woven into this art festival, too. "We have long-term unemployed come to help take care of the gardens around the works," said Wehbe. "It gives people who are struggling a chance to work in nature and feel they can contribute. We see really good results."
Nosing through channels punctuated by little lakes, we jumped off at various points to get up close to different thought-provoking works. Roques by artist Atelier Faber for example, is a square structure constructed for the 2020 festival from reclaimed wood, enclosing a space of exactly 20 sq m – which Wehbe explained refers to the amount of agricultural land being lost to modern development in France every second.
It was a simple but forceful reminder of the importance of local food production, which the city council actively support, as Wehbe explained. "The city is now giving islands for free to help the hortillons," she said. "And we have a lot of projects planting vegetable gardens at high schools."
The Musée des Hortillonnages provides insights into the lives of hortillons via an extensive collection of material, equipment and photos (Credit: Visit Amiens)
On another island, an installation entitled 3 Kilomètres à la Ronde highlighted the biodiversity of the Hortillonnages, referring to the average distance a bee travels daily to gather its panoply of different pollen. "And we give honey from the island to a local association that helps people who don't have food," added Wehbe.
Near the boat embarkation point in Rivery, the Musée des Hortillonnages also provides insights into human labour in the marsh landscape, featuring traditional items that illustrate the working lives of Amiens' market gardeners, assembled by two current hortillons, Thérèse and René Nowak. "My motivation in creating the museum was to present my job through tools and photos of the Hortillonnages through time," said Thérèse. "But I am proud that I still grow good local produce to sell."
Asked about her favourite objects, she picked out the full-sized traditional horn boat as an obvious big-ticket item, before adding: "But the everyday tools – such as tillers for the soil – are as important too."
On my last afternoon, I ventured into the Hortillonnages on foot, entering through a gate off the main riverside towpath at a spot known as Île aux Fagots. Though this entrance to the gardens was only 15 minutes' walk from the bustle of central Amiens, I was enveloped in silence within minutes of entering.
I traversed a few islands, wandering along trails winding through dense vegetation, and came to a path displaying an artwork called Pan by Patrice Dion. Featuring giant images of leaves transferred onto fabric using a historical photographic technique based on sunlight, it brought together nature, history, tranquillity and creativity. Just like the Hortillonnnages themselves.
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