Sail away to the historic gardens of Amiens
The hortillonnages are floating market gardens, cultivated since the Middle Ages on a maze of canals, on the edge of the city. No one knows how old they are, but according to legend, the Cathedral of Amiens was built on a field of artichokes donated by the market gardeners in the 13th century. The best way to experience this historic heritage site is by guided electric (environmentally friendly) boat tour (from April to October). It’s incredible to see the city’s Cathedral spire in the background while you spot dragon flies, wild birds and even herons on the tranquil waterways. The lush, flower filled island gardens reflect a close relationship between man and nature and make for a unique nature escape right in the heart of the metropolis.
The wonderful water market
The weekly Saturday morning market along the pretty Quai Belu in the old district of Saint Leu, in the shadow of the Cathedral has a lovely, festive atmosphere. The market on the water as it’s known, is where the market gardeners of the hortillonnages sell their produce and have done so for centuries. Almost everything here comes from the hortillonnages or around the Somme area - from flowers and vegetables to wild herbs, cheese, honey, charcuterie and even beer. Every third Saturday in June, the market gardeners arrive by traditional flat bottomed boat to sell their goods at the “Marche sur l’eau” (water market). It’s a very colourful and festive event and the market traders dress in medieval costume in this homage to the days of old when market trade was conducted from boats. It’s a delicious day out and lots of fun.
International Art and Gardens Festival
The hortillonnages are also a most amazing outdoor art gallery when each year an Art & Garden festival is held from June to October. 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. There’s a firm emphasis on sustainability and our relationship with nature at this festival: a wall made from recycled drinks cans, a repurposed phone box in which you can listen to the sounds of insects and water plants. This is one of the most unusual and beautiful garden festivals I’ve ever been to.
Chroma at the Cathedral
The Chroma immersive night-time light show at the UNESCO listed Gothic Cathedral of Amiens, the biggest in France, is exquisite. By day the Cathedral attracts pilgrims and tourists eager to see its vast interior, filled with statues and frescoes, soaring vaulted ceiling and to feel its majestic presence, witness to eight centuries of history. At night though, it’s an altogether different place as the exterior of the cathedral is smothered in a technicolour light performance in a show that makes audiences gasp in wonder. This free 50 minute show runs throughout the summer, as well as in December during the Christmas market, and is an absolute must-see. State of the art projection technology creates a truly magical experience under a night sky. As dusk falls, take your place in the cobbled Cathedral square and prepare to be amazed by a whirlwind of sound and light which bring the magnificently encrusted façade and sculptures to life.
The Historic House of Jules Verne
Jules Verne wrote dozens of books that have thrilled millions for more than 100 years and many of them were written here in the centre of Amiens where Verne lived for 18 years. His 19th century mansion has been restored to look just as it did in the late 1800s when he filled his rooms with the reference books, geographical surveys and scientific reports which inspired his fantastic stories of journeys to the centre of the earth, the moon, under the sea and around the world in 80 days. His study looks as if he’s just popped out, wood panelled walls have the patina of history embedded in them and there’s a fabulous collection of books, posters and even models – including a flying machine Verne imagined before aircraft were invented. It’s a fascinating visit.
Where to eat out
Overlooking the river Somme, at the entrance to the hortillonnages, Au Fil de l’Eau restaurant is lovely inside but even more so outside on a sunny day. Seated on a terrace that makes you feel as if you’re in a treehouse, or in a flower filled garden courtyard, you’ll feel like you’ve escaped to the country. The menu is typically French with fresh and seasonal products and local classics such as Ficelle Picarde, a savoury pancake topped with a creamy sauce and utterly delicious. Make sure you leave room for dessert, the cakes are divine.
In the historic Saint Leu district, at the foot of the Cathedral, Le Quai restaurant is hugely popular with the locals. In its prime position in Quai Belu overlooking the canal, it’s great for a coffee, glass of wine and cocktail, and even better for lunch or dinner. The staff are friendly, the menu is terrific with an emphasis on fresh regional products, classic French brasserie dishes, delicious salads and excellent vegetarian options. The “terroir menu” is superb: my salmon from the Baie of the Somme, Ratte du Touquet potatoes, a speciality of northern France, and lemon shortbread biscuits infused with Genièvre de Houlle, a gin-like alcohol produced in the region, were simply sublime…
Brasserie Jules is an institution in the city and a family favourite for Sunday lunch. Paris brasserie style with gleaming brass and plush red banquettes, Jules Verne (in a photo) seems to look on approvingly while artworks depicting scenes from his tales decorate the walls. The seafood platters here are legendary, piled high with the freshest of shellfish, and the most succulent oysters. My seabass with fresh vegetables washed down with a chilled white wine from Alsace was a perfect match. Afterwards treat yourself to a seriously scrumptious dessert from a superb sweet menu including the “Tour Gourmand” – a selection of 8 petite desserts. Go on, you know you want to!
Where to stay: Cabin in the Hortillonnages
As I sat in the garden of my B&B, it was almost impossible to believe I was in the middle of a busy city and yet on my own little island paradise. In the heart of the hortillonnages, accessible by a tiny bridge over a ribbon of water, my beautiful cabin for two was an island escape that lifts the spirits. I felt like the star of my own Robinson Crusoe story as I crossed little wooden footbridges to explore the islands all around me, lilies floated on the calm canals, roses and willows dipped down to the water’s edge as the air was filled with the song of frogs and birds. After a peaceful night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast delivered to my door, I felt totally relaxed and ready for anything…
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