Amiens: Meanderings Through France 7
Amiens, a city floating on waters
If you cross the Channel from Dover to Calais it will take you less than 2 hours to get to Amiens. You may never have heard about this city before, so why bother going there? There are actually several reasons why you would like to discover Amiens: its historical, architectural and gastronomic heritage and its famous “hortillonages” a large area of gardens surrounded by canals. The town is known as the Little Venice of Northern France since the Middle Ages because of its many canals going through it, allowing the construction of many textile mills and thus bringing prosperity to its inhabitants. During the 12th and 13th centuries, thanks to a staining plant call “guède”, the local dyers were able to make blue fabrics and clothes which became so popular that they soon made fortunes out of it. The cathedral and the beautiful houses of the city centre are the unmistakable remains of this time.
The cathedral “Notre Dame” is a gothic masterpiece. It is the largest cathedral of the world: it could hold the cathedral of Paris two times! It is 145 m long and its spire is 112 m high. In spite of its size it took only 70 years to build it. Fortunately the massive scale bombings of the 2 World Wars spared this magnificent building. Before going inside don’t miss the 3000 statues, gargoyles and chimeras of the façade. Thanks to a meticulous cleaning using laser technology, traces of the original colours used to decorate the façade during the Middle Ages were found. Those very same colours are used for a light show going on every summer giving it back its original aspect. This year the show will take place from June 15th until September 9th, beginning at 10:45 pm in June, 10:30 pm in July and at 10 pm in August. Inside the cathedral you might feel overwhelmed by the gigantic vault reaching 42 m high. Don’t miss the mysterious labyrinth drawn on the floor and the numerous bas-reliefs.
If you enjoyed reading Jules Verne’s stories you must visit the house where he lived from 1882 and 1900. The house must have been a great source of inspiration since he wrote over 30 novels during these 18 years. In 2000 the city of Amiens was able o acquire an amazing collection counting 30 000 artefacts gathered by an Italian collector, Pierro Gondollo della Riva, who was fascinated by Jules Verne and the world he imagined. In 2006 the house was entirely restored and decorated with 700 of these artefacts. Visiting the house is not only discovering Jules Verne’s way of life, it also gives you the feeling that Captain Nemo, Phileas Fogg or Cyrrus Smith lived here as well.
Located close to the heart of the city the “hortillonages” is a marshy area where farmers grow vegetables and fruits since 2000 years. Along the centuries men created islands and canals designing a man made landscape where wild plants and animal, especially birds, still are ubiquitous. Although the “hortillonages” are not as large as they used to be they still occupy 750 acres with 10 farmers called “hortillons”, taking care of them. They grow organic products the fields being fertilized with the silt from the canals. You can buy those seasonal fruits and vegetables on the Saturday market which is getting more and more popular in Amiens.
There are two ways to visit the “hortillonages”: by foot or on boats. From April 1st till October 31st you can rent a boat with an electric engine, no you won’t need to row and the engine is almost silent. Sailing along the canals allows you to slow down, enjoying the quietness and beauty of this preserved area. You can also walk or ride a bicycle on the former towpaths and discover the “hortillonages” at your own rhythm.
Every year in June the farmers organise a “water market”, a revival of an ageless tradition: dressed in traditional costumes they berth the embankments with their boats filled with heaps of fresh products. Then they set their stalls on the banks and anyone can buy fruits, flowers and vegetables. This year the water market will be held on June 22nd from 10 am till 1 pm.
To liven up the “hortillonages” throughout the summer an Art Festival welcomes young designers and artists. They create huge works of art that you will be able to discover from your boat or from the paths going through the fields and gardens: a stroll through nature and art.
After walking so much you might get hungry! There are many local specialities you can taste: the “Flamiche”, a leek tart probably is the best known. Created by a chef from Amiens in the 1950’s the “Ficelle Picarde” is a mouth watering “crêpe au gratin”, filled with ham, mushrooms and fresh cream. And for desert why not try the “Gateau Battu” a local cake cooked in a round and high cake tin or a “Coechon d’oeillette” a turnover filled with a poppy seeds paste.
On a sunny weekend you can decide on a whim to go to Amiens, it’s easy to get there and easy to find an accommodation fitting any budget.
Text © Annick Dournes and Frederic de Poligny
Photos © Frederic de Poligny
About Annick Dournes & Frederic De Poligny
|Annick Dournes and Frederic de Poligny are two French tourism journalists who travel the world for many years. They will share with you their very favourite experiences of worldwide travels. Those about France, their native country, will be found on a regular basis in their chronicle “Meanderings through France”. Web|