If you’re staying at one of the Sandboys gites in September, you will have the benefit of all the summertime facilities of the seaside town of Fort Mahon, but with far fewer people about. The weather is often just as good as in July or August, too. Of course, after a while, the long wide beaches, rolling dunes, picturesque fishing harbours, bird sanctuaries, nature reserves, wave pools, golf courses, and other sporting and leisure facilities on the coast may begin to pall. That’s when you should consider a day out inland for a change.
Less than an hour’s drive from Fort Mahon, you’ll find the fine city of Amiens. There’s a magnificent cathedral, of course, the biggest in France, excellent shops, art galleries, museums (including the house where Jules Verne lived and wrote) and hundreds of restaurants and cafes, but the sight-seeing trip we suggest is to “Les Hortillonages”.
These gardens form a patchwork of 300 hectares (1.6 square miles) of vegetable, fruit, and flower gardens in the heart of Amiens. They are interlaced with 40 miles of small canals, known as “rieux” in the Picardy dialect, and you can visit them in special electrically-driven boats modelled on the market gardeners’ own traditional “barques à cornet”.
Les Hortillonages, surrounded by the Avre and the Somme rivers, have been cultivated since the Middle Ages. You will find them a peaceful and picturesque place, seemingly far from the modern bustle and noise of the city, yet within sight of the cathedral towers. This idyllic place is the work of generations of men and women who have created their fertile market gardens on land reclaimed from the river marshes. Until the early 20th century, fruit and vegetables from the Hortillonages fed the city of Amiens. Now, this rich land, which can produce up to 3 harvests per year, still supplies a regular Saturday fruit and vegetable market in the city, as well as an annual quayside floating market festival, where the growers in traditional costume sell produce direct from their boats.
You can expect to find radishes, cauliflowers, turnips, lettuce, leeks, artichokes, potatoes, carrots, onions and many other vegetables, as well as blackcurrants, redcurrants and even melons, on sale fresh from the Hortillonnages producers.