Water, Wasser, L’eau

Les Hortillonnages - the cultivated peat islands of Amiens, France

Les Hortillonnages – the cultivated peat islands of Amiens, France

Looking through the twin lenses of water quality and water use in two European landscapes highlights a lengthy history of reshaping the environment.  

The German town of Freiburg (pop. 230,000) owns a network of narrow, shallow ‘baechle’ which cut through the cobbled streets. They are a mildly hazardous, distinctive feature of the town and an historic remnant of days when these diminutive urban canals were needed to provide water for drinking and quenching fires. Today, the waters are so clean that they are used to cool hot feet in the summer time, feed thirsty dogs and to sail specially designed miniature boats along.

They are regularly cleaned by a team of Baechleputzer – not just ordinary street sweepers. For a culture largely squeamish about dirty things and rigorous about hygiene (a visit to a public swimming pool is an obstacle course of cleansing treatments between changing rooms and the water…), to embrace the recreational opportunities offered by a series of urban canals is simultaneously odd and inspiring. The source of the water that lends Freiburg its charm is the Dreisamm which winds its way through grape-growing regions. No intensive dairying here!

By contrast was the murky Somme which runs through Amiens (pop. 140,000) in a series of canals. Vast marshy areas bordering the city centre were remodelled into cultivated peat islands accessible only by flat bottom boats. To one end of the city lie the Hortillonnages, originally 10,000 ha of productive gardens though now reduced to 300 ha. Boat tours guide you past gardens that are purely recreational (dinky ornaments and extravagant flowers in abundance), abandoned and being recolonised by trees or still growing fruit and vegetables. This is a gardening history that goes back two millennia. Further along the Somme, are more rustic allotments still dissected by canals though with sheds cobbled together largely from recycled materials. This part isn’t on the usual tourist map, but its none-the-less another piece of the city’s terrestrial and aquatic gardening history.

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