The three big wonders of the Vendée, France – stunning sandy beaches stretching for miles, the glorious countryside of the bocage, dramatic, unspoiled and littered with picturesque villages, and the Marais Poitevan – a network of canals, lush landscape and pretty hamlets known as the Green Venice says writer and Vendée local Lucy Pitts…
For anyone who doesn’t know, the Vendée is nestled about an hour south of the Loire valley in a basin of warm Mediterranean weather and diverse landscape. Just on the cusp of where north meets south and almost entirely surrounded by the Poitou Charente region, it’s blessed with being the second sunniest department in France whilst at the same time being a reasonable driving distance from the UK. It’s a curious mixture of historical interest, outstanding natural beauty and tourist attractions and an area that once you’ve visited, will leave you wanting more.
A dip into the Atlantic sea off the Vendée
The Vendée’s legendary sandy beaches stretch over hundreds of kilometres and more often than not are lined with pine forests and sand dunes. They’re home to white washed fishing villages, narrow streets and quayside restaurants in a mixture of bustling holiday resorts and more traditional harbour towns. This is an area which is great for family summer holidays with water sports, rock pooling or night life in abundance. There is St. Jean de Mont (an iconic holiday resort) to the north, the vibrant port of Les Sables d’Olonne with its quirky shops and buzzing harbour further south and La Tranche and La Faute sur Mer (which between them boast 18 km of beach), clinging to the bottom of the region.
Although in the summer the region can feel full to bursting, out of season nothing prepares you for the sheer vastness and beauty of the beaches and the pretty villages take on a crisp and ghostly feel. St. Gilles Croix de Vie, a quintessential fishing port with a winding coastal road and “belle époque” villas is a great place to stop for lunch or for the more adventurous head to one of the regions two islands, that of Noirmoutier renowned for the yellow flowers of its Mimosa trees and the weather beaten Ile d’Yeu, which time almost seems to have forgotten.
A meander around the Bocage of the Vendée
But the Vendee is about a lot more than just the coast and inland the region splits into two very distinctive halves. The Bocage (countryside) to the north is a combination of rolling hills, dramatic lakes and rivers and historic, fortified market towns with 2,000 hectares of unspoilt forest at its core. As an area that has been ravaged over the centuries by a series of wars and rebellions and is steeped in history, here you’ll find the ubiquitous sunflower fields and vineyards and can head to the lake at Mervent for fresh water swimming, gentle water sports and lakeside dinning.
This is the region for peak season where you can still explore the many footpaths without hitting the tourist trail. And from the renaissance town of Fontenay Le Comte with the remains of its walled medieval castle to fortified Vouvant (one of the plus beaux villages de France) with its stunning vistas down over the river Mere, there are a dozen beautiful, little towns oozing history, intrigue and charm where you can while away the time.
Sail south to the Marais Poitevin, Vendée
I’m always struck by the dramatic change in scenery when you leave Fontenay and head south. Suddenly the lush undulating landscape gives way to something flatter, with roadside melon sellers, crickets on a summer evening and a much more Mediterranean feel.
Here, stretching from the Deux Sevres across the Vendée and into the Charente Maritime in a rather meandering sort of way, is the beautiful region of the Marais Poitevin. It’s a sleepy labyrinth of canals lined with poplars and weeping willows also known as Green Venice which was first created in the 10th century by monks and later refined by the Dutch. Here you’ll find punting, artists and the stone cottages of Arcais with its Angelica liquor and twisting streets, the pretty village of Benet and the waterside town of Damvix.
A slice of something special in the Vendée
Of course it’s hard to do justice to such a diverse region in only a few paragraphs. I’ve been visiting for nearly 30 years, as a 20, 30 and now 40 something with children in tow and each time I visit I find something new. This year it was the floating market at Le Vanneau, swimming at Lac Rochereau and a terrific little hill side restaurant tucked in the back of beyond just outside Chantonnay.
And of course the Vendée is home to great local dishes such as Jambon-Mogettes and Brioche de Vendée, local wines and fantastic cycling, walking, fishing and family activities, not to mention the many colourful personalities of the area. So as I head back there next week to enjoy an Autumn climate much kinder than the UK’s, as always I’ll be on the lookout for the next new delicacy and surprise which I’ve yet to discover in the Vendée.
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and owns a property in the Vendée. She spent 14 years as a London barrister before throwing in the legal towel, having 3 children in quick succession and buying her dream house in France. She divides her time between the UK and the Vendée.