The achievements of our ancestors sometimes defy belief and never has that been more so than when it comes to the vast marshland area of the Vendée, known as the Marais Poitevin. Stretching across three departments (namely the Deux Sevres in the east, down to the Charente Maritime in the south and right across the southern Vendée to the Atlantic coast) this is an area which has a unique story to tell, an abundance of historical hotspots and an unusual and charismatic personality.
A potted history of the Vendée’s largest marshlands
Divided as it now is into the wet marshlands in the east and the dry in the west, in Roman times this entire area was a silty gulf into which drained 10 rivers and from which protruded various rocky islands. With the area being of little use to anyone, by the 5th century Benedictine monks began to build Abbeys on the various island outposts, the remains of which can still be visited today. And by the end of the 10th century the monks had started the enormous project of digging canals and ditches in order to drain the area and develop it into the highly fertile and cultivable area it is today.
As a project, it took quite literally hundreds of years, interrupted and to a great extent destroyed by the 100 years war of 1337 to 1453 and the religious wars thereafter. By the end of the 16th century and in the face of the enormous damage done to the French economy, Henry IV employed the Dutch, with their engineering skills and wealth, to continue and revive the monk’s work.
But it was only at the end of the 17th century that the dry marshland area began to take its current form and it’s ironic that today it is viewed by some tourists as the poor relation. The wet marshlands which were eventually to evolve into the pretty and popular attraction now known as Green Venice, remained a lawless place well into the 19th century, with swampy conditions causing disease and poverty as well as providing a haven for villains.
So what of the Marais Poitevin of today?
The Marais Mouillé
The wet marshlands or Green Venice is now renowned for its picture postcard charm, its complex but compelling labyrinth of canals criss crossing idyllic meadows and its enchanting riverside villages, each with their own little port. Lush, rich vegetation bursts with wild life, while willow trees sigh over lazy waterways and lines of poplar trees grace your route. When visiting, if you’re very lucky you’ll see the tradition of transporting cattle by flat bottomed boat and at the very least you’ll fall in love with the dozens of delightful little houses nestled into the landscape.
If you zigzag west from Niort, Coulon is one of France’s prestigious “plus beaux villages” and home to white washed houses with bright and cheerful shutters and flowerbeds groaning with colour. It’s also home to an eco-musem, La Maison des Marais Mouillés (where you can learn about the region) and a small Aquarian. There are a dozen water side cafés and restaurants here and like all the villages in the region, it has its own pace and is a great place to hire one of the flat bottomed boats to enjoy the waterways.
La Garette south of Coulon and Le Mazeau are two other places that ooze charm with traditional old houses backing onto the canals and the work of local artisans begging for a browse. And don’t miss Arҫais, home to the cultivation of Angelica, with its beautiful little port, caressed by the shadow of a 19th century chateau.
The Marais Désseché
It’s hard to describe this vast area of dry marshland to the west of the region as pretty and it certainly lacks the blatant charm of its neighbour, yet in its flat and bare desolation with its few trees shaped to the wind, there is something hauntingly poignant and uniquely beautiful about it which makes it a must visit. In homage to the watery world it was, you’ll find what was once a cliff face just outside Le Gué de Velluire and at Chaillé les Marais there’s another small museum which offers you a glimpse into the past.
There are numerous other points of interest in this area including Lucon’s gothic cathedral and stunning “Jardin Dumaine” (rich with lakes, waterfalls, alleyways) or head further east to the landlocked Port of Moricq with its historic tower and restored remains of its once defensive castle.
Of course to the far west of this area you reach the Atlantic coast with the mudflats, salt beds and mussel beds of the Bay of L’Aguillon where you’re a stone’s throw across the water from La Rochelle and the Ile de Ré. You’ll also find l’Aguillon sur Mer and La Faute sur Mer, charming estuary and seaside towns with the ubiquitous whitewashed houses and both enveloped in eye watering and panoramic vistas.
The Abbeys of the Marais Poitevin
A major feature in the regions past are the imposing and intriguing remains of three notable Abbeys in the region. The Abbeye Royale of St. Michel en l’Herm in the west has a history that dates back to 682 and includes Gauls and Vikings and although battered, bruised and restored many times over the centuries, you can still see the 11th century church and 12th century chapter house.
Moving east you come to the imposing and impressive remains of Abbaye Saint Pierre towering above the village of Maillezais on what was once an island. Built in 1003 you can still see the cloisters, cellars, kitchen and sleeping quarters and throughout the year, it hosts some very special events including an arabesque style Christmas market and sound and light shows in the summer.
Finally and slightly north east of Maillezais is the Abbey of Saint Vincent at Nieul sur l’Autise with its Romanesque carvings, sculptures and cloisters. Birth place of Eleanor of Acquitaine (mother of Richard the Lionheart), Nieul is a really delightful village and one of the region’s “Petite Cité de Caractere” and the Abbey itself is one of the best preserved in the region.
The nature reserves of the Marais Poitevin
Apart from its fascinating past and diverse landscape, the region also has an abundance of wildlife. In the heart of Green Venice is Les Oiseaux du Marais Poitevin – an ornithological park (at St.Hilaire La Palud) where you can discover the many species of birds by way of foot or by barge. And further west in the dry marshlands, you’ll find another nature reserve at St. Denis du Payré where walkways on stilts will help you discover some of the 120 different bird species.
The reserve at Nalliers Mouzeuil Saint Martin (half way between Luҫon and Fontenay) is particularly beautiful and offers not just an opportunity to see hawks, kestrels, moorhens and water shrews amongst many other species but also has two observatories and gives you a glimpse of a time gone by. And if that’s not enough, Le Baie de l’Aiguillon is a national nature reserve of major importance for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.
Walk, cycle or sail
The Marais Poitevin is without doubt unique and curious as well as being a great place to relax and unwind whilst enjoying life’s simple pleasures. In Green Venice the obvious choice of enjoying its delights must be by water and you can hire a barge in almost every small town, with or without a guide. But it’s also an ideal place for walking or cycling with 850 km of accessible routes. You’ll find lots of free information at the local tourist offices including the “Marais Poitevin: Carte Découverte” and bikes can be hired throughout the region. Of course both Green Venice and the Atlantic coast tend to get very busy in the peak season and my recommendation would have to be a visit in the early months of summer, to really enjoy the tranquillity and slower pace of life that this corner of the Vendée has to offer.
For information about bike hire, cycling and walking routes visit www.emotion-marais-poitevin.fr and www.maraispoitevin-bicyclette.com
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer