There’s no place I’d rather be in late Autumn than in Mervent Forest and the surrounding region. It’s been described as one of the Vendée’s jewels and is tucked just north of the renaissance town of Fontenay Le Comte and wedged between the captivating village of Vouvant and the hill top town of Mervent.
Fall in the Mervent Forest
The forest is 10 miles of unspoilt and hilly woodland, home to a mixture of lofty chestnuts, beech and oak trees, steep ravines, meandering waterways and diverse wild life. Snaking through its granite slopes are the two dawdling rivers of the Vendée and the Mère which having been dammed in various places throughout the forest, sporadically open out into wide, dramatic but lazy stretches of lake. A walk in the forest will take you down long straight avenues of trees or up steep and winding paths and entering it is a little like entering a hushed and secret kingdom.
In summer the seamless canopy of trees is a welcome relief on a hot day but in Autumn it’s a delightful assault on the senses. Ochres, oranges and browns mingle with the musty smell of the undergrowth and the soft swaying of the trees evoke a time gone by. Out walking you’re likely to meet some of the older locals with their wicker baskets, foraging for different species of mushrooms and if asked, I’ve yet to meet one of them who isn’t happy to show off their finds and explain them to you.
At this time of year you’re also quite likely to hear or see the local chasse or hunt with their guns and their working dogs. You might not agree with the principle but with their distinctive hunting dress and many years of experience etched into their faces, it’s still a sight worth seeing as one of the features of the forest.
But despite its popularity with walkers and cyclists, Mervent hasn’t lost any of its tranquillity, calm or seclusion. Its 200 km of well marked and maintained footpaths and 14 different cycle routes are discrete and unobtrusive and you can stop at one of the designated leafy clearings for a picnic or meander your way through what feels like unchartered territory. And although there are a number of things for families to do (such as the Natur’ Zoo, the Pierre Brune adventure park, tree top trails and a nautical centre) they’re also tucked away in the folds of the forest in an un-disturbing manner.
History and beauty walk hand in hand around Mervent Forest
Another great feature of the area is that it’s speckled with little spots of historic interest and other places that are just unashamedly beautiful. Vouvant, one of the plus beaux villages de France crowns the forest to the North and a visit there is almost compulsory. The village is proud of its tower (the remains of its castle), fairy legend and Romanesque church but for me its charm is in the steep narrow paths and alleyways, its quirky French architecture, shelved gardens and views that make the hairs on your neck bristle. And whilst Mervent may lack Vouvant’s persuasive personality, it more than makes up for it with its panoramic views.
To the east of the forest you’ll come to other little gems such as the Chateau de la Citardière, an enchantingly overgrown and (in Autumn) abandoned Renaissance castle tucked down a muddy track. Drive further east from there to the “Petite Cite de Caractère” of Foussais Payré with its collection of Renaissance houses and 11th century church and for a glimpse into the region’s mining history at Faymoreau.
Nieul sur l’Autise – the beginning of the marshlands
If you have the time, ramble a little further south. The pale sandstone villages on the edge of the forest are a quiet delight and I recently ventured down to Nieul sur l’Autise a short drive further south. Here it’s the 11th century Abbey of which the village is most proud and it’s without a doubt worth a visit. Its mildewy atmosphere, large uneven flagstones, echoey vaulted ceiling and astonishing leaning pillars represent its charm and character far more than its carved illustrations and you could almost hear and feel the ghosts of the past walking besides you. This is a place that was pivotal in the development of the southern marshlands which subsequently became known as the Marais Poitevin and an interactive tour of the Abbey and its other buildings is atmospheric, hauntingly informative and fun.
The real treat
But the real pleasure in these places for me is the fact that in Autumn they are more or less deserted. Ok so that means some of the more touristy cafés are closed but in most small towns you can find an undiscerning local restaurant offering exceptional value for money with their local fodder and set “formule”. And although you can’t always be guaranteed good weather, I’ve spent the last 4 years visiting here at this time of year and have always been blessed with a very fair number of achingly sunny Autumn days.
There are dozens of other reasons to visit Mervent, such as the talented and renowned artists of Vouvant, the potential for fishing and some stunning local parks and gardens but for a unadulterated, simple day out, a stroll around the forest and surrounding villages has to be one of life’s most compelling pleasures.
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer