Take a relaxing boat ride on the sleepy backwaters of the Marais Poitevin the Green Venice of Poitou-charentes which sits south of Fontenay le Comte, west of the medieval town of Niort and north east of La Rochelle. It’s part of a larger area (the Marais Poitevin) which is made up of dry marshlands and the Bay of Aiguillon to the west, making it the second largest marshland in France. Up until the middle ages it was little more than a silty bay which allowed the sea to creep inland to where Niort now stands and drained some of the area’s major rivers but what it couldn’t be used for then, was agriculture.
History of the Marais Poitevin
In the 10th century there were 5 major abbeys in the region namely at Luçon, Saint Michel en l’Herm, Maillezais, Nieul-sur-l’Autise (the alleged birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine) and Fontenay and it was only the Benedictine monks who had the way with all and funds to turn what really was a backwater into a productive agricultural landscape. To improve the complex maize of canals designed and dug by the monks, Dutch engineers were eventually brought in to build large dykes to ensure the area remained drained. The result was hundreds of pockets of land for grazing and crops, accessible only via the waterways and an entirely new way of life and landscape was born.
Green Venice has had a chequered past since then and during the 19th century was a regular haunt for bandits and villains. Nowadays, it’s picture postcard pretty, home to a rich and diverse population of plants and wildlife and well worth a lingering lunch and a few lazy hours on one the flat bottom boats.
Take a fun boat ride on the Marais Poitevin
The boats or barges are powered by you and a paddle known as a pigouille (also the name of a great little restaurant in nearby Coulon) and you’ll find little piers or “embarcaderes” where you can hire them. The one we chose was at a shady kink in the long narrow road that runs the length of a canal for several miles from La Croix and Bezoin (blink and you’ve missed it) to Damvix and on to the pretty town of Arçais.
We were a party of 3 generations ranging from 8 to 80 in age and including a senile dog and anything that can keep such a mix match of family entertained, always gets my vote. So with a guide at the helm we set off for a couple of hours. I was expecting pretty villages, open waterways and blue shuttered, whitewashed cottages, because that’s what you see when you drive around this area. But not a bit of it. The narrow canals which are all named, take you right into the landscape, each canal burrowing away in a shady tunnel of plane trees, ash, willow and the odd chestnut. There are primary and secondary routes you can take and they seem to get smaller and smaller.
Of the wildlife, there are 54 species of dragonfly here (out of France’s total of 90 species) and listen carefully, because you might hear the distinct trill of a kingfisher, followed by a spark of electric blue speeding along just above the water’s surface. You should also be on the lookout for the endangered Rosalia longicorn, a beautiful blue grey insect with spotted type markings and bright, long antennae. If you spot one make a note of the where and the when or let your guide know.
Lingering in the sleepy silence with little more than the occasional splash, there’s also purple and grey heron, carp, bream and catfish, zander, perch, eels and black bass. There are otters and of course the ubiquitous ragondin too which by the way, they make into pâté and sell in the shop! I tried it and despite some of the locals raving about it, I can’t say I thought it was that special. It is after all just water rat paste!
As you drift along, you can just spot little islets of land with cattle grazing or crops of corn and if you’re lucky, you may see a local farmer transporting his cattle by boat. Amazingly, none of the roads in this area existed until after the 1950s, before which everyone travelled by barge.
The other crop this area is famous for is Angelica and you can get it in all shapes and sizes including as a sort of jam. I liked it and bright green spread on your toast makes breakfast a little different I suppose.
My kids loved spotting the wild life and the fact that you can light the water with a match if you poke around long enough and let loose methane gas at the bottom of the canals. My parents loved both the history of the place which is very apparent and getting well and truly off the beaten track. I loved the chance to sit still and drift for a while and the dog neither barked nor tried to jump off for a swim.
I may well have got completely lost on the way there whilst simultaneously trying to find my way through the back lanes, teach my daughter French and ensure my parents were still behind me and I might have taken out a concrete post in the car park on the way home but other than that, grandad didn’t swear at the children and the afternoon was an unmitigated success. What a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
- If you are in the area, make sure you visit the abbey at Maillezais (or any of the other abbeys if you can). It’s really quite stunning and when we were there, they were doing re-enactments and we were treated to an impromptu chant by Benedictine monks. It sent shivers down my spine.
- For lunch try the villages of Damvix or Coulon.
- You can hire a boat at the l’embarcadère des écluses de Bazoin à La Ronde (Bazoin – 17 170 La Ronde). I couldn’t find it on a map or my sat nav but found it by chance because it’s well signed. There’s also a website http://www.polenature-maraispoitevin.fr/embarcadere-des-ecluses-marais-poitevin
- If you don’t fancy a boat ride, enjoy a stroll along one of the main canals and a potter around some of the villages. There’s a little museum in Coulon that’s worth a visit.
More Information from the Vendee Tourism website