The quaint little country town of Coulon is home to the Maison du Marais Poitevin visitor centre and start point for boat tours in the Marais. Or to give it it’s full name, the Marais Poitevin, 18,553 hectares of waterway network. It was entirely created by man, close to the Atlantic coast, a little south of the Loire estuary in the Vendée.
La Venice Verte of France
It is popularly known as ‘La Venise Verte’ (‘The Venice of the North’) after its multitude of canals and the bright green duckweed that cloaks many of its waterways. The 970 sq km expanse of the Marais Poitevin ranks after the Camargue as France’s second largest wetland.
Spreading west towards the Atlantic from the outskirts of the picturesque old Roman town of Niort, the Marais Poitevin used to be far larger. However intense farming saw two-thirds of it being drained to create grasslands for grazing and breeding. Sadly, attempts to give the remaining wetlands area protected status have been thwarted by a mix of commercial farming interests and government policy. On the plus side, however, growth of interest from conservationists, wildlife enthusiasts, campers and countryside lovers in general is starting to send the pendulum the other way. It’s all helping to preserve a unique environment and way of life, with the tourist dollar making it all feasible.
With more than 850-km of safe, way-marked and well-maintained dedicated routes, bicycle touring is among the environmentally friendly and sustainable activities currently being promoted. Hiking, canoeing, bird watching and angling are among the many other outdoor leisure activities that are actively encouraged.
Natural wonderland of the Marais Poitevin
The Marais provide havens of peace that have been created and nurtured by man working in harmony with nature.
Engineering marvels in their own right, the canals are in many places lined with poplars and also with ash trees whose intertwined roots prevent erosion and whose scent repels mosquitoes.
Not surprisingly, considering the area’s watery environment, fish and seafood figure prominently on local restaurant menus and seated at the pavement terrace we soaked up the sun at the popular La Pigouille by the riverside in Coulon for a pleasant lunch. The food and its preparation were nothing special – ham and melon, steaks, fish stews, roast duck, chicken and lamb recipes that have been French bourgeois restaurant staples for generations. It was, I suppose, the predictability of it all that led my partner, Hazel, to get adventurous and try eel, frog-legs and snails, all for the first time – wonderful with a well-chilled glass of Muscadet.
While lunch had been standard issue, our evening meal and the environment in which we savoured it was something really special. A divine Hollywood-styled art deco mansion, La Villa Ayrault, set atop an imposing grass mound on the outskirts of Châtillon du Thouet, in the Charente region, an easy drive south of the marshes, was built by the current owner’s late father, who was the wealthy owner of a major brickyard. As Madame Fourniau relayed the story to me: ‘My mother designed the property but when father saw her plans, he went mad and said to her “Are you crazy? Why have you made the corridors and rooms so small? We have several million bricks already at hand and they will not cost us anything”.’ The result was a spectacularly spacious and elegant family home brimming with innovation and bright ideas that today welcomes paying guests. In the centre of the dining room, for example, stands a massive ‘Lazy Susan’ revolving table with an electric button beside each place setting so guests can easily serve themselves with the delights of the host’s delectable Cordon Bleu fayre.
Beautifully furnished guest rooms open out onto spacious verandas and terraces commanding 360º views of the surrounding countryside. It’s all so delightfully period in ambience that you half expect Clark Gable and his movie star peers to be waiting to greet you…
Find out more at: www.visit-poitou-charentes.com
By Roger St Pierre. Despite his French name, veteran globetrotting writer Roger St. Pierre is proudly British. He is, though, passionately Francophile and has been to every one of France’s 94 metropolitan departments.
Read about the Marais of Saint Omer, northern France