Think of La Belle France topographically and images of the majestic mountains of the Alps and Pyrénées spring immediately to mind. But the country also boasts intriguing flatlands that, in their own unique way, are just as worthwhile exploring.
There’s the mystical Camargue, with its herds of half-wild horses. The historic salt pans of La Vendée. The vast wheat fields of the Ile de France – the nation’s bread basket, with its big skies and brooding forests. They’re tantalising components of the geographic kaleidoscope that is the word’s most popular tourist destination.
Then there are the Marais of Audomarois, Poitevin and Amiens. These mystical wetlands have been painstakingly sculpted by man through the creation of a veritable spider’s web of narrow canals and ruler-straight ditches. Dug and maintained by hand over many centuries to create a mystical road-free marshland maze that can only be explored by the use of boats.
The Marshes of Saint Omer
Just 40 minutes inland from the Channel Tunnel, the historic old Flemish market town of Saint Omer was for centuries a key staging post between London and Paris. When the autoroute opened, most of the tourism traffic bypassing the town. Those sunshine chasing holidaymakers don’t know what they are missing! But others, who have done their homework, head down to the Avenue du Maréchal Joffre to visit the fascinating hands-on Maison du Marais visitor centre. ‘The Heart of the Marais beats here’ goes the slogan – and it’s from the centre’s wooden landing stage that visitors can board a flat-bottomed electric-powered ‘Bacove’ barge for an enchantingly relaxed guided cruise through the reed and tree-lined wetlands.
It was in the 7th Century that local monks began carving channels through the sodden peaty soil so it could be cultivated. By the 19th Century a thriving market garden industry was in place. Today, more than 50 vegetable varieties are grown there, with cauliflowers, in summer, and endives (chicory), in winter, especially renowned for their high quality. Additionally, the 3,731 hectare Marais Audomarois UNESCO biosphere reserve supports more than 300 species of wild plant as well as 232 species of bird, 26 species of fish and 98 species of plant.
Mystical and Mesmerising
Back at the purpose-built Maison du Marais there’s an ongoing programme of special exhibitions. There are also permanent displays explaining the development and function of the Marais and the unique lifestyle of its people.
You’ll find more mesmerising marshlands elsewhere in France, such as the Marais Poitevin in the Vendée.