The Marais Poitevin region of Western France

This article has been published previously in the Caravan Club Magazine

So you've taken the caravan to France on several occasions, enjoying the beauty and atmosphere of regions as varied as Normandy and Provence with much in between. Where to go next holiday? Somewhere different, yet still French.

Sound familiar? This was the situation that we found ourselves in at the beginning of our last holiday. Our two children had been with us to see many parts of France, and we had ventured into most of the neighbouring countries too. Now, with the children doing their own thing, we set off on holiday with no clear destination in mind. Except that it should be France.

Leaving the ferry behind us at Caen we travelled through familiar countryside, passing Alençon and Le Mans until stopping at Aizenay where we spent a few nights at Camping La Foret. This was a good base for a short stay, with easy access to the coast at Les Sables d'Olonne (beautiful sandy beaches) as well as several other interesting towns. At one - Coex - we toured an unusual garden planted with a wide range of plants and flowers selected for their scent. We were looking, though, for a base for a longer stay and so decided to move on. Heading towards La Rochelle we stumbled on an outstanding and interesting display at a motorway service area at Aire de la Vendée on the A83 péage. This included a museum and theatre, all providing information about the area to the north-east of La Rochelle in the region known as the Marais Poitevin. Intrigued by what we had seen we headed for Coulon, alongside the River Sèvre, and there established ourselves at Camping La Venise Verte.

This is an excellent site. A high tech security system admits only vehicles with recognised number plates after the initial booking in, spacious pitches all include electricity and water, and good all round facilities include pool and meals, either in a pleasant restaurant or to take back to your caravan. The town of Coulon is a gentle stroll away beside the water, and there are a number of walks that can be followed from the campsite itself.

The Marais Poitevin is a large area of reclaimed land, or marshes, stretching westward towards the sea at the Bay of Aiguillon. In some ways it could be likened to the Norfolk Fens, an area where dry land is criss-crossed by innumerable man-made canals and streams from the very small to those large enough to cope with small pleasure boats. Many years ago the waterways were an important part of the life of the region and were used in place of roads to transport goods, people, and animals. The smaller streams provide irrigation and, throughout the region, there are a large number of locks and sluices that were installed long ago to control the flow not just along the main arteries, but also into the irrigated agricultural areas. We visited a combined lock and sluice at Le Marais Pin close to Coulon and this illustrated well how the system works.

Today much of the old way of life has started to disappear, but the waterways remain to provide a beautiful means for the visitor to travel through the towns and villages of the region. The water is slow moving and, at the time that we were there, large areas were covered in duckweed giving an even greener overall appearance.

Great care has been taken to ensure that the canals and streams are maintained with the visitor in mind. On a number of occasions we found enchanting houses dotted along the edge of the water, looking as if they had been there for many years and presumably still lived in. One stretch of the River Sèvre close to Coulon was especially attractive with houses that could be seen from a road running alongside the river. One of these houses, 'The Blue House', featured on several postcards locally and was a stopping place for coaches to photograph across the water. Coulon itself is an attractive, small town claiming to be the capital of the Marais Poitevin. The River Sèvre runs close to the centre and along its banks there are several points from which the visitor can hire a barquette a flat-bottomed boat that can be paddled together (if required) with a guide. The principal attraction of the guide is that he (or she) will not only show you where to go in the myriad of waterways nearby, but will also undertake all the paddling! We found that an hour moving slowly along the narrow waterways was very relaxing. The route passes through areas of reclaimed land that are still used to support cattle, or to provide wood, and the barquette drifts slowly through dappled sunlight coming through the trees overhead with the sound of water lapping at the side.

Many of the other towns nearby are situated on the water. From nearby Damvix we took a trip on a larger boat, offering a river and canal cruise that lasted all day. An excellent lunch was served as we moved slowly through locks that were used once as an essential part of the local economy but which now see mostly tourist traffic. The wide selection of meals available on the boat included a local favourite Mojettes avec Jambon (beans with ham).

At Arcais or at La Garette, two small villages each a few miles from Coulon, it is possible to understand the way in which the water was an essential part of life in the past. Buildings have been kept much as they were then, even though lived in today. Standing at the edge of the water one can imagine the barquettes being paddled along, slowly carrying all the materials into and from the village in a time when there were no other roads.

A few years ago we began to take bikes with us on holiday, and the Marais Poitevin is an excellent area in which to cycle. Across the region a number of well-signed routes and paths have been laid out for both walkers and cyclists, with much of the path well away from the roads. For those without bikes of their own it is possible to rent them at many of the towns, and large scale maps available at local shops allow the planning of a route in advance. We pedalled slowly along a combination of tracks through wooded areas or close to the water enjoying in particular the quiet ride along the riverside towpath from Damvix, retracing the route we had taken a few days earlier by cruise boat.

Whilst the region has much to offer within its own area it is also a good base from which to visit other interesting places nearby. La Rochelle, a busy but long established naval town, is around an hour away on the Atlantic coast. An attractive harbour offers a scenic backdrop to an 'old town' area that has very good shopping and numerous restaurants, many offering local seafood. A short trip on a 'water bus' across the harbour from the centre takes you to an enormous marina at Les Minimes, said to be the largest on the French Atlantic coast, and bustling with visitors who have arrived on boats from France and elsewhere.

Alternatively, north of La Rochelle is the area where the Marais Poitevin reaches the sea. Charron is a village close to the shore and a base for one of the largest mussel farms (moules bouchot). Here local fisherman harvest mussels that are 'farmed' on a network of oak stakes roughly six feet high driven into the shallow sea bed. Infant mussels are hatched on ropes that are later coiled around the stakes to enable the shellfish to grow. Mussels are harvested daily, and Charron claims to produce around 1,000 tonnes a year!

We stayed at La Venise Verte much longer than we had expected originally, and were sorry when the time came to leave. This is an excellent area to spend a week or so, with or without children - strongly recommended!


© GDS 2001
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Boating in the Marais Poitevin
Coulon
Camping La Venise Verte
Moules Bouchots (mussel farms) at Charron
'The Blue House'
Entrance to the Old Harbour at La Rochelle
There are many waterways throughout the Marais Poitevin