Marais Poitevin - take in the beauty of the 'Green Venice' of Poitou-Charentes
Just outside Coulon in the Marais Poitevin there’s a roadside sign that reads: ‘Ralentissez et Admirez’ or ‘Slow down and Admire’. It’s sound advice. This area of the Poitou-Charentes occupies not just its own space but seems to operate on its own timescale too. Perhaps it’s something to do with the water but as soon as you enter the Marais Poitevin you can feel life slowing down.
It certainly is a remarkable place. The ‘Marais’ or marsh as it means in English (Poitevin simply means that it’s in the Poitou area) stretches for miles and is made up of natural water channels and man-made canals as well as meadows, dykes and fens that are full of wildlife, including herons, kingfishers and deer. In spring and summer, the banks are filled with wildfloweres. Little wonder that it’s often referred to as the ‘Venise Verte’ or ‘Green Venice’.
At 970 square kilometres or nearly 375 square miles it is the largest area of marshland on France’s Atlantic coastline and the second largest anywhere in the country, stretching as it does from just west of Niort in the Deux-Sèvres through the south of the Vendée and the north of the Charente-Maritime just above La Rochelle towards the coast.
Once the villages of this area were only accessible by water. Today they are easily reached by car by memories of this time past remain. All have ports where row boats can be tied. Cattle which graze the land are still transported using flat-bottomed boats and in July there is a floating market, a reminder of how people once used to buy their provisions.
One of the dominant features of this landscape – which can be a little eerie in winter – are the poplar trees, which bend and rustle in the wind. They are usually planted in rows along with ash, often gnarled and pollarded, their roots excellent at holding the earth of the banks together. But man-made structures have made their mark too, and you can see church spires from miles away, jutting up from the flat landscape into the sky.
Things to do in the Marais Poitevin
You can cycle and drive but without a doubt the best way to travel the Marais Poitevin's network of canals, rivers and waterways is by boat – you can reach areas still inaccessible by road, you will see more of the wildlife and, perhaps, most importantly, it will give you a real sense of the beauty and timelessness of the area.
The traditional boats used here are flat-bottomed punt-like vessels and these can be hired from various spots throughout the Marais Poitevin – just look out for the word embarcadère, which means pier or wharf. You can hire a boat or canoe for just an hour or two, or for a half or a whole day. Take a picnic and spend hours floating through the dreamy green landscape, or stop for lunch at one of the villages - the restaurants here specialise in eels and frogs, and also pike which is caught locally. Or, you can choose to have a guided boat tour – with commentary in English – or go on an organised two or three day tour of the Marais Poitevin. The tourist office (see details below) can organise this for you.
For keen cyclists, there are plenty of places to hire a bicycle in this very flat landscape. You can also take trips in horse-drawn carriages.
Villages to see in the Marais-Poitevin
Though the real star of the show is the water and the landscape, the villages that punctuate the Marais Poitevin are definitely worth a visit. These are two of our favourites...
Coulon is considered the capital of the Venise Verte (Green Venice) and has been officially designated one of the region's most beautiful villages. Here you can see the typical marshlander houses with their white-washed walls and brightly coloured shutters as well as the more elegant Renaissance architecture in white stone. The Maison de Marais Mouillés by the river was once where river taxes were collected. Today it’s a museum where you can learn about the history and life of this atmospheric area. From Coulon you can hire punts and spend a few hours exploring the area. Or take the miniature train. Tourist office: 31, rue Gabriel Auchier; tel 05 49 35 99 29.
Another gem is Arçais, near St Hilaire-la-Palud. Here you can hire a boat and stroll around the old ‘port’ and village. You can also see the old stone cottages lined up along the edge of the waterway and buy a liquor based on Angelica – this area is France’s leading place for growing this traditional herb.
Tourist office: At the museum - Maison du Marais Poitevin - which can be found at place de la coutume, Coulon; tel 05 49 35 99 29; www.niortmaraispoitevin.com
Where to stay in the Marais Poitevin: see hotels. Alternatively you could base yourself in Niort or La Rochelle while you visit the Marais Poitevin.
Where to eat in the Marais Poitevin: there are plenty of restaurants and waterside inns to choose from in the villages in the area. As well, there are picnic areas if you prefer to do your own thing.
Travel: from Niort there are buses that drop you off at Coulon. Otherwise, it’s a 10 minute drive from Niort. The closest airport is at la Rochelle, about two hours away. There is a TGV from Paris to La Rochelle.
Words: Michael STREETER
Photograph: © CHG - Fotolia.com