Exploring the ‘Green Venice’ of France

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Spring is the perfect time to explore the Marais Poitevin en Vendée, one of France’s most stunning landscapes

We don’t know about you, but as the weather warms up, all we want to do is head outdoors and get lost in nature. There’s nothing quite like driving out to the country and getting away from it all. And there’s nowhere quite like the Marais Poitevin en Vendée to do just that.

Where in France?

The Marais Poitevin is an extensive area of marshland, actually covering three ‘departments’ in western France in the Pays de la Loire and Nouvelle-Aquitaine regions, the Vendée, Deux-Sèvres, and Charente-Maritime.

From above, you can really appreciate the intricacy of the canal network
From above, you can really appreciate the intricacy of the canal network

How far from Calais?

As with any drive, there are a couple of different routes you can take, depending on whether or not there’s anything else you’d like to see en route. The fastest route to the Marais Poitevin is 692km via Rouen, Le Mans and Angers, and will take about six and a half hours. Alternatively, you can drive via Paris, Orléans, Tours and Poitiers, which is a slightly longer route at 705km and will take closer to seven hours.

A very brief history

During medieval times, local Benedictine monks began draining the area that was once the Gulf of Poitou to form the ‘marais’ or marshland. The land was reconfigured, creating canals and dykes, with the expert help of the Dutch, to keep the sea at bay. To this day, there is still a thriving farming community in the area, cultivated by the monks hundreds of years ago.

Stroll around the peaceful remains of the Abbaye de Maillezais
Stroll around the peaceful remains of the Abbaye de Maillezais

There are still sites around the marshes where you can see the remains of where the monks lived and worked. There’s the beautiful, ruined Abbaye de Maillezais, the most striking feature of which is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Maillezais, which would have been at the heart of the abbey. The site was first built on in the 10th century, with the cathedral itself not reaching completion until the 15th century. A little over two hundred years later, the site was abandoned at the end of the 17th century, and since feel into disrepair, and eventually ruin.

Getting back to nature

The Marais Poitevin is one of the most diverse natural habitats in France, attracting hundreds of species of birds, and is a favourite spot of many migratory species, making the marshes a favourite spot with many birdwatchers and naturalists! People travel from all over the world to enjoy the rich tapestry of fauna and flora native to the area.

Exploring by boat offers the best chance of spotting the local wildlife
Exploring by boat offers the best chance of spotting the local wildlife

There are more than 250 species of birds, over half of which actually nest in the marshes. As well as this, 44 species of mammals, 23 species of amphibians and reptiles, 322 species of fish and over 700 species of wild flora have been recorded.

One of the best ways to see the local wildlife is by a very local mode of transport. You can hire one of the traditional ‘barques’ or flat-bottom boats, along with a skilled boatman, to punt or row you around the canals. Because the boats are quiet and slow, given that they’re man-powered rather than motorised, you’ll have a much better chance of spotting one of the five species of heron in the area, or perhaps one of the pretty grey and black-spotted insects, Rosalia longicorn. If you’re really lucky, you might even spot one of the notoriously shy European otters!

Find out more

Depending on which part of the Marais Poitevin you’re visiting, you’ll find various different local tourist offices where you can find information on boat hire, bike hire, the local flora and fauna, and upcoming local events.

You’ll never want to leave once you’ve experienced the idyllic lifestyle of the Marais Poitevin
You’ll never want to leave once you’ve experienced the idyllic lifestyle of the Marais Poitevin

For more information on the Abbaye de Maillezais and the surrounding area of the Vendée, head to the Office de Tourisme Sud-Vendée Marais Poitevin. And for more general information on the area as a whole, you can’t go wrong with the tourist office of The Marais Poitevin Regional Nature Park.

If you’re feeling inspired to set the sat-nav for Green Venice, and we can hardly blame you, remember to book your tickets with us in advance to take advantage of the best fares.