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Coasting Gently - exploring the Vendée coast

Coasting Gently - exploring the Vendée coast

We head for a quiet stretch of the Atlantic coast, where the Marais Poitevin meets the Vendée, for a gentle out-of-season amble...

Words and photos: Roger Moss

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Discovering new and interesting areas is a pleasure at any time of the year, but particularly so out of season, when a change of scenery sounds even more appealing than usual, and places often reveal qualities which summer visitors seldom see. With this in mind we decided to make the most of a sunny day and head off to explore the coastal area which lies among the comparatively little-known northern reaches of the Marais Poitevin.

After bypassing the daily bustle of Niort and following one of the markedly calmer routes which penetrate the watery heart of the Marais, our real journey begins just a few kilometres before Charente-Maritime gives way to the Vendée (and Poitou- Charentes hands over to Pays de la Loire) in the town of Marans. The spiritual home of the breed of a chicken celebrated for its rich brownshelled eggs is well worth getting to know.

Founded on a limestone promontory surrounded by coastal marshes, it played a useful defensive role which prompted the construction of a substantial chateau around the 10th century, by which time an elaborate network of canals had begun to drain the marshes, creating the managed landscape we see today. After the Siege of La Rochelle the once-powerful chateau was destroyed by order of Richelieu but Marans, situated on the Sèvre Niortaise river just 10km or so from the coast, continued to develop as a cereal port. At the end of the 19th century a more direct canal was built, avoiding the river’s shallower meanders, halving the distance to the sea and permitting bigger vessels to reach the port in most tidal states. The new route joined the existing Canal de Marans à La Rochelle begun by order of Napoléon I in 1806 and completed in 1888, only to see the railway taking the bulk of the trade.

The town is no longer a trading port, but its popular marina-style port de plaisance keeps the maritime spirit very much alive, while a traditional indoor market hall and colourful restaurant terraces on the quaysides have made Marans increasingly appealing to summer visitors.

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Less visited is nearby Charron, whose Cistercian abbey was founded by Richard II of England in 1188 but which is today renowned for its moules. At low tide you can see the beds (with their characteristic timber posts or bouchots) on the mudflats at the mouth of the Sèvre Niortaise where the river feeds into the Baie de l’Aiguillon and the Pertuis Breton at Port du Pavé. At low water when nothing can be landed there’s a sense of remote abandonment to the windswept quayside, where lines of salt-corroded tractors rust silently and a modest daymark/lookout tower surveys a deserted slipway. The estuary is frequented by net fishermen, while on the southern horizon, shimmering in the haze beyond the coastal reed-beds is La Rochelle, whose grain supplies were once shipped from the markets of Marans.

The Baie (or Anse) d’Aiguillon is continuously silting up, and much of it is a protected Réserve Naturelle. A few kilometres beyond it, set somewhat precariously among the dunes at the mouth of the Lay river, lies L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, another tidal fishing port, this time specialising in both mussels and oysters. Unlike other coastal ports, however, it doesn’t rely on the usual stone quayside but instead on a series of jetties created by a veritable forest of timber piers driven into the mud, as you might expect to find in, say, the Ganges. It’s quite a sight, and in marked contrast to the altogether more conventional town skyline which sits behind a large lake popular with bathers and sailing schools.

Beyond L’Aiguillon we’re firmly in tourist territory, and soon begin to pass holiday villages and signs to beach access. Out of season, though, the coast road is much less travelled, giving you time to enjoy the forests of mature maritime pines or take a side-road to a stretch of beach, where you should have little problem finding a vacant parking space. The beaches here are sandy, and overlooked by little more than a few neatly and unobtrusively styled villas set among more pines, and it’s always worth strolling along the strand (estran) to see what treasures the waves might have brought in.

Just ahead lies La Tranche-sur-Mer, which offers the full-on seaside experience, complete with M Hulot-style hotels and gift shops. Lots of them. If you’re looking for some seaside kitsche classic for a guest-room look no further, and to complete the experience why not buy some candyfloss (barbe-à-papa) or choose from a dazzling array of ice-creams, before strolling down to the beach. When you get there you’ll warm to this place, and discover that the kiss-mequick trappings of Avenue de la Plage are merely the support acts for the real stars of the show, namely the natural charms of the European Blue Flag coastline and the surrounding forests. The town, too, has clearly been putting a lot of thought (and financial investment) into re-landscaping and restyling itself, the huge central Place de la Liberté in particular now having assumed a genuinely elegant persona.

In summer free shuttle buses help visitors get around town, and connect club-goers with outlying accommodation, and there are free yearround services for local residents. There’s even an on demand service enabling those with reduced mobility to reach shops and essential services, all of which gives some idea of just how attractive La Tranche has become for those who dream of retirement by the sea.

By now the afternoon sun has begun to sink noticeably, so after a brief detour to see the slightly underwhelming Phare du Grouin du Cou lighthouse we turn and head south again. It seems appropriate that the final stop of our tour should be somewhere to put it all into context, so we make for the Pointe de L’Aiguillon, a cluster of grass-covered dunes at the very tip of a sandy peninsula at the southern extremity of the Vendée coastline.

The Route de la Pointe gives few clues as to the reality of the location, due to the presence of a tall stonefaced dyke (digue) on the seaward side, but rising from the otherwise flat coastal plains which it encloses is a limestone outcrop known as La Dive. It was a genuine island until the land was drained by the dykes during the 18th century, ironically using stone quarried from La Dive.

The Pointe itself is a magical place at sunset, when the soft pastel colours add a painterly quality to a seascape which takes in the mouth of the Lay, the Pointe d’Arçay and the Ile de Ré. There’s just time for a stroll through the dunes and along the beach before the light begins to fail and we have to head for home. It’s been a voyage of discovery, despite all the things we didn’t manage to see, but sometimes it’s good to have a reason to return.

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Find out more...

Office de Tourisme, 62 rue d’Aligre, 17230 marans; +33(0)5 46 01 12 10;

Office de Tourisme, Avenue Amiral courbet, 85460 l’Aiguillon sur mer; +33(0)2 51 56 43 87;

Office de Tourisme, Place de la Liberté, 85360 La Tranche-sur-mer; +33(0)2 51 30 33 96;

Aiguillon Bay Nature Reserve
Nationally important maritime landscape whose mosaic of vast saltmarshes, salty and freshwater riverbanks, sand-dunes and shingle beaches host flora and fauna throughout the seasons. At the Pointe de l’Aiguillon, an extraordinary boundary between marshland and sea, more than 400,000 migrating birds fly overhead each year. Autumn is the time to observe them heading to their winter quarters in Africa. The LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux) Vendée team records the birds and is on-site each morning from 1 september to 30 November – they will help you identify and observe the different species. The history of the ile de La dive is recounted at