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The Marais Poitevin

The Marais Poitevin

A trip to the beach isn’t the only way to enjoy the summer weather – when temperatures soar make for the cool, shady paradise of the Marais Poitevin. Among lush green country-side and wetland marshes lies a network of waterways described by Henri IV during the 16th century as la Venise Verte.

Arcais-marais-poitevin

A natural wonder

The Marais Poitevin Inter-regional Park covers 32,000ha of wetlands and 65,500ha of drained marsh, making it France’s second largest wetland area after the Camargue. At its heart is the Sèvre Niortaise river, whose eight locks ensure navigability of a waterway cleared by order of Napoleon in 1808 to allow gabarres to travel between the Atlantic ports and nearby Niort.

The natural, unspoilt environment is perfect for walking, cycling, horse riding and boating – all easily accessible thanks to plentiful local hire facilities. The abundant wildlife includes otters, and the Marais is a stopping place for migratory birds – you can see many different species at St Hilaire-la-Palud’s ornithological park.

Historic waterways

Neolithic man once inhabited this marshland that extends to the Bay of Aiguillon on the Atlantic Coast, but it was in the 10th century that the first efforts were made to drain the marshes. It wasn’t until the end of the Hundred Year’s War that work started in earnest and by the 17th century, the Marais Poitevin took the form it has today.

Go with the flow

The classic way to visit the Marais is to park your car in one of the villages (motor-homes can find parking and services in Arçais, Coulon and Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon) and do things in a more environmentally friendly way. You can take a trip in a traditional flat bottomed boat from Coulon, Arçais, St-Hilaire-la-Palud, La Garette, Maillezais or Le Mazeau and discover the tranquillity of the canals. Hire firms offer various packages, though it’s worth taking a guide, who will navigate through the labyrinth of ‘conches’, ‘fossés’ and ‘rigoles’. You’ll also be treated to anecdotes about the history of the Marais.

Pedal power

Hire a bicycle from Coulon, Arçais or La Garette and you can enjoy 50km of cycle tracks – they wind between the waterways, so there are no hills to climb! To take things even more gently, follow marked footpaths – pick up a map of suggested itineraries from local tourist offices. Another popular way of discovering the park is on horseback, and there are equestrian centres in St-Hilaire-la-Palud, Arçais and La Garette. You can even visit the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage or a land train.

The villages

The villages of Coulon, Arçais and Magné, in the heart of thewetlands, are popular with visitors. Coulon, the notional capital of the Marais Poitevin, was once a bustling port – discover its history, and that of the Marais, in the Maison du Marais Poitevin museum.

The village of Arçais also had a busy port; today it charms lovers of cobbled streets, chateau ruins plus craft and antique shops.

Magné, an island set between the Sèvre Niortaise and the Sevreau rivers, has a listed Gothic church and a 19th century lock-house called the ‘Marais-Pin’. The village of Le Bourdet is notable for its 2km path called ‘Le Sentier de la Maraîchine’ (a reference to the local breed of cattle which still graze here) and for botanical and geological circuits. In fact, each village reveals its own secrets, along with picturesque streets, traditional marsh houses, boutiques and art galleries, churches, wash-houses, locks, bridges and dovecotes.

Coulon’s Maison du Marais Poitevin is one of four museums in the Marais, each focusing on a separate element of the parkland and offering educational activities, exhibitions, sales of local products and varied entertainment.

TOURIST OFFICES

You’ll find them in the villages of Coulon, Arçais, Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon and St Hilaire la Palud. Maps of suggested circuits are available in English from the offices, along with all the leisure companies’ contact details – useful to have before you leave. www.marais-poitevin.com