The bay gradually silted up and slowly turned into vast, low-lying flats over 100 000 hectares large. Today, the Poitevin marshes represent the second largest contiguous wetlands in France sheltering a remarkably diverse wildlife, especially with regard to birds. Different environments meet here and form a sort of mosaic in which water plays an essential role, as it contributes significantly to this exceptional environment.
Thanks to its geographical location, the Poitevin marshes display a sequence of unique landscapes between wooded meadows in the wet marshes to former islands in the dry marshes and the dikes and flood gates at the coastline.
You can enjoy this area throughout the year and easily adapt it to your own wishes.
Its cultural and architectural heritage is wealthy and there are countless ways of enjoying a great time outdoors. You can take boat excursions and fishing trips, go birdwatching, canoeing, go for long walks, ride out on horseback, go on promenades in horse-drawn carts or simply take the bike. With each option you will plunge into a different world.
No wonder the Poitevin marshes were awarded two labels in 2010. One was the ”Grand Site de France” and the other “Destination Touristique Européenne d’Excellence”. In 2014 it was also given the status “Parc Naturel Régional”.
THE MARAIS POITEVIN, THE DRY MARSHLANDS
FOOD BELT AND CRADLE OF THE MARAIS’ HISTORY
With the gradual retreat of the sea and the drying of the Golfe des Pictons, people began to settle in increasing numbers on the islands in the centre of the Marais Poitevin.
The landscape, being the marshes’ cradle of history as it was designed and fashioned by man, has always been able to keep a distinct human dimension.
Numerous hydraulic works, consisting of locks, canals, and dikes witness former human efforts to regulate and control the water levels. This technological heritage can be admired at le Gouffre de l’île d’Elle, Les Ecluses du Canal des 5 Abbés, and l’Ecluse du Clain, le Canal de Luçon, la Bonde du Côteau, and les Portes à la Mer des Grands Greniers at Ste-Radégonde-des-Noyers.
The dry marshes are protected from floods and high tides by its surrounding dikes. The open landscape is structured by canals lined with reeds. Large mudflats have either been transformed to natural, wet grasslands or been used for cultivation.
The wetlands provide ideal conditions for thousands of migration birds seeking refuge and rest while feeding on the mudflats and salty marshes, also called “mizottes”. Such zones are found for instance at Triaize or Sainte- Radégonde-des-Noyers. The birds’ night quarters are the so-called “communaux”, which are seasonally flooded fields such as those at Lairoux, Nalliers, and Magnils Reigniers.
If excursions and outings present excellent ways of getting to know the region, many leisure activities will make your stay even more interesting, and they will make discover the Marais Poitevin from different perspectives.
For for those who have more time, there is an 80 km-long tourist route called “Le Marais Poitevin: un autre visage”, which takes them to key sites and hydraulic installations.
The itineraries are available at the tourist offices.
The Poitevin marshes are no doubt a privileged location for nature-loving holidaymakers. Most of all they represent a safe haven for migration birds and therefore a unique place for birdwatchers who are free to seek-up the observatories put to their disposal. It is up to them to choose the time of their birdwatching trips, whether at dawn or at dusk, in springtime, or winter.
LA RÉSERVE MICHEL BROSSELIN
The nature reserve Michel Brosselin protects an area of 207 hectares, in which each year approximately 120 birds species are counted. Among them, the black-winged stilt, the black-tailed godwit, the white stork, the spoonbill, the greylag goose, as well as various raptors and ducks.
A stilted path gives access in all seasons to its roofed observatory equipped with 18 telescopes and seats. From here you can admire under ideal excellent conditions the surrounding wildlife, for the most migratory birds in the middle of the nature reserve.
The visit begins at the Pole des Espaces Naturels du Marais Poitevin with an explanatory film, and there also is a shop here. Permanent basic services are assured by nature guides. Dogs are prohibited.
THE “COMMUNAUX” – CURIOSITIES OF THE MARAIS POITEVIN
These are vast and natural, grass-covered fields that inundate during the wet season. Both, wildlife and livestock thrive in harmony on these council-owned fields leased out to the local farmers. In total, the Poitevin marshes count 16 so-called “communaux”.
In April, the yearly release of the livestock (cows, horses…) onto the pastures is accompanied by festive events, during which farmers and inhabitants get together in moments of conviviality. Get to know the ones at Lairoux, les Magnils-Reigniers, le Poiré-sur-Velluire, le Langon, Nalliers/Mouzeuil-Saint-Martin, or Vouillé les Marais.
LE MARAIS DE LA VACHERIE, CHAMPAGNÉ-LES-MARAIS
Classified as a regional nature reserve, these wetlands extend over 180 hectares and consist of humid grasslands providing food for migration birds and those coming from the Baie de l’Aiguillon.
The reserve has an observatory which is accessed freely also by individuals with disabilities (think to take your binoculars and spotting scopes).
LA MAISON DU MAÎTRE DE DIGUES
In the heart of the dry marshes, the house of the dike warden reveals the history of the marshes and the profession of the dike warden.
Dive into the past and become acquainted with this official who formerly supervised and managed the water table. Take a walk through the four exhibition rooms of his house, and don’t miss the video. Outside you can admire traditional domestic animal breeds (the so-called “baudets du Poitou”, long-haired donkeys, and poitevin goats), an oven, and a shed.
THE MARAIS POITEVIN, THE WET MARSHLANDS
WATER AND NATURE IN HARMONY
The wet marshes form an unbelievable maze of man-made waterways hidden behind pollard ashes and poplars. In the centre of the so-called “Venise Verte”, where trees and water cohabit in unspoiled harmony, “plates” (flatboats) and punts glide peacefully on canals and ditches in a timeless ambiance. This aquatic sanctuary also harbours architectural treasures, like the grandiose ruins of Abbaye St Pierre at Maillezais, the relics by pioneering medieval monks from the Benedictine order. These vestiges testify in the same way as the church gates at Sainte Eulalie in Benet or Notre Dame in Oulmes to the power of this medieval bishopric.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages the industrious monks reshuffled the historical, economic, and ecological prerequisites of the Poitevin marshes. As a result, the countryside is today pervaded with countless canals that in conjunction with the silent movement of the boats, submerge the visitor in a world of enchantment. A dozen of tiny ports flanking the traditional villages invite you to guided or unguided promenades on 600 kilometres of waterways through 37000 hectares of wet marshes! Don’t miss out on this unique experience blessed by peacefulness!
Walking is no doubt the most appropriate way to appreciate the appeal of the Poitevin marshes and its canals, meadows, cable ferries, locks etc. In this respect, the Maillezais tourist office has 10 hand-outs (for free) on offer and proposes four different walks through the village.
Several bike rentals invite you to enjoy different loops established along the canals and towpaths. The distances vary between 16 and 33 km. Maps are for sale at the tourist offices.
LA RÉSERVE BIOLOGIQUE DÉPARTEMENTALE DE NALLIERS-MOUZEUIL-ST-MARTIN
This 132 hectare reserve of exceptional biological wealth acts as a genuine gateway to the wet marshes. It composes of the typical wet landscapes of open meadows alternating with so-called “terrées”, low-lying plots surrounded by canals and generally covered by woods of pollard ash trees. It is between these flood-prone woods and rich grasslands that you may be lucky enough to spot a purple heron or notice the footprints of an otter. Wether alone or with a guide, the rambler is encouraged to discover the natural riches of the Marais Poitevin.
LA RÉSERVE DÉPARTEMENTALE DE L’ÎLE DE CHARROUIN
This vast reserve covering about 100 hundred hectares and managed by the Conseil Général de la Vendée is a maze of channels and typical marsh landscapes. “Terrées”, meadows, ponds and multiple ditches represent a genuine refuge for a thriving wildlife.
LA FERME DU MARAIS POITEVIN
Come to the educational farm of the marshes and see its traditional animal varieties including the “Baudet du Poitou”, a woolly donkey, the Sologne sheep, Poitevine goats, and Marans hens, all bred for the sake of preserving and rehabilitating the region’s traditional domestic animal breeds. Discover also the area’s heritage, wildlife and flora during promenades.
Mauve Ménard will be glad share her knowledge about wild plants and their uses.
L’ABBAYE DU MARAIS – MAILLEZAIS
Discover the largest heritage site of the Marais Poitevin and get to know about the past cathedral builders responsible for these exceptional ruins!
Located on a former island in the middle of the Golfe des Pictons, the Benedictine abbey at Maillezais was built in 1003 in a unusual architecture for the Poitou Saintonge region.
Fortress, abbey, and subsequently cathedral, the Benedictine abbey of St. Pierre bears the marks from a thousand years of history of art since its establishment under the then powerful Duke of Aquitaine, William the Great. It was also the home to Rabelais and subsequently a source of inspiration for his description of the “Abbey of Thelema”.
Today, the ruins of the lay-brothers’ buildings emerge from the ground in an original reconstruction and overlook the medieval canals that had been dug-out by the monks. Among others, they also include a cloister and impressive subterranean reserves.
NIEUL-SUR-L’AUTISE – PETITE CITÉ DE CHARACTÈRE
Located at the gates of the Marais Poitevin, Nieul sur l’Autise is one of the historic landmarks of South Vendée, which earned it the status among the Vendée’s five “Small towns of character”. To appreciate the wealth of this village, take the discovery loop that by aid signs and panels identifies over twenty symbolic locations, including a water mill built in 1728 and the cloister of the Royal Abbey, an architectural highlight of the Lower Poitou.
In pursuing your way, you will reach the Neolithic site at Champ Durand protected by triple enclosure ditches dug into the limestone bedrock. As a tribal Centre, Champ Durand appears to have served several purposes: defence site, cemetery, meeting and market place.
L’ABBAYE D’ALIÉNOR – NIEUL SUR L’AUTISE
Since its foundation in 1068, Saint Vincent Abbey benefited from the protection of the counts of Poitou and the dukes of Aquitaine. In the 12th century it was granted the status of royal abbey by Eleanor of Aquitaine, then Queen of France. The abbey is one of the few monastic ensembles of the Lower Poitou to have retained its three main architectural constituents (church, cloister and monastic buildings) in a pristine state of preservation. The Romanesque cloister is moreover the only one in Western France to be preserved in its entirety.
Its restoration and rehabilitation are exemplary. Contemporary architectural elements are made of glass and wood and are kept in pure lines to harmonise with the monastic spirit of the premises. The perfectly integrated scenography is supported by astonishing sound and light effects generated by a complex audio-visual technology. As illuminations flare up under the visitor’s footsteps, instruments resonate with their approach, and 3D characters emerge from books in an optical drama.
AQUEDUCT AT MAILLÉ
Two canals cross here. The waters of the yet stream-like Autise river (wet marshes) are evacuated to the Sèvre Niortaise without seeping into those of the of Vix channel (dried marshes). You will find it as you walk along the bicycle track in direction of Maillezais as you come from Maillé.
BOAT AND CANOE TOUR
With its 4000 km of navigable canals, flat-bottom boats and canoes are the best way to discover the heart of the Wet Marsh in
Vendée. Have a magical and relaxing stroll in the Green Venice with or without a guide for one hour or more!