Friday, 14 November 2014

The Vendée

We chose to holiday in the Vendée last year, 2010. We had decided to move further south from Brittany which we loved, in search of just a little more sunshine for our summer holidays.

We had heard that the Vendee has a sort of micro-climate with as good a record for sun as the Cote d’Azur. We were certainly granted our wish as we arrived in the middle of a heatwave which lasted most of our holidays.

We had decided to stay at the “La Garangeoire” campsite which is situated in the green countryside 15 minutes drive inland from the popular tourist coastline of the Vendée. 

The Vendee is famous for its 140 km of excellent wide beaches and its popular tourist resorts

However as we ventured out on walks from our campsite and further afield in the Vendée by car, we began to learn some of the fascinating history of this region, much of which was unknown even to French people growing up in the region until a few years ago when the history was re-discovered and stories which had been hidden were passed on to a new generation.

The "Vendée" is named after the river which runs through the south-east of the département. The area today called the Vendée was originally known as the “Bas-Poitou” and is part of the former province of Poitou. The River Vendee crosses the forest of Mervent then flows through the town of Fontenay-le-Comte, the old capital of “Bas Poitou”. Napolean changed the region to be called the Vendée after the French Revolution of 1789 and he decided that the capital should become La Roche-sur-Yon from where his soldiers could control the Vendéans more easily. The river meanders on through the marshes to meet the Sevre Niortaise, and turns west to meet the sea in bay of l'Aiguillon.

The main seaside resorts of the area are St-Jean-de-Monts, St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, Les Sables-d'Olonne and La Tranche-sur-Mer.

Visitors to the area will love the excellent historical theme park at Le Puy du Fou near Les Epesses,
in the east of the Vendée, with its five fantastic shows during the daytime “Grand Parc”, which is packed with fun for all ages, including a Roman amphitheatre with chariot races and gladiators, falconry displays and recreated villages from several different periods of history or you can go along to the breath-taking night-time son-et-lumière spectacle, known as the Cinéscénie.

Visitors to the Vendée can also enjoy are a day on the tranquil waterways of the Marais Poitevin, or Venise Verte ("Green Venice"), in South East Vendée. You can hire boats and punts to explore this area in the villages of Velluire, Vix, Damvix and Maillezais. Maillezais also offers a good restaurant next to the boat hire as well as the ruined abbey to visit.

There are also some lovely islands to visit off the Vendéen coast, all with a different character. You can journey across the incredible causeway that links the island of Noirmoutier (north-west of the Vendée) to the mainland at low tide or visit the popular Il de Ré which is reached by bridge from La Rochelle, or by boat from some of the coastal resorts.
It has a charming port at St Martin-sur-Re (see photograph to the left), beaches, restaurants, lighthouse to visit and is well known for its many cycle routes in the salt-marshes.

The history of the Vendee goes right back to prehistory with various ancient burial stones etc. The Romans then settled in the area and in fact there was an old roman road going through our campsite at La Garangeoire.

In the south-east corner of the Vendee, the village of Nieul-sur-l'Autise is believed to be the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) and was part of her kingdom. Eleanor's son, Richard I of England (the Lionheart) often had his base in Talmont. The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) turned much of the Vendée into a battleground.

There were a considerable number of influential Protestants in the Vendee and the region was greatly affected by the French Wars of Religion which broke out in 1562 and continued until 1598. Eventually King Henri IV issued the Edict of Nantes and the Wars came to an end. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 caused many Huguenots (French Protestants) to flee from the Vendée.

Moving to slightly more recent times, the main period of French history which you may be familiar with is the French Revolution. If you are a bit sketchy about your history like me then what you might know of the French Revolution was that the peasants revolted against the upper classes. Louis VI and Marie Antoinette were the rulers at the time. The country fell into the hands of the Emperor Napoleon and from that era we have the saying of France “Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité” (Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood).

There is much to discover about the history of the Vendée and in fact there is a display at the Puy du Fou theme park showing this era. In fact many locals are only now discovering about their history, a history which was not taught to them at school and they are discovering more about the 100,000s of Vendeens who were massacred at that time.

Here is a short version of my understanding of the history which I have gathered and which I must emphasise could well be inaccurate but I hope might at least help you to begin to understand this area’s history (Any improvements or comments gratefully received !) :

At that time, class differences were not as great in the Vendée as in Paris or in other French provinces. In rural Vendée, the local nobility seems to have been less bitterly resented than in other parts of France. Many people in this area of France also had a strong adherence to their Catholic faith.
The Vendéen peasants initially fought on the side of the revolutionaries but they resented the changes imposed on the Roman Catholic Church by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and eventually broke into open revolt in defiance of Napoleon’s Revolutionary Government's military conscription requiring Vendéans to fill their district's quota of 300,000 in March 1793 as they wanted and needed to return to their farms to continue their labours The populace took up arms as "The Catholic Army", "Royal" being added later, and fought for "above all the reopening of their parish churches with their former priests. This guerrilla war, known as the Revolt in the Vendée was led at the outset by an underground faction called the Chouans (tawny owls).

However Napoleon finally got wind of this and sent his forces to sort it out. Initially the Vendéens had the upper hand as they were familiar with their land and the twisty lanes and high hedges. They also used the windmills which were throughout the area to send signals from village to village. The windmill sails were used to send signals across the countryside by being set either vertically or horizontally meaning either safe or watch out troops coming. However, eventually Napoleon sent his forces in columns through the land, burning and pillaging as they went. Many were killed and captured and to this day the Vendéen countryside bears the scars with low population and very few old houses remaining from those times. Examples were made of the people and thousands were taken to Paris and thrown in the Seine. The people had managed through this to try and hide their priests and this is tied into the history of this time. By the end of 1796, more than 100,000 Vendeens had been killed. Much of this history can be viewed in displays at the excellent Puy du Fou historical theme park.

In the 19th Century, the wild coastline of the Vendée was tamed when pine forests and grassland were planted to stabilise the sand dunes and with the rise in popularity of sea bathing, holidaymakers began to come to the Vendée. With the arrival of the railway in 1936, the popularity of the Vendée as a tourist destination was beginning to increase !

There is some history of fishing at St Gilles Croix de Vie, where sardines were a popular catch. The “label rouge” sardines from St Gilles Croix de Vie, fish from Les Sables d’Olonne and eels from the nearby marshes are all served in all the best restaurants along the coast. You can find out about the fishermen from Morroco who lived here and brought their talent for fishing to the area. Apart from this, the Vendeen people did not have a great history of fishing, and tended to see the sea more as a threat with the constantly shifting dunes.

You will also see the Vendée-Atlantique oyster being produced in oyster beds all along the coastline and particularly in the Baie de l’Aiguillon and also on the Il de Ré.

Another industry you will see in the Vendée makes use of the extensive salt marshes to harvest salt. The Vendée was once the Western world’s main salt storehouses.

Salt was a valuable commodity in times pre-electricity when it could be used as a preservative for meats. Salt from Brittany and the Vendee were traded as a commodity. Nowadays salt production still carries on at Les Jardins des Salines in the north of Les Sables d’Olonnes. The skills have been passed down through the generations. The marshes and salt flats are cleaned out over the winter and then early in the year the sea water is brought in. The water then evaporates with the higher temperatures of the summer and salt crystallises out and can be harvested. The clays of the soils give rise to some trace elements in the salts and give the salt its distinctive grey colouration. However the most prized salt is that which crystallises on the top and is called the “fleur de sel”. You can go on boat trips to see what is going on. These marshes are also home to some wonderful birds and there are bird sanctuaries and the area is very popular with ornithologists.

The Vendée also manages to produce some very fine wines from the sandy soil which can be very hard to dig. However the long days of sunshine lead to wonderfully ripe berries and some lovely wines. In 1984 they were given the appellation “Fiefs Vendéen”, which covers red, white and rose wines which have been produced in the region since roman times. The wines are produced today from a variety of grapes which are suited to the locals soil and ground and the relatively cool maritime climate.

The reds are made predominantly from Gamay and Pinot Noir, complemented by Cabernet and Negrette grapes. The whites are made from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The appellation is broken down into four sub-zones named after villages at their centre : Brem, Mareuil, Pissotte and Vix. None of these villages are further than 20 miles from the Atlantic coast and the climate plays a big part in the style of these wines, which are generally slightly lower in alcohol and sweetness, but fresh, crisp and with noticeable acidity. We enjoyed trying some of the red wines last year and the shop at “La Garangeoire” stocked some good examples, including some Fief Vendeen wines. I also brought one home to keep for Christmas - to get a reminder of sunny Vendee in the middle of our British winter !

Since 1989, the famous Vendée Globe round the world yacht race has set off every 4 years from Les Sables d’Olonne.

So if this all appeals to you then why not think of visiting the Vendée next year.
I can recommend three campsites in the area, all with very different characters.
To the north, on the coast at St Jean de Monts you will find the busy campsite of Le Clarys Plage right in the heart of one of the main tourist areas. Inland in the quiet of the lush green countryside yet only 15 minutes drive from the coast is La Garangeoire where we stayed. And if you would like to be based in the Southern Vendée then Bel campsite at La Tranche Sur Mer is a lovely base, near the beach and is ideal as well if you have a young family.

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1 comment:

  1. The campsite la Guyonnière, is also a campsite not very far away from the campsite la Garangeoire.
    Come and discover this great campsite at 300meters from the Jaunay lake in Vendee(France).


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