The entire coastline of Vendée (Vendee) and its hinterland, reaching east across the bocages to the lush green cradles of the Berry, Limousin, Périgord and Quercy, is a landscape of great diversity, a place of farmland, pine woods, marshes and dunes much loved by bird-life, uncomplicated, endearing villages, and an almost numinous light that found favour with artists such as Renoir, who thought it was ‘an admirable place’.
An exceptionally mild climate has long made Vendée a popular destination for overseas and domestic visitors who come to appreciate the natural history and outdoor adventure, as much as the many churches, abbeys and museums. Gymnophobics will find that the gentle climate makes the region popular with nature lovers who prefer their nature in the altogether, and a few naturist beaches are dotted along the coast. Nature lovers less challenged in the wardrobe department, will find that there are numerous waymarked footpaths, and almost 1000km of cycling routes, including a signposted route along the coastal mudflats.
'...over 100 tourist attractions and more than 500 festivals...'
Families with young children in tow will want for nothing: there are over 100 tourist attractions and more than 500 festivals, shows or manifestations held each year. Principal among these, albeit it at some distance from the coastal resorts, is the great multi-themed park of Puy du Fou, described as a ‘whirlpool of extraordinary spectacles and a breath of fresh air far from the turmoil of everyday life’.
So ideal for tourism is Vendée that it ranks second among the French departments, with over 5 million visitors each year, and third among the French departments for quality of life.
Along the Vendée coast, mussels and oysters are cultivated; inland the flat arable fields are flowing with wheat, maize and sunflower that by late July bow their heads like rows of admonished children. Here the impression is strong that the passage of time appears to have had little impact on rural life. It is in this timelessness that Vendée holds great appeal. Thankfully, the tourism of Vendée is well managed, and a walk along any part of the coast – the Côte de la Luminière – at sunset will always be a magical experience, whatever the time of year.
Les Sables d’Olonne is a perfect seaside resort, a great long arc of golden beach that is a gem: families huddle in islanded groups, bodies are bronzed (or sautéed), children gambol like never before and playfully bury papa in the sand while he sleeps. Set against a usually gentle sea on the one hand and two miles of pizzeria, bars, cafés, shops, restaurants and papa baba on the other, and the resultant mayhem is simply delightful.
Throughout Vendée, the food is, not surprisingly, largely from the sea. But as you move inland, into the bocage, so the cuisine changes noticeably. Anyone hankering for beans on toast might try the grillée de mogettes, while equally traditional fare is the jambon de Vendée, a kind of gammon steak, served with mogettes, and very filling. The Vendée (Vindee) wine – Fief Vendéen – is earning a well-deserved reputation, and, in 2010, acquired the status of Appellation Origine Controllée.
Away from the coast, myriad simple villages dot the landscape, typically exemplified by that of Vouvant, perched on a bluff overlooking the River Mère. There is a tranquillity here, one that has prevailed since Roman times, and, as elsewhere, the whole impression is of an unhurried calm and restfulness. All around, the bocage is parcelled by hedgerows and backed by ancient woodlands, and this is no better viewed than from the top of the Tour Mélusine at the northern edge of the village; 120 steps take you to this outstanding viewpoint.
In complete contrast to the coastal shenanigans, where fun, frolicking and fast food hold court, a vast area to the south of Vendée (Vendee), and inland from the sea – the Marais Poitevin – is both a paradox and a delight. Largely protected by the status of regional park, the Marais is a truly remarkable habitat, reclaimed from the sea by monks of old, where man and nature live in harmony. Once a pest-infested swamp, this area is now known as La Venise Verte, although the comparison with Venice is a little far-fetched devolving, as it did, from the pronouncements of royalty, in this case Henry of Navarre, the future King Henry IV.
Fundamentally this is one huge, flat, low-lying area; quite special to explore in a bon gré mal gré kind of way. Inevitably, you will hit upon the ruined abbey of Maillezais, which contrives to find the nearest thing to a hill on which to stand. But it is not well signed, and you may have to take a few wrong turnings to find it. Dwarfed by huge vaulted arches, the abbey was by far the richest in Vendée. After centuries of prestige that saw its abbot elevated to the rank of bishop, the abbey was auctioned off during the Revolution to an entrepreneur who imaginatively sold the stone to local builders. Enough remains, however, to give a clear indication of the size and importance of this massive centre of religion.
'...myriad simple villages dot the landscape...'
Before venturing too far inland, it is worth considering a visit to Ile d’Yeu, out in the Atlantic, and described as pure paradise. This tiny island is one of the furthest from the French coast, and is a place of unspoilt nature, a mild, sunny climate and little in the way of traffic. The island, which rather typifies the easy-going way of life in Vendée, has been inhabited for more than 2,000 years as a number of dolmens and menhirs testify. The main town is Port-Joinville, and from here you can explore the coastline, which is never less than outstanding. And while a day may give you a flavour of this exquisite island, a longer stay is preferred.
Back on mainland Vendée, the principal town by far is La Roche sur Yon, built on a plateau overlooking the River Yon, and very clearly of military design, its grid-pattern layout radiating from a central square dominated by an equestrian statue of Napoleon I. But apart from this evident link with military history, the role of the principal towns in Vendée is very much an administrative one, leaving the glorious coastline, and the contrasting marshes and bocage farmlands, to play upon your senses. What seems to make Vendée so special is that it handles the bustle and brashness of seaside tourism equally as adeptly as it does the rural peacefulness of its inland heritage. And in offering both extremes, makes a delightful destination to visit.