At the heart of the Marais Poitevin in western France, like the back country of the Florida Everglades but without the alligators, is a mysterious labyrinth of waterways, an elaborate 4,000-kilometre network of canals, dykes and meandering streams which sustains the wet marshes or Marais Mouillés of the Poitou-Charentes and its strange, languid landscape of fens and meadows.
Some of the canals were dug in the twelfth century, evidence of man’s unavailing efforts to direct the waters and hold back the ocean. Their eerie silence gave life to legend: here is the home of Gargantua, one of the giants created by the writer François Rabelais in 1532.
This Venise Verte, or Green Venice, can be criss-crossed in shallow boats guaranteed not to hit the bottom, with a guide, or for the bold, without one. Climbing a poplar tree to see whether you are heading in the right direction is often the only way to be sure. For those who like the comfort of signposts, there is a myriad of trails for hikers, bikers and horse riders. The surest-footed animal in this tricky terrain is a scruffy breed of donkey called the Baudet du Poitou
The sheer diversity of wildlife, be it mammals, birds or insects, is truly astonishing. Hundreds of tiny green frogs blend into the background, betrayed only by the occasional leap. Rare species of heron seem as common as seagulls and even otters work away nonchalantly, barely an arm’s length from the boats. The Marais Poitevin provides a fisherman’s paradise, with eel and pike in abundance.
The whitewashed village of Coulon is one of several friendly little inland ports where you can have eel for lunch with mogettes, a dry, white square-ended bean, followed by angelica root sweets and liqueurs. Many restaurants use alleyways that plunge straight into the canals, so select your table with care.
© O.T. Vendée