The good citizens of the Vendée remain staunchly independent. They delight in sending unsuspecting tax inspectors from the capital on a wild-goose chase and in fleecing affluent Parisians. The laid-back British, seen here as the natural enemies of the stuffy French establishment, can always be sure of a warm welcome.
Warm in every sense. The southern part of the Vendée has an extraordinary micro-climate that for much of the year makes it almost as hot as the French Riviera. In summer temperatures above 30 degrees are common and the sea, especially in shallow waters, can be as congenial as the French Mediterranean.
For strong swimmers, the winds off the Atlantic coast produce ideal conditions for sailing and surfing. Many of the beaches are manned by lissom lifeguards in the summer months whose costumes put Baywatch in the shade and whose reassuring presence ensures that there are very few days when even for small children it is unsafe to swim. The beaches of the Vendée are a sandcastle builder’s dream, mile upon mile of firm sand, stretching as far as the eye can see. They are so vast that even on peak weekends in August there is plenty of room for everyone.
The best but also the busiest is Le Remblai at the principal resort of Les Sables (which of course means The Sands) d’Olonne. Lunch really is on the beach, as the tables of five different restaurants have been positioned on the sand itself. The frites are fantastic and for a few euros you can eat fresh moules dug out at low tide by fishermen equipped with tractors instead of trawlers. D’Olonne proper is modern and dull, but just across the estuary, a delightful short ferry ride away, lies the historic quarter of La Chaume. Built largely by Moorish and Basque refugees in the seventeenth century, its little streets have a Spanish flavour. The Arundel Tower, now a lighthouse, dates back even further, when it was an English watch post during the Hundred Years War between England and France. Bustling restaurants and cafes offering tasty tuna and sardines line the harbour wall.
Wilder and much quieter beaches can be found to the south beyond the reach of the tourist train, whose circuit includes the local zoo. However for those who like their creature comforts, the ideal compromise is La Grière-Plage, near the resort of La Tranche-sur-Mer. It offers more superb sand and a less frenetic atmosphere at the height of summer. Local cafés do a roaring trade in brioches Vendéennes, a mouth-watering cross between bread and cake. The varieties filled with chocolate chips, apricot or raspberry, or even all three, are probably made just for the tourists. To the east of La Tranche, which has a famous flower festival in spring, early risers can buy langoustines and gambas at bargain prices in the l’Aguillon fish market. Perhaps the best of the local markets, however, is inland around the main square of Moutiers-les-Mauxfaits. This appealing small town, just south of the regional capital of La Roche-sur-Yon, is set amongst dense wooded countryside.
Nearby Nalliers is another quiet and friendly little town whose charming church at the centre has an incongruously large square clock tower. The surrounding countryside includes the wonderful nature reserve of Mouzeuil. Its teeming wildlife and tranquil waters provide an ideal stopover for rare migratory birds. You may see fallow-finches, corncrakes and, if you are particularly fortunate, the magnificent purple heron on its way north or south. Some of the marshlands of the Marais Pontevin are navigable by small boats, which provide the best view of the great ruined abbey of Maillezais. On the nearby Autise River is another abbey, the exquisite Abbaye Royale de St-Vincent-de-Nieul. For longer excursions, the once Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle, with its fine museums and cobbled pedestrianised streets, is well worth the journey south. Children however will probably prefer a trip north east to the Chateau de Barbe-Bleue at Tiffauges halfway between Montaigu and Cholet, a town on the road to Angers. In the grounds of the chateau they can be taught to fire medieval crossbows and actually to take part in the firing of cannonballs and huge stones from mangonels and trebuchets. If young Sebastian should break their distance record and demolish a Jaguar in the car-park, it is worth bearing in mind that this is the kind of entry in an underwriter’s file that can blight your insurance record beyond repair.
© CDT Vendée