Marais Poitevin

Trip Start Aug 02, 2012
Trip End Aug 02, 2013

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Flag of France  , Poitou-Charentes,
Saturday, June 1, 2013

We were on the platform at the Niort station ten minutes before the expected arrival of Sheahan and James. The train pulled in on time and we eagerly looked into every car but there was no sign of them. We checked the flight arrivals at CDG and their plane had arrived on time so we figured that either they missed their original train from the airport or their connection from Poitiers. The next train from CDG was on its way in about forty minutes and the one after that was a couple of hours later. We hung around the station uploading blogs and when the next train pulled in, we were outside, pain au chocolats in hand (a true French welcome). A couple minutes later, Sheahan and James walked out with their baggage and we rushed over to greet them and hand over the pain au chocolats, which were much appreciated. We tossed their bags into the van and drove over to our campsite in Lidon, in the heart of the Marais Poitevin (Poitevin Marshes). We spent the rest of the evening chatting and catching up in the van, staying dry and warm. We were really glad to have the awning for the van that evening as the rain was pretty relentless.

The following morning, we set off from camp and drove into Coulon. The Friday market was a non-event, with only two food stalls. Nonetheless, we picked up some rillettes and some honey. We then booked our ninety minute, guided boat ride through the marshes, courtesy of Sheahan. A few minutes later, we were climbing into the barque, a flat-bottomed boat about fourteen feet in length. Our guide steered the boat standing up, similar to the gondoliers in Venice. We were steered under a low bridge, and within a minute, all traces of the town disappeared as we were ensconced by overhanging trees and the sounds of chirping birds. The waterways are quite narrow and most of the land in between the waterways are used for pasture for mostly cows, and on occasion horses. Fences are unnecessary here as the water acts as a natural barrier. The land was reclaimed by monks in the 11th century and today, they are mostly used for tourism. Farmers and fishermen still use the waterways, and cows are transported off/to the little islands by barque, three to a boat. The only other use for the land is for wood, where poplars are planted and harvested. Our guide informed us that poplar is ideal for growing here because it grows quickly, is cheap (an inexpensive wood that can be used for things such as camembert boxes) and can be transported out of the marshes in a "log train", towed by a barque. As we cruised the waterways, the guide would point out things of interest and towards the end of the tour, he pulled the boat close to the bank and asked us all to squish over to one side of the boat. Then he dug his oar in deep and started cranking his arm in a circular motion, releasing the methane that was trapped under the mud. With a lighter hidden in his palm, he literally set the water on fire from the stern to the bow, surprising all of us. The heat was quite strong (I singed my eyebrows) and it all happened so quickly I had to ask him to do it again so that I could get it on video. That was definitely a highlight of the tour for me!

We were dropped back off in Coulon around noon and walked to the boulangerie to pick up a baguette for lunch. After a quick picnic lunch of bread, cheese, rillettes and salad, we walked back into Coulon and headed towards Garette on a walking path. We weren't planning on going the entire way but before we knew it, we were in Garette, about 3.5km away. The walkway had paralleled the road most of the way but towards the end, it veered off for a bit along a raised boardwalk through the marshes. This was the best part of the walk and we even saw a couple small ponds covered in what our guide had called “green lentils”. These “green lentils”, when they are covering all the waterways, are what give the marshes their nickname of “green Venice”. When we got to Garette, we were ready for a grand café au lait (aka grand crème) and sat down at a patio right along the water. It was lovely to just sit and enjoy some coffee and we were soon recharged and walking back into Coulon. It had been a fairly busy day and so we headed back to camp for the evening.

The next morning, we were all on our bikes (Sheahan and James on their rental bikes) by around 10am and heading off to explore the marshes. It was Sheahan and James’ first time on a bicycle in a few years so we decided to take it nice and easy and ventured off on a hard-packed, traffic-free cycling path, just outside camp. The paths were soon riddled with potholes and we were all weaving to dodge them. We passed by quite a few pastures and gardens. Occasionally, we came across fields that were recently logged but other than those sections, it was very lush and green all around. There were a few sections that were too muddy to ride through and we ended up walking our bikes around the edges of the path. We rode into Arçais and then back along a small country road into St-Hilaire-le-Palud. We passed by some lovely fields of barley with red poppies scattered throughout. We stopped in town to pick up some bread and patisseries and then rode a few kilometers further back to camp. By the time we got to camp, it was nearly 1pm! Our short bike ride had turned into a several hour jaunt but everyone was still doing fine. We sat outside at our picnic table and enjoyed our lunch, trying to drown out the noises of the large group of at least twenty beside us that had descended on the campsite the previous evening. The entire marais area is excellent for birdlife and the campsite was no exception. But with the noisy group beside us, the birds had either disappeared or were being drowned out. We headed out of camp for our afternoon ride around 3pm and worked our way along the canal towards the little town of Damvix. We arrived just in time to see a group of youngsters engaged in a game of what can only be described as kayak-polo. With a floating goal on one end, and another goal suspended from a bridge, they were all in their kayaks trying to push a ball through with their paddles. It was entertaining to watch and I guess it was comparable to street hockey back in Canada, although not as prevalent. Their game was interrupted very shortly after we arrived as a hotel peniche arrived and prepared to dock.

Sheahan and James were exploring a souvenir shop in town while Megs went to find some ice cream. She soon reappeared with a box of magnums which we polished off sitting by the canal. We were soon back on our bikes and heading back towards the campsite, or so we thought so. We were taking a different path back than the one we had arrived on but I was navigating without the map and we ended up slightly off track. James was getting a bit tired by then and wasn’t too happy to find out that I had led them astray. He was a good sport about it and I kept egging him on until we reached camp. He was demanding a café au lait but unfortunately there were no cafes in the vicinity. By the time we made it back to camp, it was nearing 6pm and we had ended up going for a longer ride than that morning! Megs measured the detour and it was only a couple kilometers but at the time had seemed much longer. When she tallied up the entire day’s riding, we were surprised to find that we had gone about 33km, much further than we had originally planned. 
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