Le Marais Poitevin

dsc7520_3The Vendée is a large département which forms a substantial part of the west coast of France. Of particular interest to us has been a rather unusual area therein known as the Marais Poitevin. Inland from La Rochelle this land is essentially artificial. Until the 10th century or thereabouts, it was a mixture of natural marshland and a deep coastal inlet – La Golfe de Poitou – that ran inland almost to Fontenay Le Compte. Over a period of some hundreds of years, the labours of monks and others drained the area and turned it into fertile agricultural land, much as in the English Fens. The resulting countryside has a good deal in common with the Fens although milder in climate. You can find an informative history of the process (in English) here.

A substantial part of the Marais is common land upon which sheep, cattle and horses graze freely for much of the warmer months of the year. Each year at around Easter time, in true rural French style, the Marais Communale is formally opened with great ceremony and a weekend of social events, markets, feasts, performances, dancing etc – in other words, a typical French fete. Animals are listed, marked and set loose on the Marais, with very evident delight. Equally evident is the delight with which the locals celebrate this symbolic ending of winter.

We’ve been fortunate to have been invited to one of these events on several occasions in a small village called Le Poiré sur Velluire. The festivities last the whole weekend and very much serve to bring the local community together after the relative isolation of the winter months: this is a deeply rural area and the “Ouverture du Marais Communale” is a significant event in the village’s social calendar. The entire community is more-or-less involved and visitors are made welcome with great warmth and generosity.

From a personal point of view, I’ve found these occasions a wonderful opportunity to collect pictures: not just my usual landscapes but the uniquely French faces that one only sees at such an event. The French face has, I think, an animation and depth of modulation rarely shared by its English and other European counterparts and this I find quite fascinating. As one of my great heroes, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson knew well, the French have a gift of visual openness and expression that is simply irresistible to anyone with a camera.

This is not to suggest that the landscape is without visual merit – far from it – the fact of its remarkable flatness does nothing to render it less attractive. The ever-present water almost guarantees interesting images even if, on some occasions, it looks more like an exquisitely mown lawn rather than a river or canal. Most notable for this quality is the area around the town of Coulon – known quite aptly as La Venise Verte – around whose waterways one can happily paddle for hours on end.

Click here to see a slideshow of favourite images.