Conor Power gets down to drainage level in the Vendée to explore some of its hidden past
One of the reasons for the Vendée’s towns being so relatively plain compared to the rest of France is because this was the stronghold of the main resistance to the French Revolution. There was a huge civil war here that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and obliterated most of the old towns here. It’s a conflict that is only really talked about in loud voices in very recent times, having been glossed over somewhat by French school history books for many decades. Going further back again in history, you find that the flat Vendée was actually composed of hundreds of islands.The little village of Sallertaine was one such island and today it is as charming as they come in this part of the world: Neat white houses with red curly roof tiles cluster around a church and a little main square offering shade. A small country road runs through it and we arrived during siesta hour, when most of the houses and businesses are resting, their green and blue shutters closed up. The enticing Bistrot du Chêne Vert catches the eye with its reasonable menu. Beyond, to the left, a more simple ancient church stands, offering some clue to the former glory of this part of the world.
Just down the street past the more modern Catholic Church, the epicentre of the local low-key tourist industry is to be found in the form of La Route du Sel (The Salt Route). A slow-speaking Scot of sardonic wit named Malcolm presented himself to us. Judging from the depth of his sun-tan, Malcolm appeared to have put down a good many years living in the Vendée so far. He kitted us all out with life-jackets and paddles, filling us in with some of the back story of his life at the same time: Glaswegian of 100% Irish stock, he said that he used to be overly fond of the drink and that he kept making his way further south in an effort to renew his life, before settling into a seasonal business in a small rural town in western France. He led us and another French family first to the site of the ancient church for a brief history lesson in French and English and then across a field to where our canoes awaited.I hadn’t manoeuvred a canoe but it seemed pretty straightforward: one person sits in front, the other behind and then you simply paddle on opposing sides of the boat. Otherwise, you’ll end up going around in circles, he reminded us, demonstrating comically and energetically in one of the canoes on the grass.
It’s only when you get to the very low level of the surface of the canals that you get an appreciation of how many of these canals there still are. The opaque water flows through so much of this part of France from a time when the whole province was still part of the sea dotted with several islands. Boats coming from as far away as Belgium unloaded their ballast here before taking on their cargo of precious salt. Gradually, this helped to fill in the former sea and gradually reclaim it like the Dutch did with their land. All around the village of Sallertaine, there are canals criss-crossing the land like veins through flesh.
Back at the beginning of the Middle Ages, the salt business was so important here that three churches were established in the town and it became the main centre of salt extraction – the oil industry of the Middle Ages. It’s hard to imagine that now as there is practically no trace of the important settlement that existed back then, most of it having been swept away by the religious and political wars that followed.But all of that melts under the warm summer sun as you paddle your way through the salt marsh canals. There is lots of wildlife to look at, from the twittering sparrows by the shore to the egrets and waders in the water to the various hawks up above. Following the simple signposts en route, we went under overhanging branches and through tunnels, floated past bales of straw and bemused cows chewing the cud in the fields until we arrived back where we had originally parked the car.
The Vendée is one of the most popular parts of France for Irish holidaymakers, with its long safe beaches and its accessibility to the ferry ports in the north. The Route du Sel is the kind of thing that gives you the option of taking a break from the beach and exploring a little more of the area in a fun way that all the family will enjoy: A relaxing boat trip, learning a new skill and getting a history tour – not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.
For further information, visit www.laroutedusel.com.
Get Yourself There
We travelled with Brittany Ferries. The Cork-Roscoff route runs from April until October and Sallertaine is about a 4-hour drive south or Roscoff.