Ile de Noirmoutier, an island off the coast of Vendée

Ile de Noirmoutier - Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile

The Ile de Noirmoutier is a continental island that delineates the south side of the Baie de Bourgneuf.

The 450m wide Detroit of Fromentine separates it from the mainland.

The bay, also known as Baie de Bretagne, stretches from Pointe Saint-Gildas, near the Loire estuary, to Beauvoir-sur-mer to the south.

The sea once covered the whole region, but countless rocky spurs emerged from the shallow waters.

Ile de Noirmoutier - Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile port
Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile port

Alluvial deposits from the Loire and Charente gradually reclaimed land from the sea and created the Baie de Bourgneuf.

Their accumulation eventually caused the siltation of the bay that remained, however, at sea level; it thus flooded at high tides and isolated the many islands and islets.

Land reclamation and development of salt marshes during the Middle-Ages pushed the sea backward.

As a result, the islets became part of the main land.

However, the Ile de Noirmoutier, the largest and the westernmost of them, remained an island.

An island of low lands

The Ile de Noirmoutier might be the largest of these ancient islands, but it is only 18km long and 12km wide at the widest points!

Ile de Noirmoutier - St Philbert Church in Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile
St Philbert Church in Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile

The rocky northern section peeks between 15m and 20m above sea level; the south, on the other hand, is a region of lowlands, dunes and sandy beaches.

The salt marshes are of course at sea level, but are isolated by a system of dikes and polders developed in the 17th century.

Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile, the capital, was also the only agglomeration until the early 19th century.

The town, which today spreads over the northern third of the island, therefore boasts a rich historical and architectural heritage.

Four other communities have since appeared on the island.

Passage du Gois

Ile de Noirmoutier - Salt marshes in Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile
Salt marshes in Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile

A bridge was built in 1971 over the Detroit de Fromentine in order to connect the Ile de Noirmoutier to the mainland.

Until then, the Passage du Gois was the only access.

The only problem was that this natural causeway is completely submerged at high tide!

Many people were (still are) regularly caught by the rising tide.

It is therefore absolutely compulsory to check the schedule of the tides before embarking on the Gois, if you who don’t have an amphibian vehicle!

An island with a dream climate

Ile de Noirmoutier - Salt marshes in Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile
Salt marshes in Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile with mainland in the background

The Ile de Noirmoutier is located in the Atlantic Ocean.

It therefore enjoys mild winters and temperate and sunny summers.

These are favorable to the mimosa which blooms in the middle of winter, as on the French Riviera, and earned the island the lovely name of Ile aux Mimosas!

These excellent climatic conditions also promote the cultivation of potatoes; these indeed thrive in sandy land fertilized with wrack.

Finally, the sun favours the exploitation of the salt marshes by guaranteeing a constant and even water evaporation.

Abbey of Noirmoutier on the Ile d’Her

Ile de Noirmoutier - Entrance to the chateau de Noirmoutier
Entrance to the chateau de Noirmoutier

The island has attracted men since prehistory.

However, the first major settlement dates from 674AD, when abbot Philbert de Tournus (St. Philbert) founded a Benedictine monastery.

His monks dried the land and isolated it from the sea with a network of dikes in order to develop the salt marshes.

The island was then known as Ile d’Her.

The Monastery of Her – Moutier d’Herus – Hermoutier soon became known as Noir Moutier (black monastery) because of the colour of the monks’ coats.

The former abbey church housed the first tomb of St. Philbert.

The monks fortified their monastery during the Viking incursions of the 8th century.

Ile de Noirmoutier - Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile

Those succeeded, however, in burning the monastery and seizing the island, which they turned into a base for their incursions on the nearby river Loire.

The monks fled with the relics of St. Philbert and took refuge in the priory of Cunault-sur-Loire.

They escaped farther inland to Messac in Poitou, then St-Pourcain-sur-Sioule in Auvergne, before settling in Tournus in Burgundy, where they founded the Abbey of St. Philibert.

The abbey of Noirmoutier was therefore reclassified as priory and became dependent on the abbey of Tournus.

The Ile of Noirmoutier might be small, but it had two abbeys!

A community of Cistercian monks indeed founded the Abbaye de la Blanche in Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile in 1205.

This abbey, named after the monks’ white coats, was closed at the French Revolution.

Chateau of Noirmoutier

The monks erected a defensive wooden tower around 830AD in order to protect their abbey from the Vikings’ raids.

Ile de Noirmoutier - Chateau de Noirmoutier
Chateau de Noirmoutier

This first castle was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century.

The island then depended on the lordship of Garnache (near Chateauneuf, inland).

The Chateau de Noirmoutier* is a superb illustration of military architecture!

It consists of a central keep and courtyard protected by high walls and defensive towers.

The island was indeed coveted over the centuries, because of its exceptional geographical situation, off the coast of France and south of the Loire estuary!

The castle resisted the English attacks during the Hundred Years War, and the Spaniards’ in the 16th century, however, fell to the hands of the Dutch in 1674!

Ile de Noirmoutier - Canons from English vessel Maidstone seized in 1747 - Chateau de Noirmoutier
Canons from English vessel Maidstone seized in 1747 – Chateau de Noirmoutier

It changed hand a couple of times afterwards, until Louis XV acquired it in 1767.

It was also at the heart of the revolutionary turmoil, and in particular the Wars of Vendée.

It served as prison during the French Revolution, then as barracks during the 19th century.

The Governor’s House, the latest addition, was built in 1960 in the inner courtyard.

The governor certainly found the castle too eerie, cold and uncomfortable!

The Chateau de Noirmoutier is today the property of the commune of Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile, and the keep houses the castle museum.

It is also a classified Historical Monument.

A lovely little island in the Atlantic Ocean

Marine activity, fish farming, ostreoculture and sea salt production are the main industries of the island.

Ile de Noirmoutier - town house
Town house

The island indeed boasts 3 ports:

Noirmoutier-en’l’Ile, L’Herbaudière (modern fishing port in deep water) and L’Epine or Port of Morin, a stranded port.

The salt marshes, initially created by the Benedictine monks in the 7th century, were extensively developed 10 centuries later.

Sea salt and fleur de sel are still harvested in a traditional way.

This industry, which had declined in the 1980s, now thrives again.

Indeed, the number of sea salt producers in Noirmoutier today reaches 100 members (90% of the island’s producers.)

These have signed a contract with Aquasel**, to guarantee prices and volumes of production over the long term.

Noirmoutier’s castle and church are obviously major tourist landmarks.

Ile de Noirmoutier - Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile town hall
Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile town hall

However, the town also boasts superb mansions and a lovely maritime architecture.

Its streets are indeed lined with white houses with blue horizon shutters and flowered balconies; they lead to tiny inner courtyards and ancient wells …

Finally the landing pier L’Estacade, is the island’s emblematic spot!

The first pier Bois de la Chaize was built in 1889; it played a major role in the development of seaside tourism of the late 19th century.

The climate and beauty of the island contribute today to sustain a thriving coastal tourism.

The Ile de Noirmoutier is an excellent excursion for the day.

Department of Vendée
Coordinates: Lat 46.987248 – Long -2.269282

Sources: ** – *

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