Poitevin Marsh, the Green Venice
Poitevin Marsh, the second largest wetland in France and Great Site of France
The Marais Poitevin is a vast marshy area, a remnant of the Gulf of Poitou, a limestone plateau formed during the Jurassic.
The sea that covered it retreated during the Würm glaciation; rivers and rain eroded it leaving behind the hardest rocks that formed a series of islets where men built villages and abbeys such as Mazillais, Saint Michel in Herm or Marans.
The Poitevin Marsh stretches from the Baie d'Aiguillon on the Atlantic coast, to Niort to the east and Fontenay-le-Comte to the north.
Over the centuries, marsh dwellers - maraîchins - drained and reshaped it in two zones; the dry marsh and the wetland.
The Poitevin Marsh was classified Grand Site de France in 2010 ; it’s the 7th major natural site and 2nd largest marsh in France after the Camargue.
It was labelled Regional Nature Park because of its exceptional natural landscapes, flora and fauna.
The dry marsh represents 2/3 of the Poitevin Marsh; it spreads from the Bay of Aiguillon to Marans.
This is where you’ll find the many rocky islets that once peaked above the wetland.
Monks and villagers started to drain the marsh in the 13th century to convert it for agriculture and animal rearing.
They created a vast network of straight waterways - conches - to delineate their plots, and built reservoirs, flood gates and locks to control water flow and irrigate them.
Wetland - Green Venice
The remaining third of the Poitevin Marsh is the wetland that floods during the winter.
Men shaped it too, but in the 19th century; they dug hundreds of kilometers of waterways to transport their farm products to the various market places and communicate with the outside.
They converted their plots of land into orchards, meadows and market crops and planted their banks with poplars and ash trees to stop soil erosion.
The best way to discover the Poitevin Marsh?
The best way to get around is by punt; you’ll slide silently over the waterways under the tree canopy.
It’s a land of dense foliage, lush green meadows and water, hence its name of Petite Venise Verte - Green Venice.
You’ll find 28 piers or embarcadères (scroll down the linked page); 10 in Vendée, 13 in Deux Sèvres and 5 in Charente Maritime.
This is where you can to hire punts and set off on your own, or chose a punter-guide who will introduce you to the flora and fauna of the marsh.
La Maison du Marais Poitevin museum in Coulon will take you to the discovery of the marsh’ history and its ecological issues, but also of how man shaped it through the centuries.
If waterways are not your favourite, you can set off on a horse drawn carriage, but also on the many hiking and biking trails.
The ornithological park (in Saint-Hilaire-la-Palud) will show you the Marsh’ natural fauna; the stunning kingfisher, the domesticated Poule de Marrans - a local breed of hens - but also nutria if you care to get up at the crack of dawn, to name a few.
However, the emblematic animal of the marsh is the dragonfly, light and fragile, that land graciously on the water.
Angelica, the emblematic flower of the Poitevin Marsh
The flora is equally rich and varied, but the Angelica archangelica is the undisputed queen of the marsh.
Man has used it for its virtues since ancient times; they used this superb umbillifere against the plague, and witches to prepare their magic potions...
Today we use it for its medicinal virtues (digestive, disinfectant and nervous system), but also in confectionery and liquor production!
Angelica has become the Poitevin Marsh's emblematic flower as it finds there optimum conditions to grow and proliferate.
You’ll easily recognize its thick and hollow fluted stalk that grow up to 1.70 m and its unique aromatic scent.
Niort has long been known as the capital of Angelica.
Local nuns started to use it in the 18th century in confectionery and liquor production, triggering the city’s commercial expansion.
Candied Angelica sticks even became a luxury product, thanks to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who fell in love with it when visiting the city in 1852.
Angelica has since been part of the Poitevin Marsh’ heritage and is mainly used to make candied sticks, jam, sweets and liquor; you’ll find the main plantations around the town of Prin-Deyrançon.
The short video below will give you an overview of a boat trip from Coulon...