The Vendée is a glorious department. The wind from the Atlantic sweeps in along a coastal landscape where long sandy beaches are backed by sand dunes. Estuaries provide sanctuaries for all kinds of birds; small coves invite you to dig in the sand for clams and cockles, while the ocean invites you to take a yacht out into the blue and beyond.
The protected coastline of the Côte Lumière (coast of light) stretches 155 miles/250 kms along the shore. 86 miles/140 kms of that coast make up the Vendée beaches. Out to sea, Ile d’Yeu is wild and rocky while Noirmoutier takes you back to a gentler past.
Inland, small towns and villages tell a different history in this counter revolutionary part of France.
The strange and peaceful marshy Marais Poitevin is the second largest wetland area in France after the Camargue in the south of France.
The Vendée is well known to the French, but less so by foreign visitors. And if you haven’t been there, you’re really missing out. It’s a seductive part of France to visit.
First Things First: Where is the Vendée?
Butting up to Brittany, the Vendée stretches from south of the Loire where Nantes is the last major city before the river flows into the Atlantic to just north of Ile de Ré in Charente-Maritime.
Explore the Vendée Coast
Get to Noirmoutier either by the Passage du Gois, a causeway that connects to the mainland at low tide, or by a free bridge.
You’re in a world of buckets and spades with locals foraging for cockles, mussels and razor clams. In sand dunes backed by forests of oaks and fragrant maritime pines. And cycle paths that take you into the middle of the island where artisan salt makers practice their craft.
Noirmoutier does have a chic side. La Plage des Dames has painted wooden beach huts and beachfront restaurants. In 1892 the Impressionist artist Renoir visited the island, painting Le Bois de la Chaise, just behind the resort in this image.
Noirmoutier became fashionable during the Belle Epoque. Rich outsiders came here to build spacious, elegant villas among the trees and enjoy the new bains de mer sport. Even today the island seems caught in the 19th century.
It has one more claim to fame. The island produces a great regional food: the best potatoes in the world, according to potato experts. They are also the most expensive.
Further south, Ȋle d’Yeu is 10 miles/17 kms off the coast. Once the major tuna fishing port on the Atlantic coast, today it’s still an active fishing port. So if you’re eating here, order monkfish, sole, turbot, sea bream or shellfish. It’s wilder than Noirmoutier and accessible by ferry only.
It’s expensive to take a car, so either go for the day to walk the unspoilt Côte Sauvage along the GR80 footpath.
Coastal Towns along the Vendée Coast
Little resorts, coastal towns and fishing ports are dotted along the coast. They offer sports from sailing to sand yachting or horse riding along the sands. In Saint-Jean-de-Monts try the Thalasso spas.
Then wander around the Quartier du Maroc, a section of fishermens’ cottages built by Moroccan sailors in the 16th century.
The best known coastal town is Les Sables d’Olonne which has been delighting holiday makers since 1866 when the railways first brought people from Nantes and Paris to the Atlantic coast.
It’s a great yachting town, partly because of its boat builders and partly due to Its impressive yachting marina.
This is the starting point for the world’s greatest solo, unassisted, round-the-world-race held every four years. The Vendée Globe, aka the Everest of the Seas, sets out from here on November 8, 2020 at 13.02. The world watches as the 33 skippers battle their way through dangerous and icy seas for over three months. This year, four of them are British: one man and three women, adding to the nail-biting exciting.
Here’s a full guide to the Vendée Globe with some videos to take you out into the ocean, plus facts about the race, boats, skippers and more.
For a really good description of Les Sables d’Olonne, read Maigret’s Holiday by Georges Simenon and follow the detective as he walks the streets and pauses in cafes for coffee or a glass of white wine.
Towns and Cities
On the south east border, Fontenay-le-Comte was the capital of the Vendée until 1804. Its streets are full of delightful streets of old houses, overlooked by the Château de Terre-Neuve.
Built in 1580 for the soldier-poet Nicolas Rapin, friend of French Kings, this Renaissance building became the centre of 17th-century intellectual and artistic life.
For most of us however, the most famous inhabitant was George Simenon who wrote about the area while staying here, including setting one of his novels in Les Sables d’Olonne.
La Roche sur Yon
Fontenay’s loss was La Roche sur Yon’s gain. In 1804, Napoleon chose the town as the department’s capital. Largely destroyed during the Vendée Wars (though there is one 16th-century Renaissance house left), it was renamed Napoléonville and a new population was shipped in to kick start the new capital.
The town was rebuilt in a pentagon shape around the main Place Napoléon. It’s quite a change from the normal French main square. The huge space has four natural pools where animals made of wood and steel poke out from the water.
The attractive town of Luçon is dominated by its cathedral and its 85-metre high spire. It’s thanks to Luçon’s most illustrious resident, Bishop Armand Jean du Plessis, appointed in 1607. He was part of the Richelieu family and as Cardinal Richelieu, became one of the most powerful men in France as State Adviser to Louis XIII.
He may not have liked his bishopric, but he transformed the town, rebuilding churches, the cathedral and his palace. He also founded a college and hospital. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was rebuilt in pseudo-medieval style and it’s those streets that are the most attractive.
Richelieu also ensured the rise of absolute monarchy after the remaining Hugenot rebels against the catholic church and the king were defeated at the siege of La Rochelle in 1628.
The Vendée is full of charming little villages, many of them Petites Cités de Caractère (Small Cities of Character). The citation is given to small towns and villages with a remarkable architectural and landscape heritage. Never mind the qualifications, they are lovely places to visit.
Mallièvre is an old weaving village built on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Sèvre Nantaise river.
Mouchamps has a church which stands on the site of the old medieval chapel of the castle; Vouvant on a bend in the river Mère has a church that dates back to the 11th century, an old fortress and a tower built in 1242.
Nieul-sur-l’Autise has old abbey buildings and Romanesque cloisters which are the last remaining intact in Europe.
Renaissance houses and a 17th-century covered market attract visitors to Foussais-Payré.
Gardens in the Vendée
The formidable keep of the old castle dominates Bazoges-en-Pareds. Furniture decorates the five floors of the keep, but the main attraction here is the superb view of the surrounding countryside, and more to the point, the medieval gardens spread out below you. Old species of roses, aromatic plants and herbs, medicinal plants, fruits and vegetables grow in strict ranks of beds.
For a complete contrast, visit the village of Thiré in the south of the Vendée. Le Bâtiment is an old 17th-century manor house bought by William Christie. He’s the Franco-American conductor and baroque music specialist who founded the ensemble Les Arts Florissants and who has presented operas at Glyndebourne since 1996. His garden is extraordinary, inspired by the grand French and Italian gardens of the Renaissance. Each year, usually in June, there’s a stunning music festival.
A Little History of the Vendée War
Bear with me on this one; it will explain a lot of what you’ll see in the Vendée, particularly statues and monuments to people you won’t have heard of but who were the heroes.
The Vendée war was short lived but was particularly brutal as conflicts within a country tend to be.
In 1793 an uprising began, initially against taxes penalizing the rural community, becoming a more general protest supported by the catholic church. The Vendeans were fighting against the increasingly repressive Revolutionary government in Paris and mass conscription for a European war that seemed a million miles away from the Vendée.
Quick to act, the Revolutionary government sent 45,000 troops to the region. Reprisals were swift as the colonnes infernales (‘infernal columns’) of General Louis Marie Turreau massacred tens of thousands of Vendean civilians.
A scorched earth policy followed: crops were burnt, cattle killed and whole villages razed to the ground.
A treaty largely stopped the main uprising but intermittent fighting went on until 1799, and beyond.
In 1815 during Napoleon’s 100 days of freedom, Vendean loyalty to Louis XVIII presented Napoleon with a major problem and he was forced to send 10,000 troops to put the rebellion down.
Witness Vendée History
See the whole span of Vendée history at L’Historial de la Vendée. This modern museum covers the Vendée from prehistory through the Vendée war to the 20th century.
L’Historial is located just outside Les Lucs-sur-Bourgogne, the village where 564 people were massacred in 1794 by the infernal columns. All their names are inscribed on plates in the Chapel of Petit Luc, just a few minutes away from the museum. It was built on the site of the church destroyed during the massacre.
A five-minute walk from L’Historial takes you to the small, modest memorial to the massacre. Hidden in the trees, it was inaugurated in 1993 by Alexandre Solzhenitsyn.
Live the Vendée War
A 20-minute drive from L’Historial brings you to Les Brouzils and the Refuge de Grasla. It shows how the population fleeing the war fared in the forest in the winter of 1794 (though you’ll need to understand French).
In July, there’s a re-enactment of that time, something the French are particularly good at. It takes place in the evenings over a weekend and is well worth seeing.
Where the Vendée War Ended
The Logis de la Chabotterie is both beautiful and important for the history of the Vendée. The Royalist leader, the splendidly named François-Athanase Charette de la Contrie Charette was arrested here in March 1796, bringing to an end the war. He was shot in Nantes six days later. A hero of the American War of Independence, he had returned to lead the Vendean army.
Step into the past in this fortified manor house where rooms look as if the owner has just stepped out for a few minutes. A table is laid for a meal; a draughts board is open for a game; a half-drunk glass of wine stands on a table beside an embroidered chair.
Spectacle and Outdoor Theatre at Le Puy du Fou
Le Puy du Fou is not well known to foreign visitors, but it’s spectacular. This major theme park (with a difference) offers a swash-buckling interpretation of history; a chance to dream of living in the past when life was good. (We all know it was nasty, brutish and short but we have to let our dreams rip now and then.)
You wander around a medieval village, forts and châteaux. That’s just the start.
Daily shows take you from Le Signe du Triomphe in the Gallo-Roman Stadium, a replica of the Roman Coliseum, to a falconry show where the big birds of prey swoop down from the arms of the falconers above you on the ramparts. Or how about Viking boats on a lake? Or the jousting competition where you sit just feet from the knights as they charge at each other?
For a great piece of theatre centred around the Vendée war, book for Le Dernier Panache. It follows the fate of the leader, François-Athanase Charette de la Contrie Charette (see above).
The night time spectacle is particularly seductive. Les Noces de Feu (Nights of Fire) set to music, brings the underworld beneath the lake up to the surface. It’s really something, so get a special package and stay the night in the Park so you can see it.
Stay at Puy du Fou
Puy du Fou also has some of the best themed hotels in the world. Try the Roman Villa or stay militant in one of the Field of the Cloth of Gold pavilions. Choose a red and gold marquee for the English King Henry VIII or a blue and gold one for the French King François if you’re on the French side. The latest hotel is Le Grand Siècle, a reimagining of Louis XIV’s private château. It opened in the summer of 2020.
Into the Countryside
Le Marais Breton-Vendéen
The coastal marshland of Le Marais Breton-Vendéen stretches south from Saint Jean de Mont down the coastline to St Gilles Croix de Vie. Here you’ll see bourrines, the traditional marshlander’s houses made of straw and mud hunkering down under their thatched rooves, windmills and boatmen in flat-bottomed boats on the canals.
The small town of Challans, capital of the Marais Breton celebrates the past for four Thursdays in July in an old-time festival. They shut the town to traffic and your only means of transport is by horse and cart. Stalls fill the street selling traditional goods and local produce; there are forgotten games to play, folk dances and street theatre to watch. And this being France, it’s all done in costume.
Le Marais Poitevin
The Marais Poitevin is the second largest wetland area in France after the Camargue, and the fifth largest in Europe. It’s an extraordinary part of France, this marshy world covering 198,000 acres of rivers, networks of dykes controlling the slow moving waterways and roads and tracks beside them.
Migratory birds wheel in the sky above you; otters pop up from the waterways; dappled light filters through the trees; wild flowers grow in the green marshland. There are paths to cycle along and ruined churches to discover in the hidden marshes.
The most beautiful part is the Marais Mouillé or Wet Marsh. Known as the Green Venice, this is the place for a boat trip through the quiet waters but only in the summer. In winter it becomes a flood zone.
The Bay d’Aiguillon is an area of huge mudflats with salt meadows that are covered daily by the incoming tides. Bird lovers can climb the observatory towers to look out for the astonishing number of migratory birds (over 330 at the last count).
The beaches are long sweeps of sand backed by dunes, perfect for family holidays. Walk along the Veillon dune and the Pointe du Payré in Talmont Saint Hilaire. It starts in the green forest of Jard and finishes by the sea.
Shopping in the Vendée
Check out local markets for fresh produce and traditional crafts. This list is for 2019, but markets are so much a part of local life in France that they hardly change over the years.
Sallertaine is a small town on the coast in the Marais. Once an island cut off from the main coastline, today it’s a vibrant community of artisans.
L’Ile aux Artisans has a variety of craftspeople from leather workers to fashion designers, from woodworkers to glass blowers. On four Mondays in July/August, the boutiques remain open to 11pm, and the streets fill with musicians and performers.
And for sightseeing, Sallertaine boasts the oldest working windmill in France. The sails of Le Moulin de Rairé have been turning since 1555.
Food of the Vendée
You’re by the sea, so expect the freshest of seafood from monkfish to red mullet, bass to blue lobster and of course Atlantic oysters.
The white bean (Mogette de Vendée) makes an appearance in the countryside. Try it buttered and flavoured with garlic on toast for a snack, or used extensively with meat.
Noirmoutier potatoes are famous. They’re also the most expensive in the world. These ‘bonnottes’ are only grown on the island, getting their distinct taste from the seaweed used to fertilise the fields. Planted at Candlemas (Feb 2, 40 days after Christmas), the small potatoes are harvested in May.
Salt production is big in the Vendée. Once a dying art, today many young artisan makers have learnt the skill and are producing very good (but necessarily expensive) sea salt.
Join La Route du Sel from Sallertaine for a route that you can cycle, walk, or canoe along taking you through the countryside and past the salt works.
More about Food in France
And there’s much more…like
Sport in the Vendée
Two towns are known for their surfing: Les Sables d’Olonne and Longeville sur Mer. But if it’s water sports you’re after, the Vendée has it all from kitesurfing…
Or just playing on the beach
Then there’s cycling…You can cycle the 200 kms (124 miles) along the coast. It’s just one part of the Vélodyssée route from Brittany to the Spanish border (1200 kms/745 miles). And that in turn is part of the ambitious Eurovéloute 1 which takes you from Norway all the way to Portugal.
More about the whole Atlantic Coast