The French Green Venice

Located on the borders of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Pays-de-la-Loire regions, the Poitevin Marsh lies in the ancient gulf of the Pictones, reclaimed from the sea. Water management has been a constant problem for centuries. People dug out canals in the wet marsh to protect the dry marsh. This area has been nicknamed the Green Venice!

Carte touristique du Marais PoitevinFondation du patrimoine

A story of water

The Poitevin Marsh covers 110,000 hectares between the Vendée, the Deux-Sèvres, and the Charente-Maritime. During the Roman era, this area was still a group of small islands surrounded by marsh, where villas were built. That is why it is referred to as the gulf of the Pictones. Starting in the 11th century, religious communities settled on these islands and decided to cultivate the very fertile land.

Marais séchéFondation du patrimoine

They surrounded the fields with dikes and dug a complete hydraulic system that drained its water into canals and then into the Aiguillon Bay: that was the beginning of the Dry Marsh.
The priests joined together for this project and dug Le Canal des Cinq Abbésthe (Canal of Five Priests).
This network also made it possible to bring fresh water from rivers to irrigate the fields.

Carte touristique du Marais PoitevinFondation du patrimoine

The dry marsh area is located below sea level. To protect themselves from floods caused by water coming from the watershed, the inhabitants created clay dikes called levées (levies).

In the winter, these dikes held back the rainwater, flooding the dark green area of the map: this is the wet marsh, which acts like a sponge to protect crops in the dry marsh.

Conche à ArçaisFondation du patrimoine

Under Henry IV's reign, the system was improved through ties established with Dutch engineers, who were experts in controlling water. The name of the canal separating the dry marsh from the wet marsh gets its name from this episode: the Dutch Belt Canal.

In turn, the wet marsh was developed in the 19th century, under Napoleon I's influence. The Emperor wanted the Sèvre Niortaise to be navigable.

Chemin de halage à ArçaisFondation du patrimoine

People dug several thousand kilometers of canals, called gullies, inlets, or ditches, by hand. This work was motivated by the promise of owning exploitable land cleared in this way.
The whole area is now designated a Grand Site of France.

Frênes tétârds dans le Marais Mouillé à ArçaisFondation du patrimoine

The edges of the canals are planted with ash trees to limit natural erosion. These trees are pollarded, meaning their branches are cut frequently to strengthen the roots.

Owners of the plots also used wood from these trees as fuel for heating.

Jardin dans les canaux à ArçaisFondation du patrimoine

Pollarded ash trees are the symbol of the Poitevin marsh. Threatened with extinction, a large-scale replanting policy has been implemented recently in the Regional Nature Park, with the support of the Fondation du Patrimoine (French Heritage Foundation).

Maisons depuis le maraisFondation du patrimoine

Living in the wet marsh

The marsh's villages are located on a few areas of limestone elevated above the level of the marsh. Every house has direct access to the canal network, which forms communication routes and delineates each house's property.

Jarin à ArçaisFondation du patrimoine

Vegetable gardens are located on exposed plots facing the village.
Beans or mogettes in particular are grown there during the summer when the land is not flooded.
This production, also encouraged by Napoleon I, allowed ships going from La Rochelle to the Antilles to restock. It brought prosperity to the wet marsh's inhabitants.

PeupliersFondation du patrimoine

Until the middle of the 20th century, when a woman became pregnant, her husband planted a plot of poplars.
When the child reached marriageable age, the wood was sold to buy a boat if it was a boy, or to provide a dowry if it was a girl.

Marais mouillé à ArçaisFondation du patrimoine

The batai: a unique mode of transportation

Boats, called batais, are a vital part of the wet marsh. They enable inhabitants to travel around their lands to cultivate them, as well as to reach neighboring communities. A man couldn't marry if he didn't own a boat.

Batai typique du Marais PoitevinFondation du patrimoine

There are several types of batais that each have well-defined purposes.

The everyday boat measures 13 to 15 feet, (4.29 to 4.95 m).

The rear side is pointed and the batai is maneuvered from that area, while the front part is wider for easy docking, loading, and disembarking.
Traditionally, this type of boat is made of oak wood with the resin extracted.

Port privé à ArçaisFondation du patrimoine

After the World War II, new models were made from cement. Heavier but more stable, they are especially useful for transporting livestock.
Sheet metal boats emerged with the arrival of tourism. Although they are easier to maneuver, they are also less stable.

Like many boats, today the marsh boats are made of plastic and fiberglass.

RémiFondation du patrimoine

On the other hand, the means of propulsion has remained the same: the pigouille.
This long wooden stick ends in a metal tip with two spikes, preventing the boat from getting stuck in the marsh's mud.
Here is Rémi, a passionate inhabitant of the wet marsh, on his boat in Arçais.

Différents batais sur une conche à ArçaisFondation du patrimoine

Périssoires (a type of canoe) are the smallest, at 8 feet long. They are used for hunting or fishing. They can only accommodate one individual, who lies down with the rifle alongside their arm.

The French name of these boats comes from how dangerous they are. Very unstable, they could easily capsize and drown the hunter, who generally did not know how to swim.

Bateau à chaîneFondation du patrimoine

The biggest boats, reaching up to 22 feet, allowed them to transport cattle, positioned head to tail at the boat's widest point.

Another boat, called a chain boat, also enables them to travel the canals. Connected to each bank by a metal chain, they simply pull on it to cross the canal.
The boat here is made of concrete.

Tuilerie de la Grève-sur-MignonFondation du patrimoine

A typical industry in the marsh: brickworks

The brickworks in Grève-sur-Mignon is emblematic of an industry in the Wet Marsh: the production of tiles and bricks from clay extracted from the region's soil. Founded in 1872, it was the first mechanical brickworks in the Marsh. The village was gradually built around this center of industry, which employed up to 80 workers.

Debaracadère de tourbe dans la tuilerieFondation du patrimoine

It only operated from April to October: the clay in the soils, called bri, cannot be extracted when the marsh is flooded.

Located on the bank of a ditch, the brickworks was mainly served by water. The bri was unloaded and stored in this warehouse.

Zone de séchage des tuilesFondation du patrimoine

After being kneaded and molded by a steam engine system, the clay was left to dry.
The bricks and tiles were arranged on wooden shelves in this large 4,305 square feet (400 m²) ventilated dryer.

Four à tuilesFondation du patrimoine

After drying for several weeks, the tiles and bricks were fired in the huge Hoffman kiln, with a chimney that stands over 79 feet (24 m) tall. Installed in 1900, it is covered by a 15,070 square feet (1,400 m²) roof. Its distinctive characteristic is producing continuous fire that spreads through the kiln.

Intérieur du four à tuilesFondation du patrimoine

The kiln's interior, 115 feet (35 m) long and 26 feet (8 m) wide, has 7 doors on each side. It could hold between 15,000 and 48,000 pieces per firing. One firing cycle lasted for 21 days, not including loading and unloading.

This level of production enabled them to produce bricks, tiles, and ridge decorations for the entire Poitevin Marsh area, as well as neighboring departments.

Tuilerie de la Grève-sur-MignonFondation du patrimoine

The site closed in 1968 following a very large fire.
With the support of the Fondation du Patrimoine (French Heritage Foundation), it was partially restored through a job integration program.
The old Hoffmann kiln is open to the public with a multimedia space to present the place's history. The old warehouses are occupied by associations.
A center dedicated to the marsh's soft mobility will also be built there.

Cap Sud Ouest Marais Poitevin, une terre inventéeFondation du patrimoine

Watch a video on the history and traditional way of life in the wet marsh.

Credits: Story

Our thanks to Alexandra Bodet from the Niort Marais Poitevin Tourism Office; the Maison du Marais Poitevin in Coulon; Rémi from the Bardet-Huttiers pier in Arçais; and Roland Gallian, mayor of Grève-sur-Mignon, for their hospitality and their invaluable help in creating this content.

To support the Fondation du Patrimoine's activities in the Poitevin Marsh, click this link

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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