Explore the canals of Green Venice in a traditional flat-bottomed boat, reliving the journeys made by monks who built the waterways in the Middle Ages
Water thwacks against the side of the wooden boat as it floats along a die-straight canal enclosed by weeping willows. Tour guide Antonin Vorain deftly punts the boat with a single oar, ducking his head under a low-hanging branch. He grew up in this region, and knows it intimately.
“Monks built the canals in the Middle Ages to transport cattle and grain,” he explains. These days they’re used more for leisure than industry, though occasionally a boat loaded with cream-coloured Charolais cows might putter past. Cattle graze on the acid-green grass that extends from the banks of the canals which – along with the profusion of vegetation and the ubiquitous green duckweed – give the Marais Poitevin its nickname of Green Venice. Sometimes glimpsed amid the treeline are pretty stone cottages, each with a boat moored at the water’s edge. “Once these villages were only accessible by water,” says Antonin. “It was customary for newly married couples to be given a boat by their families – it was like being given a car”. The tradition of boat ownership persists, despite the fact that the villages are now easily accessible by road.
Antonin steers along the Canal de la Garette à Coulon, towards the village of Coulon. It’s a popular place to hire boats and stop for lunch, sampling traditional dishes made with mogette – locally grown white beans – at the waterside restaurants. Nevertheless, in the early morning it’s deserted but for a few villagers, out to fish for little eels called pibales.
The network of canals is so vast, seclusion is never faraway. Conche des Ecoyaux is particularly well hidden, and a favourite spot for truanting schoolkids. This narrow stretch of water, like most here, is lined with poplar trees. “They were planted because their roots help hold the earth of the banks together,” says Antonin.
Originally boats from Marais Poitevin were crafted from oak, but these days most are made from fibreglass or aluminium. Many are motorised now, too, but Antonin prefers the quietude lent by an oar, his oars alert to the tap-tap of a woodpecker in the forest.
Above the still water, a grey heron flaps by and a flash of blue suggests a fleeting visit from a kingfisher. Around a corner, the landscape opens up to reveal fields of swaying corn, the rising sun illuminating its spiky tufts. A couple on bicycles pedal along the water’s edge – cycle paths can take visitors deeper into areas not navigable by boat, through swathes of forest where peach trees hang heavy with sweet fruit.
“This place has a unique history,” Antonin says, as the village of Magné’s Romanesque church spire looms into view. He moors the boat, tethering it with a rope. “Here our language, food and traditions are all tied to the water. We cannot imagine another life.”
In the heart of the village of Coulon, Le Central hotel is a traditional building with wooden beams and a lovely stone-walled courtyard. The bedrooms are decorated in muted colours, and are air-conditioned during the hot summer months. There’s also a top-end in-house restaurant serving local dishes, such as roast lamb with a red-pepper crust and thyme sauce.
Take a tour of the canals with L’Embarcadère Cardinaud, where Antonin works, or hire a boat to explore independently.