Marais Poitevin

Any place that alludes to itself as ‘Venice’ is going to be worth a visit.

The green and wet marshlands of the Marais Poitevin, widely promoted as the Venise Verte, is the most easterly and inland point of the Poitou Marshlands which extends on either side of the River Sévre Niortaise for more than 198,000 acres.

Coulon Port early morning

The labyrinth of narrow green-water channels is lined with a profusion of lofty ash trees, alders and willows. Poplar trees, called Poitou Whites, are actively pollarded and harvested and are just one element of a prodigiously industrious corner of agriculture.

Herds of Friesians and locally-bred cattle graze on rich fields of lush grass, plots of artichokes, onions, garlics, broad and haricot beans, and in summer melons and courgettes, are plentiful.

In La Marais

Ducks and chickens scratch in the brown earth in large open-air pens and small goats munch in picturesque paddocks. It seems the only produce not grown is grapes for wine, but our local port and village, Coulon, made up for that by brewing its own delicious pale ale – La Tete de la Mule.

We spent a fabulous day on our bikes criss-crossing the waterways across wooden platforms and stupendously steep footbridges.

Cycling the 25miles or so to Niort and back took us past marshlanders’ low slung white plastered cottages, colourful with painted shutters in quiet creeks, and swanky restaurants full of smartly attired families enjoying a French Sunday lunch. We paused at the menus. No roast beef was on offer and a starter of fish soup cost 28 euros. Too swanky for us then!

Up and over

The cycle ways were wonderfully and imaginatively created to provide the prettiest views. Emerging onto the busy road into Niort was a momentary shock but it was short-lived as we enjoyed our first views of the remarkable Don Jon.

Begun by Henry II Plantagenet and completed by his son Richard the Lionheart, it’s massive bastions towers menace over the River Sévre.

Niort view

A Sunday market was bustling in its shadow, as a surprisingly warm sun poked through. Local growers, of all ages, touted vegetables, breads, cakes and spring flowers. It was a happy and relaxed atmosphere.

After fuelling up on coffee and lemonade we meandered the grand and wide streets of limestone houses and civic buildings.

Sunday market at Donjon

Returning through the marshlands to Coulon we discovered the annual Spring festival in full swing. A samba band cheerfully banged at the head of a procession of children (and parents) in random fancy dress.

We spotted several Spidermen, lots of Disney princesses, a few bunny girls and a lone ninja turtle. By now the sunshine was hot, and the Tete de la Mule was eagerly flowing. A scarecrow Guy was set alight in a boat (he looked very Trump-like) to the joyous cheer of the crowds. Spring has sprung! Bienvenue Printemps!!