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Review: France’s marshlands - water, water everywhere

By Roger St Pierre

Think of La Belle France topographically and images of the majestic mountains of the Alps and Pyrénées spring immediately to mind.

But the country also  boasts intriguing flatlands that, in their own unique way, are just as worthwhile exploring.

The mystical Camargue, with its herds of half-wild horses; the historic salt pans of La Vendée, and the vast wheatfields of the Ile de France – the nation’s bread basket, with its big skies and brooding forests – are tantalising components of the geographic kaleidoscope that is the word’s most popular tourist destination.

Then there are the Marais of Audomarois, Poitevin and Amiens – mystical wetlands whose marshes have been painstakingly sculpted by man through the creation of a veritable spider’s web of narrow canals and ruler-straight ditches, dug and maintained by hand over many centuries to create a mystical road-free marshland maze that can only be explored by the use of boats.

Just 40 minutes inland from the Channel Tunnel, the historic old Flemish market town of Saint Omer was for centuries a key staging post between London and Paris but then the autoroute opened, leading to most of the tourism traffic bypassing the town.

Those holidaymakers don’t know what they are missing! But others, who have done their homework, head down to the Avenue du Maréchal Joffre to visit the fascinating hands-on Maison du Marais visitor centre – ‘The Heart of the Marais beats here’ goes the slogan – and it’s from the centre’s wooden landing stage that visitors can board a flat-bottomed electric-powered ‘Bacove’ barge for an enchantingly relaxed guided cruise through the reed and tree-lined wetlands.

It was in the 7th Century that local monks began carving channels through the sodden peaty soil so it could be cultivated. By the 19th Century a thriving market garden industry was in place.

Today, more than 50 vegetable varieties are grown, with cauliflowers, in summer, and endives (chicory), in winter, especially renowned for their high quality.

 Additionally, the 3,731 hectare Marais Audomarois UNESCO biosphere reserve supports more than 300 species of wild plant as well as 232 species of bird, 26 species of fish and 98 species of plant.

Back at the purpose-built Maison du Marais there’s an ongoing programme of special exhibitions, as well as permanent displays explaining the development and function of the Marais and the unique lifestyle of its people.

Set on a gently sloping hillside just outside the little town of Lumbres, with panoramic views across the rural Nord/Pas de Calais countryside, the comfortable modern 54 bedroom Najeti Hôtel Du Golf is a convenient base for a visit to the Marais Audomarois.

The property’s plush Restaurant Le Lodge and traditional Ristandel brasserie make the most of premium local produce, classic French recipes and imaginative presentation.

With other properties dotted across France, the now 27 venue strong Najeti hotel group also now owns the decidedly upmarket Château Tilques, set on the other side of Saint Omer. That one’s a country house style property that has been favoured for many years by well-heeled British guests.

In contrast to the revitalised Marais Audomarois,  horticulture has largely given way to sports and leisure activities at what remains of the Amiens Marais, in the valley of the Somme.

Far bigger in scale is the 18,553 hectare Marais Poitevin, waterway network, which was entirely created by man, close to the Atlantic coast, a little south of the Loire estuary.

The quaint little country town of Coulon is home to the Maison du Marais Poitevin visitor centre (and start point for boat tours in the Marais.

Popularly known as ‘La Venise Verte’ (‘The Venice of the North’) after its multitude of canals and the bright green duckweed that cloaks many of its waterways, the 970 sq km expanse of the Marais Poitevin ranks after the Camargue as France’s second largest wetland.

Spreading west towards the Atlantic from the outskirts of the picturesque old Roman town of Niort, the Marais Poitevin used to be far larger but intense farming saw two-thirds of it being drained to create grasslands for grazing and breeding.

Sadly, attempts to give the area protected status have been thwarted by a mix of commercial farming interests and government policy.

On the plus side, however, growth of interest from conservationists, wildlife enthusiasts, campers and countryside lovers in general is starting to send the pendulum the other way to preserve a unique environment and way of life, with the tourist dollar making it all feasible.

With more than 850-km of safe, way-marked and well-maintained dedicated routes, bicycle touring is among the environmentally friendly and sustainable activities currently being promoted. Hiking, canoeing, bird watching and angling are among the many other outdoor leisure activities that are actively encouraged.

The Marais provide havens of peace that have been created and nurtured by man working in harmony with nature.

Engineering marvels in their own right, the canals are in many places lined with poplars and also with ash trees whose intertwined roots prevent erosion and whose scent repels mosquitoes.

Not surprisingly, considering the area’s watery environment, fish and seafood figure prominently on local restaurant menus and seated at the pavement terrace we soaked up the sun at the popular La Pigouille by the riverside in Coulon for a pleasant lunch.

The food and its preparation were nothing special  – ham and melon, steaks, fish, chicken and lamb recipes that have been French bourgeois restaurant staples for generations.

It was, I suppose, the predictability of it all that led my partner, Hazel, to get adventurous and try eel, frog-legs and snails for the first time – wonderful with a well-chilled glass of Muscadet.

While lunch had been standard issue, our evening meal and the environment in which we savoured it was something really special.

A divine Hollywood-styled art deco mansion, La Villa Ayrault, set atop an imposing grass mound on the outskirts of Châtillon du Thouet, was built by the current owner’s late father, who was the wealthy owner of a major brickyard.

As Madame Fourniau relayed the story to me: ‘My mother designed the property but when father saw her plans, he went mad and said to her “Are you crazy? Why have you made the corridors and rooms so small? We have several million bricks already at hand and they will not cost us anything”.’.

The result was a spectacularly spacious and elegant family home brimming with innovation and bright ideas that today welcomes paying guests.

In the centre of the dining room, for example, stands a massive ‘Lazy Susan’ revolving table with an electric button beside each place setting so guests can easily serve themselves with the delights of the host’s delectable Cordon Bleu fayre.

Beautifully furnished guest rooms open out onto spacious verandas and terraces commanding 360ºviews of the surrounding countryside.

It’s all so delightfully period in ambiance that you half expect Clark Gable and his movie star peers to be waiting to greet you.

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