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Vendée: sea salt, sardines and Thalasso

In a weird way some of the trips I am making this year have a link to my roots. It started with Marseille, my mother’s hometown, and in June/July I have visited the French region of the Vendée, which is also the family cradle from my (maternal) grandfather’s side.

Vendee3It was a fully planned 4-day trip, of which I will share some highlights.

The easiest way to reach the Vendée -flanked between Brittany and Aquitaine- is by plane (destination Nantes) or by car. The distance Amsterdam-Vendée is about 900 km. We picked the first option. Air France / KLM offers daily flights from Amsterdam-Nantes at € 199 p.p.

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Noirmoutier
After arriving at Nantes airport, we were welcomed by Fabienne of Vendée Tourisme. We picked up the rental car first and then headed on to Noirmoutier.
Let’s start with a Wiki-fact: Île de Noirmoutier has emerged as an island to resist invasion attempts from the English and attacks from the Spanish in the 14th and 16th centuries. It was, indeed, a Dutchman who occupied the island in 1674; Admiral Tromp. Quite the dodgy type, because from the 17th century Noirmoutier was a hub for contraband tobacco, brought in by British and Dutch ships.

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So far for history. Meanwhile, we have arrived at the destination, where we will spend the first night. The hotel and villa complex of Bois de la Chaize is a fine property that offers a variety of hotel rooms, cottages and a luxury villa. Cozy and brightly decorated with references to the sea and beach, and suitable for various kinds of travelers. The host -a friendly fellow with frames matching the interior – shows us around but interrupts the tour when it appears that the sablées must be taken from the oven before they burn. “They’re for tomorrow morning as a treat with breakfast!”, he shouts while taking a sprint to the kitchen. The next morning we honor his baking-skills and take a delicious sablée with us for the road.

In the evening we dine in the ‘capital’ of the island: Noirmoutier-en-Ile. A small town where the eateries are gathered in the drained old port. We sit down to eat at Le Rafio where we are treated to island specialties: shellfish, crustaceans, fish and potatoes which are exclusively grown on the island: the ‘Bonnotte. They happened to be a perfect match with my cod. Across the street is the popular Café Noir, where according Fabiënne, ’tout’ well known France has hung out (and still does). A number of famous French people own a holiday home on the island, and it is jam packed during the summer. I guess we can consider it the hippest pub of Noirmoutier.

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The next morning -after a lovely breakfast- we head to discover the ‘best’ beach of Noirmoutier: La Plage des Dames. A long stretched sandy beach on the edge of a forest and wooden beach huts. It is somewhat cloudy but still a very photogenic place. We continue our tour of the island and go to visit Bed & Breakfast ‘Les Oyats‘. Owner Hervé does not only run this bed and breakfast, he also maintains his own salt marsh. Before visiting the latter, we get a tour through the tastefully decorated villa. It has the typical Atlantic coast-style, as Hervé roams the flea markets in search of vintage maritime artifacts. The villa is packed with it, and yet it does not look cluttered. I was most impressed by the kitchen: spacious, modern, yet warm and cozy. Guests have their breakfast here, accompanied by a pinch of salt from Noirmoutier. Extracted form Hervé’s salt marsh by no other than the host himself.

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Next stop is the Passage du Gois, the 4.2 km long road which connects Île de Noirmoutier and Beauvoir-sur-Mer. The road is only accessible at low tide, twice a day. At low tide the site is the shells seekers’ territory (amongst the contemplating tourists). They fill their steel baskets with clams and earn some money. An old lady proudly shows us her “catch” of the day.

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St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie
We are already en route to the next destination. St Gilles Croix de Vie is the epicenter of the sardine catch. It’s quite obvious that fishing is important here. It’s visible throughout the small town, including the original white fishermen’s houses with bright blue shutters. When the fishermen had painted their boats, the remainder was used to paint the shutters. A convenient way of recycling. A short walk from the center you’ll encounter a dune with a lighthouse in all its glory. It seems there are three, but this one is the most Instagram-worthy. And have you ever been to a sardine-bar? You’ll find it here. It is no more than a builder’s hut with a few picnic tables around, a standing table made of an empty fish barrel, and the premises claimed by blue fishing rope. They refer to it as a restaurant on the website, because you must not be mistaken: you are served a specialty! Freshly caught sardines straight on to your plate. Grilled with a pinch of (Noirmoutier) salt and accompanied by ‘Pommes Grenailles’ and a quarter of lemon. That’s all it needs.

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The main part of the sardines catch, however, is canned. Sardinerie ‘La Perle des Dieux‘ is the master in this field (in France). Canning a few fish in a can, not that hard right? Well, here they treat the sardines as expensive champagne. The sardine harvest is indicated on the cans as millésime, as we know from the luxe bubbly. A vintage year-sardine is one of superior quality; the longer you keep it, the better it will taste. A millésime can be kept up to 10 (!) years, as the sardines don’t turn into confit before at least 4 years. The taste of a millésime is softer and more refined. A true delicacy. But best of all, are the special edition cans. Local artists are commissioned to create the artworks. The cans from artist Delphine Cossais are too pretty to throw away and have become real collector’s items.

 

Brétignolles-sur-Mer
From the sardines we go to an eco-lodge. It’s located just a few steps from the beach in Brétignolles-sur-mer. We are welcomed by a cheerful wagging Bernese Mountain dog. Being a huge animal lover I was instantly won over! La Ferme des Marais Girard combines traditional, rural architecture with modern eco-construction. The current owners are big fans of both architectural styles and have managed to respect the spirit of the place, without compromise and by incorporating as many sustainable materials as possible.

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The result is reflected in various parts of the eco-lodge consisting of apartments in the old farmhouse, the wooden Villas Ponton, the eco-pool (with a bacteriological filtration system based on aquaculture ponds), the ‘laundry dryer’ room where the clean laundry is dried in the air, the greenhouse where they grow their own vegetables and fruit, and the main building where a biological Eatery and Deli/Caterer are located. The owner also sells rugs from recycled textiles.

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Les Sables d’Olonne
The journey takes us further along the coast to Les Sables d’Olonne, the famous seaside resort of the Vendée. In the 17th century, Les Sables d’Olonne used to be the main port of the French kingdom. For active vacationers it is a mecca of water sports, but the lazy seaside visitor can just hang out at the beach or get some pampering at the Thalasso spa. You can also stroll into town along the beach promenade or ravish on a boat (yes, really) of seafood in one of the restaurants. You better start practicing as scooping a crab, cracking lobster claws and peeling a mountain of shrimp is quite a tough job…Vendee35

Anyway, if you love seafood you’ll take this for granted. You won’t get it more fresh out of the sea than this with the fish market just around the corner. And well, if a cockle or sea snail shoots through the venue, at least your table companions will have a laugh!
After having eaten to saturation (I can have seafood anytime) and enjoyed a good night’s sleep, the next morning we make a tour around the city, where the district of L’île Penotte sure is a visual delight (read: collective Instagramming). Courtesy of a resident who has enhanced the walls of the houses with shell art. She’d rather not have you take a snapshot of her artwork, but hey, ‘outside’ equals public space, so good luck prohibiting. Maybe she should learn to benefit of the power of social media? Meanwhile, she diligently continues pasting shells.

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Before noon we can indulge in a Thalasso-therapy session. Yayyy! I got a back massage with Ayurvedic oil while warm water jets went back and forth. I easily could have endured this longer than half an hour! A post-massage relaxing tea afterwards and I was totally zen. Unfortunately we could not stay at the spa a bit longer because it was already lunch time and our schedule pretty tight…But, shifting to a pan of mussels and a glass of wine on the beach is certainly not bad at all to proceed in relaxation-mode!

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After lunch there was even more wine on the program: a visit and wine tasting at Domaine St Nicolas. So we sipped on a few organic wines. Très bon! The owner of the winery, Thierry Michon, is a musician who started making wine as a hobby, and he provided the two sparkling wines from his offer with the resounding names Be Swing (rosé) and Be Bop (white).

Les Épesses – Terragora Lodges
To conclude our four-day trip, we stayed at the Terragora Lodges. Also an eco-lodge, but with very special residences…You can either sleep in a treehouse (Nest), in some kind of Fabergé egg (Chrysalis), in a zinc cube between the water lilies (Water Lily), or in an African clay dome (Borrow) which I associated with the Flinstones.

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My accommodation for the night was at the end of the path (a bit scary alone at night), but the zinc cube was well equipped with a bathtub and a comfy double bed, so you do not hear me complain. The lack of curtains was a little getting used to, although I think no one except the water lapping beaver (heard, not seen) has caught a glimpse of my total nakedness. If so, lucky you!

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Of course a successful trip asks for a toast, so we drank a glass of bubbly together on the ‘suspended’ restaurant terrace before getting served a delicious organic dinner. Oh boy, we had a Potée Vendéenne I will never forget! As well as the homemade bread, green vegetables gazpacho and sweet strawberry soup. What a treat! Which we had to consume somewhat hastily because we had rush for the show at Puy du Fou. The third-largest and most popular theme park of France offers a huge historical theater play and light show all summer long. Now I’m not the biggest fan of theme parks -and my traveling companions didn’t seem to be either- resistance was not tolerated: we had to experience this at least once. Admittedly, in terms of execution, the show deserves credit.
A month later I received a press release in the mail, stating that Puy du Fou had reached a milestone with more than 2 million visitors this summer… Now I can at least say I have been there.

Planning on visiting the Vendée? More information can be found on www.vendee-tourisme.com and www.rendezvousenfrance.com

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