The Deux-Sèvres region of western
France is almost completely undiscovered, but if
you want the walking antidote to
modern life, it could be the perfect destination.
and photography DANNY HOPKINS
ENDLESS, DULL, HOT AND
STICKY CAR journeys with my sister and I screaming at each other and my parents
in the front deciding on what sort of divorce they wanted. Until now, those are
the memories this part of France conjured up for me. Because this is the area
you drive through when you head for the Biarritz beaches or Northern Spain.
Brittany, the Loire Valley, the Dordogne – all destination names for walkers and
holiday sunseekers; but Deux-Sèvres? Nope.
So why invest your
valuable walking holiday time visiting this unfashionable backwater? Two
reasons. Firstly it is a tranquil, rural paradise. And secondly, you might get
to stay the Le Moulin du Chemin, a walking centre like no other.
Tucked away just
outside the secluded hamlet of Scillé, below a patchwork of yellow fields and
green woods. Le Moulin du Chemin is a former cereal mill, dating back to 1650,
and beautifully converted into a small auberge for walkers. Now it’s a happy
slice of great hostmanship, with a pool, horses, cats, ducks and chickens – so
much more than a place to rest your weary bones.
So what’s the area
like? Situated inland from La Rochelle, the department (county) of Deux-Sèvres
is named after the two rivers that rise here; both named Sèvre. The Sèvre
Niortaise flows south through Niort to the Atlantic. The Sèvres Nantaise flows
north to join the River Loire at Nantes.
It’s great because ….
It’s rural undiscovered
France at its very best. The routes from Le Moulin are superb and the Marais
Poitevin truly extraordinary.
But watch out for….
The lack of walkers
sometimes means paths are indistinct. Mapping is good, especially the Michelin
Bleu series (sic)*, but sometimes marked paths aren’t there.
*note added by le Moulin: should read IGN Série Bleue (1 : 25,000 1cm =
The pace in this
department is as slow as both these rivers. Gentle pastoral delights, leisurely
market towns and the tranquil watery world of the Marais Poitevin, added
together, make this the perfect place for a truly relaxing walking holiday – the
sort of place that puts the amble in ramble.
A trio of larger towns
nearby – Niort, and to the north, Parthenay and Thouars – all have their
specific appeal, but it’s the villages of Coulonges, Le Busseau, La Fazilière,
and l’Absie which truly delight. There’s nothing spectacular about them, they
just feel like they haven’t changed for years.
The market town of Coulonges is particularly worth a stroll. Every Tuesday morning the place is
transformed with local farmers’ stalls vying for attention with artisans and
drapers. I even saw live chickens and geese for sale. Creamy local honey is
worth taking home, as well as fat garlic – best leave the geese there.
highlight is the Rocher Branlant, literally the 'rocking rock', which is exactly
what it does. This 30-tonne boulder, sits directly on another, right on its
tipping point, which means it rocks very slightly when pushed.
Head for La Chapelle
Seguin for this trial of strength, and then an amazing walk through a bizarre
rolling landscape punctuated by huge boulders (non-rocking variety) and ancient
Vouvant, in the forest
of Mervent, is reputedly the prettiest village in France, and even if it isn’t,
it is still worth a walking visit. Climb the 120 steps in the 13th-century
Mélusine’s Tower for views of the village, Forest of Mervent and bocage. Then
take an hour to walk the circuit of the ramparts, Postern Gate, 11th-century
church and the ‘Roman’ bridge.
Alternatively head out
on one of the waymarked forest walks up into the shaded hills, following the
contours of the majestic ancient woodlands. Take the ochre-coloured path up
above the River Mère, with its fabulous views over the surrounding countryside,
for a real deciduous delight.
But there’s one unique
highlight of this area that cannot be missed. You can’t come here without
walking the poetic silence of the Marais Poitevin. Known as the ‘Green Venice’,
it’s an immense region of rural watercourses constructed in medieval times to
tame the delta of the Sèvre Niortaise.
The series of canals and
dykes, shielded by poplar trees, is now a national park, and even though the
walking is flat, you cannot beat it for atmosphere. At the Marais’ fringes the
mysterious village-ports of Coulon, Arçais and Damvix are well worth exploring –
taking on a festive air in summer. Walk the network of paths or hire a boat for
a lazy day’s DIY exploration by water.
Back at Le Moulin, after
walking and talking to the locals, it is well worth looking back into the
history of this local landscape. Older local residents remember with warmth and
gratitude the support given by numerous British agents who were parachuted in to
support the Résistance. Commemorative plaques have been erected at the many
landing sites in the vicinity, all of which are walkable from Le Moulin.
In 1942 secret dances
were held at Le Moulin. The Nazis strictly forbade gatherings of French people
during the occupation, so Le Moulin du Chemin which was (normally) unoccupied at
the time, was chosen on account of its seclusion. And the locals still hold
precious that joie de vivre and salute the adventurous spirit – it just doesn’t
sound like an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo anymore.
But this is an example
of the joy of living in the local community, when you head out on a walking
holiday. You can find amazing local secrets, and then plan your walks to
I discovered an ancient
gold mine sited within one kilometre of Le Moulin du Chemin. It was closed
after a collapse at the turn of the century, but to this day a ghost of a miner
and pit pony walks the paths in the area. In 1985 prospectors found deposits of
gold in the stream flowing past Le Moulin du Chemin – I didn’t though.
But the absence of
honeypots, the tranquillity, the lack of ‘touristification’ and the friendliness
of the locals (including ex-pat Brits) all go together to create a walking
experience which is truly personal. You’ll find yourself immersed in the
micro-climate, detached from the outside world in a place where walking is, by
far, the best way to enjoy your stay. In fact, you might never want to leave…..
Ryanair fly to Poitiers and
Nantes. Flybe and Easyjet to La Rochelle.
stayed at Le Moulin du Chemin
is part of the EU, so get yourself an E111 card online
in order to reclaim emergency medical expenses. It is
still worth taking out private insurance as well.
Michelin bleu maps are the ones
to have. Waymarking is excellent on the GR routes and getting
better on local paths. This doesn’t stop paths being sometimes
unclear. The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP
– The French Walker’s Federation) can be reached at 14 rue
Riquet, F-75019, Paris (Tel: +33 1 44 89 93 93 or Fax: +33 1 40
35 85 67) or at
it provides excellent advice for walkers.
out the information
Office 79160 Coulonges sur l’Autize go to
or call: 05 49 06 10 72. For more information on walking in the
Deux-Sèvres region go to
05 49 95 94 87 for details about staying at Le Moulin.
The code is 0033, and then drop the first 0 of the French
number, to call France from the UK.
Warm in spring and autumn – hot in high summer. Not too cold
This article was published
in Country Walking magazine March 2007 edition
Carolynn Grimaldi, le Moulin du Chemin, 79240 Scillé, France
+33 (0)5 4995 9487
with support from