COUNTRY WALKING                     MARCH 2007 ISSUE 235

BRITAIN'S BEST-SELLING WALKING MAGAZINE                                                      www.countrywalking.co.uk

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WESTERN FRANCE 

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.

 Words 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.

The Deux-Sèvres

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 = 250m www.ign.fr)

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.

 Another walking 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 oaks.

 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 explore them. 

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…..

 

 

DEPARTURE LOUNGE

Flight checks

Ryanair fly to Poitiers and Nantes.  Flybe and Easyjet to La Rochelle.

Checking out

We stayed at Le Moulin du Chemin www.lemoulin.co.uk for more.

Check up

France is part of the EU, so get yourself an E111 card online www.ehic.card.com in order to reclaim  emergency medical expenses.  It is still worth taking out private insurance as well.

Check the map

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 www.ffrp.asso.fr and it provides excellent advice for walkers.

Check out the information

Tourist Office 79160 Coulonges sur l’Autize go to www.ville-coulonges-sur-lautize.fr or call: 05 49 06 10 72.  For more information on walking in the Deux-Sèvres region go to www.lemoulin.co.uk or 05 49 95 94 87 for details about staying at Le Moulin.

Check the number

The code is 0033, and then drop the first 0 of the French number, to call France from the UK.

Weather Check

Warm in spring and autumn – hot in high summer.  Not too cold in winter.

 

This article was published in Country Walking magazine March 2007 edition

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auberge: Carolynn Grimaldi, le Moulin du Chemin, 79240 Scillé, France

+33 (0)5 4995 9487

 

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