ROAD TRIP

Ex­plore Vendée, land of wind­mills, beaches – and the no­to­ri­ous Blue­beard.

France - - Contents - Gaye Lamouroux

The Vendée dé­parte­ment is fenced in by rolling At­lantic seas and hedged around by marshes, plains and wooded hills. This vast green re­gion, which was brought to the English crown in 1152 as part of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s mar­riage to Henry Plan­ta­genet, is ideal for a tour­ing hol­i­day.

DAY ONE POUZAUGES TO LA FLOCELLIÈRE 25 KILO­ME­TRES

Start just out­side the town of Pouzauges and climb the path to the sum­mit of Le Puy Cra­paud (Toad Hill). Don’t be sur­prised if you get out of breath; this town, which was the first in western France to get elec­tric­ity, is known as ‘ la reine du haut bocage’ (‘queen of the high pas­tures’) be­cause of its (rel­a­tively) lofty po­si­tion.

Take a guided tour of Pouzauges’ walled cas­tle, which is flanked by two work­ing wind­mills. Only a sin­is­ter­look­ing tower re­mains, but vis­i­tors still flock here be­cause of the cas­tle’s grim claim to fame. In the 14th cen­tury, it was the home of Catherine de Thouars, heiress of Vendée and Poitou. She was the wife of Gilles de Rais, whose no­to­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion is said to have in­spired the Blue­beard fairy tale.

You will find two other work­ing mills just out­side town at the Ter­rier-marteau. These war-scarred tow­ers were bought by the lo­cally-based char­cu­terie com­pany Fleury Mi­chon in the 1980s and re­stored.

Drop into the firm’s fac­tory shop next to the rail­way sta­tion to buy saucis­son à l’ail (gar­lic sausage), get a baguette in the next-door boulan­gerie and en­joy an al­fresco pic­nic.

Af­ter your snack, take the tree-lined D752 to the Manoir des Sci­ences in Réau­mur (en­try from €5, manoirdes sci­ences­dereau­mur.fr). Once the home of an 18th cen­tury sa­vant who helped to de­velop the ther­mome­ter, the creep­er­clad manor house is now an in­ter­ac­tive mu­seum where you can spend sev­eral hours car­ry­ing out sim­ple ex­per­i­ments and learn­ing about sci­ence.

As the sun sinks be­neath the flat Vendée hori­zon, head for the Moulin des Jus­tices (menus from €13.50, restau­rantlesjus­tices.fr) near Sain­tMichel-mont-mer­cure, a rus­tic restau­rant where you can try the lo­cal fruit liqueur troussepinette, spicy sausage an­douil­lettes and more.

If you have overindulged on the troussepinette, you’ll be glad to know that your cham­bre d’hôte in the me­dieval Château de la Flocellière (B&B from €150, chateaude­laflo­cel­liere.com) is a 20-minute stroll (or five-minute taxi ride) from the restau­rant.

DAY TWO LA FLOCELLIÈRE TO PUY DU FOU 57 KILO­ME­TRES

Take the wind­ing D755 road north-west to Les Her­biers, a small town with plenty of cloth­ing shops, then head up the Mont des Alou­ettes, where you can see three beau­ti­fully re­stored wind­mills. Dur­ing the Vendée Wars of the Rev­o­lu­tion, their sails were used to pass coded mes­sages in­di­cat­ing the where­abouts of Repub­li­can troops. The gran­ite grind­stones of one of the mills pro­duce light, or­ganic flour that you can sam­ple in the shape of a pan­cake lath­ered with vanilla ice cream in the next-door crêperie.

Fringed with tongue-coloured fox­gloves and blood-red pop­pies, the road from Les Her­biers to Tif­fauges passes fields tall with wheat, or tram­pled by buff-coloured Charo­lais cows. Château de Tif­fauges (en­try from €6, sites­cul­turels.vendee.fr/chateau-de­tiffauges) stands on a rocky out­crop over­look­ing the con­flu­ence of the Sèvre-nan­taise and Crûme rivers. Gilles de Rais re­tired to this mag­nif­i­cent cas­tle in 1435 af­ter fight­ing along­side Joan of Arc against the English

The per­verse aris­to­crat was fas­ci­nated by alchemy and dab­bled in the Black Arts, and ru­mours of bizarre go­ings-on ‘up at the cas­tle’ were rife for years. How­ever, it was not un­til de Rais kid­napped a cler­gy­man and held him

to ran­som in the spring of 1440 that an in­ves­ti­ga­tion was launched by the Bishop of Nantes. Ac­cused of ab­duct­ing, rap­ing and mur­der­ing more than a hun­dred chil­dren, de Rais was found guilty and hanged at Nantes on 26 Oc­to­ber 1440. These days, the sound­proof dun­geon where so many are said to have suf­fered con­tains a mu­seum of me­dieval weaponry.

Vendée was the back­drop to many bloody bat­tles dur­ing the Hun­dred Years War and to find out more, take the wind­ing D27 to the Puy du Fou theme park (en­try from €35, puy­du­fou.com). Apart from en­joy­ing the fal­conry, joust­ing, magic and mu­sic, demon­stra­tions of ru­ral crafts, and re­con­struc­tions, vis­i­tors can learn about the re­gion’s rich and trou­bled his­tory at a son-et-lu­mière show ev­ery evening.

Camp­ing La Bretèche (pitches from €7, breteche.camp-at­lan­tique.com) is only a ten-minute drive from France’s big­gest theme park. Al­ter­na­tively, you can spend an­other night at Château de la Flocellière where, if you book in ad­vance, they will serve a gourmet din­ner, too.

DAY THREE PUY DU FOU TO LES SABLES-D’OLONNE 109 KILO­ME­TRES

From Puy du Fou, the A87 au­toroute will get you to La Roche-sur-yon in less than an hour. The cap­i­tal of Vendée is a pretty lit­tle town, which was founded in 1804 on the or­ders of Napoléon Bon­a­parte. The Cir­cuit Napoléon takes you to fas­ci­nat­ing sights linked to the first Em­peror of France, in­clud­ing the Haras de la Vendée na­tional stud, which puts on eques­tri­ans shows.

Have lunch at Le P’tit Marais (menus from €13, face­book.com/ restolep­tit­marais), which serves Vendée spe­cial­i­ties in­clud­ing mo­gette beans swim­ming in a gar­licky sauce.

The dé­parte­ment is famed for its glo­ri­ous beaches, which in­clude the sandy, cres­cent-shaped Grande Plage at Les Sables-d’olonne. Si­t­u­ated on the Côte de Lu­mière, the re­sort has a lively casino, ex­cel­lent restau­rants and, in Rue de l’en­fer, one of Europe’s nar­row­est streets. It is also the de­par­ture point for the Vendée Globe sin­gle­handed, round-the-world yacht race.

Check into La Mai­son l’épi­curi­enne (B&B from €75, maison­lepi­curi­enne.fr), a charm­ing cham­bre d’hôte housed in a ren­o­vated 1920s build­ing near the town cen­tre. Whether you choose to laze on the beach or get a shop­ping fix in the bustling streets, Les Sables-d’olonne is the per­fect place to end your tour of the beau­ti­ful Vendée re­gion. GET­TING THERE: Pouzauges is a 3hr drive from the ferry port of Saint-malo; The near­est air­ports are Nantes At­lan­tique (1hr 15min from Pouzauges) and La Rochelle (1hr 30min). Rent a camper­van from Cam­panda (cam­panda.fr). TOURIST IN­FOR­MA­TION: www.vendee-tourisme.co.uk; tourisme-pays­de­pouza­uges.fr

En­joy this ar­ti­cle? Tell us where you would like your road trip to be and we’ll plan it in a fu­ture edi­tion. Email ed­i­to­[email protected]

ABOVE: A son-et-lu­mière show at the Puy du Fou his­tor­i­cal theme park

ABOVE: One of three re­stored wind­mills at Mont des Alou­ettes, next to a me­mo­rial to the vic­tims of the Vendée Wars; LEFT: The re­sort of Les Sables-d'olonne and the cres­cent-shaped Grande Plage

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