Grand Site de France
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Marais Poitevin - the Poitevin Marchlands - occupies around 110,000 ha between the Vandée fields in the north, the town of Niort in the east , the former historic region of Aunis in the south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west.
The marchlands region is listed as a "Grand Site de France" and it is also known as the "Green Venice".
Thousands of years ago the whole place of the nowadays Marais Poitevin was occupied by the Atlantic Ocean that was forming a big bay scattered with limestone islands. In time the bay did naturally fill with marine sediments, mainly clay particles origination from the Gironde and Loire estuaries brought here by ocean currents. Nowadays there are only around 5,000 ha left from the former large bay, making what is called the Aiguillon Bay, while the process of natural filling continues: in one year the seabed elevates more than 1cm (1/3 inch) and the sea withdraws with 20 to 25 meters.
Aiguillon Bay is listed as a "Natural Reserve of France", a place situated on the migratory birds' path, a paradise for bird watching enthusiasts.
The wet marchland, located more inland from the Bay, is a labyrinth of hundreds of kilometers of water canals. Its existence and shape are mostly due to human intervention that started as early as the 10th century.
The first that launched the water drainage work were Benedictine monks from the many abbeys around the bay that during the late Middle Ages were trying to recover land for agriculture and were setting up the salt marches - salt being at the time the "white gold"!.
At the end of the 16th century King Henri IV launches another swamp draining program - again with the goal of gaining farmland but also of getting rid of the epidemics brought on by the swamp's mosquitoes. For this work he hires Dutch engineers - renowned specialists in water management - and in 1599 the Dutch Humphrey Bradley is made "Master of Dams and Water Canal of the Kingdom". Bradley builds two levees one that protects the swamps from the ocean tides and another on the continent that protects it from the rain water. He also separates the swamp into two sections: a higher one that acts like a rain water tampon for the lower one that becomes the "dried" marchland that can be farmed. This work continues throughout the 17th century. At the end of the 17th century the wet marchland gains almost the shape we can see today.
Nowadays the "Marais Poitevin" can be visited by feet or bicycle along the water canals or by renting a boat with or without a guide/boatman or a kayak.
If one goes to the Marais from La Rochelle a nice stop is the town of Surgéres, medieval fief of Maingot family, vassals of the Dukes of Aquitaine. It is them who build what is now the historic center of the town - a wall surrounded mostly green area enclosing a beautiful Romanesque style church and a building, once a part of the castle, that now houses the town hall.