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The Vendée - Background information
Abridged from the History section in The Vendée and surrounding area: the Bradt Travel Guide
History lessons are rarely top of the list when it comes to necessities for a good holiday. You can have a great time in the Vendée wining, dining, sunbathing and absorbing the rich present-day culture while remaining blissfully unaware of its past. Nevertheless, to dig a bit deeper and to get closer to the identity of the département it is essential to understand more about the Vendée Wars, a period unknown to many and perhaps conveniently forgotten even by many French citizens. Or, you may be curious to know about the area’s historical connections with England, the mutual events which shaped the Vendean history or simply to work out which British historical periods coincided with which French ones.
Abridged from the Natural history section in The Vendée and surrounding area: the Bradt Travel Guide
Many of France’s 110 species of mammal live in the Vendée. The great majority are small rodents, bats and insectivores – nocturnal creatures that you are unlikely to see, let alone identify – but a few are more easily recognised. Brown hares are common in the fields, dashing about during their spring courtship rituals. Red squirrels thrive in the forests where, unlike in the UK, they do not have to compete with the American grey squirrel.
Red squirrels thrive in the Vendée's forests © Jarle Nystuen, Wikimedia Commons
At dusk, both red deer and roe deer venture out into fields and forest edges, the former much larger, with impressive antlers in the stags. Wild boar are common but shy, their telltale tracks and diggings more easily seen than the animals themselves. Among several carnivores also largely active after dark are the familiar red fox and badger and, less well known to UK visitors, two species of marten: the pine marten, confined to forests, and the beech marten, which has a white rather than yellow bib and makes itself unpopular by chewing through cables under car bonnets. Headlights might also reveal a common genet crossing the road. This lithe, spotted cat-like hunter was introduced to Spain from Africa by the Romans and has since colonised much of France.
Several aquatic mammals inhabit the region’s waterways. The otter is widespread but seldom seen, usually offering just a glimpse of sleek body and long tail as it swims across a lake or canal. Equally shy, and largely nocturnal, the European beaver is enjoying a comeback across France, courtesy of targeted reintroductions, and has spread into the Vendée from the Loire. The coypu, another aquatic rodent, is often mistaken for a beaver but is only half the size and has a rat-like rather than paddle shaped tail. Introduced from South America, it now thrives across France. Much smaller than either coypu or beaver is the diminutive water vole, often seen swimming across quiet waterways or nibbling plants at the edge.
The region offers some of the richest birdwatching in France © Mike Prince, Wikimedia Commons
Birds are probably the Vendée’s greatest wildlife draw-card and at certain seasons this region offers some of the richest birdwatching in France. The coast is especially productive, with its extensive wetlands providing vital pit stops for spring and autumn migrants travelling to and from Africa, as well as wintering quarters for others. These travellers include huge flocks of wildfowl, such as pintail, greylag geese and brent geese, plus waders, such as black-tailed godwit, curlew, knot and dunlin that swirl in hundreds of thousands between their hightide roosts and the food-rich mudflats. Top spots for such spectacles include the bays of Bourgneuf and L’Aiguillon, the latter one of the most important protected areas in France.
Reptiles and amphibians
France’s milder winters leave the country much better endowed with reptiles and amphibians than the UK, and the Vendée region offers a fair selection. Snakes, as everywhere, are shy and seldom seen. One of the more impressive is the fast-moving western whip snake, a greenish-yellow species, finely banded in black, which may reach 1.5m in length and often suns itself in dry clearings. In the marshes and ditches, grass snakes hunt for frogs, as does their close relative the viperine snake, which has black adder-like markings. The common adder is not found here – instead replaced by its close relative the asp viper, the region’s only venomous snake, which basks on sunny hillsides and retreats quickly from disturbance.
The fast-moving western whip snake is one of the region's most impressive © Bernard DUPONT, Wikimedia Commons
Lizards are more easily seen. The most common is the wall lizard, a small species that is found where its name suggests. The larger and brighter green lizard often dashes away beneath a hedge, the male revealing a blue throat. The ocellated lizard, found in the south of the region, has a long tail and ‘eye’ spots along its green flanks, and may exceed 60cm. In quiet marshy pools, look out for France’s rarest reptile, the European pond terrapin, basking on logs. This habitat is also the haunt of several frog species, including the marsh frog and edible frog, which strike up an impressive chorus during the spring breeding season.
Emperor dragonfly patrol the waterways © Ken Billington, Wikimedia Commons
Butterflies are the most conspicuous representatives of the region’s rich insect fauna. In summer, field margins attract a good selection, including the spectacular common swallowtail – extremely rare in the UK – and its paler cream relative the scarce swallowtail. Numerous fritillary species glide and flutter over wild flower meadows, map butterflies haunt woodland rides and great-banded graylings join painted ladies to sup nectar from garden buddleia bushes – which also, invariably, host the buzzing attentions of hummingbird hawkmoths. Other striking insects include numerous dragonflies, such as the large emperor dragonfly, that patrol the waterways, and the cicadas that fill the summer woods with their relentless call. Less popular are the hornets, a large relative of the wasp, which are less aggressive than their reputation suggests but do pack a nasty sting, and the mosquitoes, which may be a problem in some weather conditions.
Botanists will be particularly interested in the rich variety of orchids © Amada44, Wikimedia Commons
In spring, the fields and wetlands of the Vendée region are alive with wild flowers. Botanists will be particularly interested in the rich variety of orchids, including lizard orchid, bee orchid and tongue orchid. Top spots include the Île d’Yeu, where white asphodel, rock rose and sand dune wallflower (helianthemum) are among more than 760 species of wild flower. Inland, clearings among the beech and oak forests offer a different selection, with pink asphodel and yellow broom especially conspicuous.
Around 662,000 people lived in the Vendée in 2014, according to official statistics. To the cursory foreigner passing through the area, the typical Vendean may not appear to have much of a regional identity: they don’t look different from anyone from elsewhere in France and they speak French. Of course, this is an area which has seen a healthy influx of people from other parts of France, perhaps for its climate or retirement or both, so many of the people you meet here may not be Vendean at all. Vendeans define themselves, however, through a strong connection to the land, their land, and in the coastal towns by their connection to the sea. In high summer, the coastal population is swollen with incomers to such an extent that you might be hard pushed to find many locals at all! The proportion of foreigners actually resident here is low, at around 2% compared with a French national average of more than 6%. On the islands, as might be expected, the inhabitants have micro-identities, proud of their island and referring semi-seriously to the mainland as le continent.
Although the Vendée has produced its fair share of writers over the centuries, the French-language barrier inevitably means that Anglophones’ awareness of them is limited. However, the works of François Rabelais (c1494–1553) are available in translation, notably his earthy tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel which are both funny and bawdy (the description ‘rabelaisian’ says it all!).
The Vendée’s landscapes have inspired painters as well as writers. Among the best known are Paul Baudry (1828–86), classical artist and portraitist, Best known for his 30 frescoes commissioned to decorate the foyer of the Paris Opéra. The works of Charles Milcendeau (1872–1919) can be seen at the museum in his native Soullans. In Paris, he rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault, and was a frequent visitor to Spain, but his subject-matter was usually drawn from the bleak marais around his birthplace. Gaston Chaissac (1910–64) was an exponent of art brut. A visit to the Abbaye Ste-Croix museum in Les Sables-d’Olonne, or to the Espace Gaston-Chaissac near Les Essarts, will give insight into the works of this innovative and bizarre artist who created works from broken doors, mattress-ticking and even cow dung!
Music and dance
Folk dances are performed in period costume © Pierre Olivier, Shutterstock
While the Vendée has no great recognisable musical tradition of its own, music often plays a part at the various festivals held – especially in summer – around the region. The world-famous American Baroque-music maestro William Christie (1944–) is one of the Vendée’s most famous residents, and occasionally conducts concerts in churches around Ste-Hermine. One of his protégés, Hugo Reyne (1961–) is director of a fine annual Baroque music festival held at the Logis de la Chabotterie. In another mood entirely, you may also be fortunate enough to catch a show performance of the Danse de la Brioche, a folkloric dance often performed at weddings and involving a giant brioche being whirled around the room! At weddings, the tradition is to offer a piece of this fluffy Vendean bread to the guests as midnight approaches. Musical accompaniment will usually be provided by violin and accordion. Other folk dances can also be seen performed in period costume at Autrefois Challans and other local festivities across the region.