“Look over there – can you see the kingfisher in those branches?” asked our boatman and guide, Manuel.
The bird dropped down and swooped in front of us as we glided along the water, its brilliant blue-and-red plumage shining in the spring sunlight. Manuel was standing up at the back of the flatbottomed boat, pushing the vessel along with a long oar. He has been a boatman for more than 20 years, and took his first passengers out at the age of 11.
We were exploring part of the Poitou marshes, the Marais Poitevin, terrain that is often described as the Green Venice. In an area where building is forbidden, the architecture is the natural shapes of the trees lining the waterways, and the ornamentation comes from the splashes of colour in the vegetation: weeping willows early in the year, followed by a succession of wild flowers, then the autumnal shades as the trees prepare to shed their leaves.
Our small boat set out from La Repentie, just outside Coulon, one of the main villages of the Marais, and located on a branch of the Sèvre Niortaise river. But we soon turned into a conche – a narrower waterway edged with two lines of trees. Manuel explained that the first row are ash trees that are pollarded regularly, and have been planted because their root system spreads out to hold the bank together; behind are poplars, whose wood is a valuable source of income for the farmers. The land in between is used to plant fastgrowing crops, or to graze cattle who are brought out on to the marshes in May on specially designed boats.
The marais is teeming with wildlife – herons, otters, dragonflies – and the fish of the marshes, particularly the pike, are a local culinary speciality. Human life, though, is confined to villages like Coulon, Arcais and La Garette, which have grown up on patches of higher and more solid ground.
Manuel’s love for the region where he was born is obvious. Every day is different, he says, and he is happy to be out on the water at any time of year. “Spring is lovely,” he admits, “because the wild flowers can be stunning.” But he loves it best in the autumn. “The colours and the mist make it very romantic. And the people in the villages start lighting fires, so there’s a smell of smoke in the air, too, which is very atmospheric.”
When we return to our landing stage, Manuel shows me a map of our route. There is so much left to explore. He recommends taking a picnic and spending the whole day exploring – although as the Marais Poitevin is the second-largest wetland in France, covering an area more than 30 miles wide and 12 miles from north to south, even that wouldn’t be enough. But with a lifetime of living in the Marais Poitevin, Manuel thinks that is part of its charm. “Everyone thinks their part of the marsh is the best,” he says. “But no one can know it all – there’s always something left to discover”.
Cardinaud Boats (00 335 49 35 90 47; embarcadere-cardinaud.fr) operate all year from the landing stage at La Repentie de Magne.