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The area sits neatly between La Rochelle, Nantes and Poitiers across the departments of the Vendée, the Deux Sevres, the Charente and the Vienne. It’s diverse, quirky, occasionally infuriating and surprisingly lacking in tourists (well ok, there’s a few but not compared to other areas). Almost in the centre of this quiet little triangle is the renaissance market town of Fontenay le Comte which stretches down in a gloriously straight line from a lofty, green square at the top of the town, across the River Vendée and then up again. It’s a little sleepy unless you arrive on market day but if you head to the other end of town and climb up to the Donjon des Cimes there are amazing views across the roof tops as well as huge enclosed nets up in the trees for the kids to play on. It’s in Fontenay that you first start to get a taste of the south and it’s not a bad place to be based to explore. To the west of Fontenay by about an hour you have the Atlantic coast with its seaside towns, the Bay of Aiguillon (home to mud flats, salt marshes and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds) and Les Sables d’Olonne. To the north lie the rolling hills of the ‘bocage’ and the forest of Mervent. 4,000 hectares of oak, chestnut and beech surround a vast lake here, the result of damming the 2 rivers that flow through the forest (the Vendée and the Mère). Ravines, panoramic views, fortified villages, wildlife and 200km of walks are the order of the day here and make Mervent a spellbinding place.
Top left: Fort Boyard, just off La Rochelle; far left: the Forst of Mervent, left Fonteay; centre: roof tops of Fontenay; above: Mervent The landscape south of Fontenay is dramatic in contrast; flat and hot with a Mediterranean feel. Yet as you head south east, it all changes again, and you find yourself in the pretty and ingenious world of the part of the Marais Poitevin known as the Green Venice. With canal side towns, ancient abbeys and intricate, arboreal waterways, it was all created by man out of what was once little more than a silty bay. It’s not just the whirlwind of changes in landscape that makes this little corner so compelling. Dotted amongst the cornfields, valleys and rivers there are all sorts of interesting things going on. The world famous Puy du Fou theme park for a start, is to the north. Here you’ll find historical enactments on a dramatic scale: Viking boats rise out of the waters, fires stream out of a moving chateau and huge birds of prey swoop so close their feet almost scratch your cheek. You know it’s not an ordinary theme park when you’re warned that dangerous animals are in amongst the audience and not to eat while you’re watching the show. And that’s before you get to the gladiators! Further south there’s the Indian Forest of Adventures (tree top adventures taken to the next level) and in a similar vein half an hour north of Fontenay there’s the Parc D’Adventure; high octane Go Ape at half the price. There’s also a zoo at Mervent where you can walk with some of the animals, cycle riding in abundance, gentle water sports or a spot of fishing.
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