Marais Poitevin, a nature reserve on the coast of France

The Marais Poitevin is a large nature reserve that lies between the city of Niort and the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. This marshland is located on the border of the Vendée, charente-maritime and deux Sèvres. The Marais Poitevin is also called "La Venise Verte", the Green Venice, because of the many boats that sail in this natural park, sometimes also with gondoliers. The nature reserve is a remnant of the former Gulf of Poitou. Large parts of the golf have now been reclaimed and partially drained. The Marais Poitevin is vast  with an area of approx. 1,120 km² and has very varied flora and fauna. It is not for no reason that the Marais Poitevin has been added to the list of "Grand site de France". The Marais Poitevin is a very popular destination among nature lovers. There are over 250 bird species, 40 fish species, 60 species of dragonflies and 80 butterfly species. Many, including the French, explore this area during their holidays. Some go walking, by boat, wagon or bicycle.

The origins of the Marais Poitevin

Between the departments of Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres and the Vendée on the Atlantic Ocean there used to be a bay a long time ago. The ocean flowed till the edge of the city of Niort. The bay was known as the Golfe des Pictons (Gulf of Poitou). "Picton" was an originally Scottish tribe that settled on the islets in the bay. Over the years, the bay has been drained naturally by using silt from the ocean and later due to the construction of dikes. This created the Marais Poitevin nature reserve. The bay of l'Aiguillon is the last remnant of the old bay. The digging of the Canal des Cinq-Abbés (Canal of the Five Abbots) by local monks in the 13th century marked the start of the reclamation. The marsh dwellers had low, whitewashed houses that were clumped together on islands that weren’t in the floodplains. They lived from fishing, agriculture and cattle breeding and they transported by flat boat.

The three areas of the Marais Poitevin

The Marais Poitevin Regional Natural Park consists of three parts, each with its own character:

  • Marais Desséché
  • Marais Mouillé
  • Baie de l'Aguillon

The Marais Desséché

The Marais Desséché is a swamp that has been drained and is now mainly used for agriculture purposes. It is located between Damvix and the Atlantic Ocean and is mainly an agricultural area with fields and grasslands. They area has few forests and many canals. The landscape is flat with an occasional pretty village and mostly located in the Vendée department. It’s great to cycle here!

The Baie de l'Aiguillon

The Baie de l'Aiguillon is another part of the Marais Poitevin and is formed by the coastal zone. This area is the transition the sea to land and has fresh and salt water. During low tide large parts of the bay are dry and at high tide nearly the entire thing is under water. The bay is a national nature reserve. It has sandy beaches, dunes, a few forests, cliffs and mudflats. It is an ideal home for birds and other animals.

The Marais Mouillé

Many find the third part of the Marais Poitevin, the Marais Mouillé, the most beautiful. The Marais Mouillé is the wet part and is under water during large parts in winter. This area is also known as La Venise Verte which means the green Venice due to all the beautiful green nature you can see in the area. The area has all kinds of trees, shrubs and plants in countless different shades of green. You will find an unprecedentedly beautiful nature which is largely untouched. La Venise Verte has an incredible size of 28,000ha. and has a maze of canals which have been dug over hundreds of years. In total there is around 16,000km of ditches and canals. The canals have been dug by local farmers to make the water flow faster. Where necessary, locks/floodgates have been constructed to regulate the flow. This water mostly comes from the Sèvre Niortaise river which winds from Niort towards the Ocean.

A big advantage of this moving water is that there are few mosquitoes. In addition, the thick layer of duckweed prevents mosquitoes from laying their eggs. And the mosquitoes that are there are eaten by the Dragonflies in this area. The ecological balance of Marais Mouillé is good.

This part of the the Marais Poitevin is very popular among tourists.

Explore the Marais Poitevin by boat

The best way to discover La Venise Verte during your holiday is by boat. You can rent a boat at various places and go on a boat trip. You won’t get lost easily seen as all ditches and canals have names which are well shown on the map. When you are on the water you’ll see poles with the names and numbers all around you. During the summer months the ditches look like wide green avenues thanks to the duckweed on the water and the poplars, willows and ash trees which hang over the water. It is therefore often pleasantly cool. Coulon is a great touristic place which could be your starting point. Arçais and la Garette are also good alternatives.

Boat trip by gondolier

Not in the mood to have to row? Or are you looking to learn more about the region from a guide? This is possible, you can go on a guided gondolier tour. Using a long thick stick, known as the boat hook, the guide can steer the boat through the canals just like with the gondoliers in Venice. The guides know everything about the area and will tell you all about the flora and fauna. They might even show you that water can really burn! A boat trip with a guide is best during the early morning or just before sunset.

Canoe or kayak

Do you like canoeing? Bring your own canoe or rent one at the various jetties. In a canoe or kayak you can follow the marked routes or choose your own route. It is possible to get to places in the Green Venice that are not accessible to boats by canoe.

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Swamp fire

The canopy and vegetation are so dense in the Marais Poitevin that the leaves that fall in the water during the Autumn cause a rotting. This creates certain gases. If you take a boat trip through the area with a guide, he might show you this. To show that gases come free he will stick his pole in the ground and spin his stick in circles. He will then hold a lighter near the surface of the water. In many cases you will see a flame, this is known as a swamp fire!


There are hundreds of kilometres of cycle paths through the Marais Poitevin. The most famous route is the Vélo Francette which runs from Niort to the Ocean, along the Sèvre Niortaise. There are also routes to the Bail of l'Aiguillon and other parts of the marshland. The cycling routes become local cycle paths at various points which allows you to get almost anywhere in the Marais Poitevin by bike.

Covered wagon

A great way to discover La Venise Verte is by covered wagon. This does limit you though a little bit seen as a covered wagon can only go over wider paths. But this still gives you enough opportunities to visit the area. You’ll stop here and there for a bite or to see a sight. Covered wagons can be rented in Damvix.


Geocaching with your family is a great adventure! You will discover and visit the area in a completely different way. Go on the hunt for hidden treasures. Use a GPS or smartphone to find treasures in hollow trees or under bridges.

Maillezais Abbey

Visit the ruins of the colossal abbey which used to stand in this region. The Saint-Pierre Abbey was built during the 11th century and was the burial place of the Dukes of Aquitaine. You can visit the ruins of the abbey church and the monastery buildings which has dining rooms, kitchens and clothes.


Put on your hiking shoes and depart from one of the villages in the Marais Poitevin for a beautiful trip through nature. The Marais Poitevin has loads of hiking trails. Relax with the sounds of nature, walk along creeks and meadows where cows graze. The Marais Poitevin is a tourist area but doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of cities. The area is so large that you can walk for miles without running into anyone.

Maisons in the Marais Poitevin

There are several buildings of cultural-historical value, these are called "Maisons", in the park:

  • Maison de la Meunire – an antique watermill in Nieul-sur-l'Autize which has been completely restored. The miller works there every day. You can visit the mill during the summer months.
  • Maison des Marais-Muoills – a museum in which the history of the region comes to life. The museum also shows how transport over the swamp occurred by using: flat bottoms, stilts and special shoes so that the workers didn’t sink into the swamp.
  • Maison de l'Ane du Poitou – here you can see typical Poitou donkeys which played an important role in the reclamation of the Marais Poitevin. Great for children.
  • Maison de la Mytiliculture – this museum is located in the bay of Aiguillon and tells you all about the cultivation, the catching of and the history of the mussels.
  • Maison du Petit Poitou – this museum in Chaille-les-Marais shows the reclamation of the area.
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