Follow our road trip itinerary from Pouzauges to Les Sables-d’Olonne to discover the department of Vendée, the land of windmills, beaches and the notorious Bluebeard.
Fenced in by rolling Atlantic seas and hedged around by marshes, plains and wooded hills. This vast green region, which was brought to the English crown in 1152 as part of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Henry Plantagenet, is ideal for a touring holiday.
Day 1: Pouzauges to La Flocellière (25 kilometres)
Start just outside the town of Pouzauges and climb the path to the summit of Le Puy Crapaud (Toad Hill). Don’t be surprised if you get out of breath; this town, which was the first in western France to get electricity, is known as ‘la reine du haut bocage‘ (‘queen of the high pastures’) because of its (relatively) lofty position.
Take a guided tour of Pouzauges walled castle, which is flanked by two working windmills. Only a sinister- looking tower remains, but visitors still flock here because of the castle’s grim claim to fame. In the 14th century, it was the home of Catherine de Thouars, heiress of Vendée and Poitou. She was the wife of Gilles de Rais, whose notorious reputation is said to have inspired the Bluebeard fairy tale.
You will find two other working mills just outside town at the Terrier-Marteau. These war-scarred towers were bought by the locally-based charcuterie company Fleury Michon in the 1980s and restored.
Drop into the firm’s factory shop next to the railway station to buy saucisson à l’ail (garlic sausage), get a baguette in the next-door boulangerie and enjoy an alfresco picnic.
After your snack, take the tree-lined D752 to the Manoir des Sciences in Réaumur (manoirdes sciencesdereaumur.fr). Once the home of an 18th century savant who helped to develop the thermometer, the creeper- clad manor house is now an interactive museum where you can spend several hours carrying out simple experiments and learning about science.
As the sun sinks beneath the flat Vendée horizon, head for the Moulin des Justices near Saint- Michel-Mont-Mercure, a rustic restaurant where you can try the local fruit liqueur troussepinette, spicy sausage andouillettes and more.
If you have overindulged on the troussepinette, you’ll be glad to know that your chambre d’hôte in the medieval Château de la Flocellière is a 20-minute stroll (or five-minute taxi ride) from the restaurant.
Day 2: La Flocellière to Puy du Fou (57 kilometres)
Take the winding D755 road north-west to Les Herbiers, a small town with plenty of clothing shops, then head up the Mont des Alouettes, where you can see three beautifully restored windmills. During the Vendée Wars of the Revolution, their sails were used to pass coded messages indicating the whereabouts of Republican troops. The granite grindstones of one of the mills produce light, organic flour that you can sample in the shape of a pancake lathered with vanilla ice cream in the next-door crêperie.
Fringed with tongue-coloured foxgloves and blood-red poppies, the road from Les Herbiers to Tiffauges passes fields tall with wheat, or trampled by buff-coloured Charolais cows. Château de Tiffauges stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the confluence of the Sèvre-Nantaise and Crûme rivers. Gilles de Rais retired to this magnificent castle in 1435 after fighting alongside Joan of Arc against the English.
The perverse aristocrat was fascinated by alchemy and dabbled in the Black and rumours of bizarre goings-on “up at the castle’ were rife for years. However, it was not until de Rais kidnapped a clergyman and held him to ransom in the spring of 1440 that an investigation was launched by the Bishop of Nantes. Accused of abducting, raping and murdering more than a hundred children, de Rais was found guilty and hanged at Nantes on 26 October 1440. These days, the soundproof dungeon where so many are said to have suffered contains a museum of medieval weaponry.
Vendée was the backdrop to many bloody battles during the Hundred Years War and to find out more, take the winding D27 to the Puy du Fou theme park (puydufou.com). Apart from enjoying the falconry, jousting, magic and music, demonstrations of rural crafts, and reconstructions, visitors can learn about the region’s rich and troubled history at a son-et-lumière show every evening.
Camping La Bretèche is only a ten-minute drive from France’s biggest theme park. Alternatively, you can spend another night at Château de la Flocellière where, if you book in advance, they will serve a gourmet dinner, too.
Day 3: Puy du Fou to Les Sables d’Olonne (109 kilometres)
From Puy du Fou, the A87 autoroute will get you to La Roche-sur-Yon in less than an hour. The capital of Vendée is a pretty little town, which was founded in 1804 on the orders of Napoléon Bonaparte. The Circuit Napoléon takes you to fascinating sights linked to the first Emperor of France, including the Haras de la Vendée national stud which puts on equestrians shows.
Have lunch at Le P’tit Marais, which serves Vendée specialities including mogette beans swimming in a garlicky sauce. The département is famed for its glorious beaches, which include the sandy, crescent-shaped Grande Plage at Les Sables-d’Olonne. Situated on the Côte de Lumière, the resort has a lively casino, excellent restaurants and, in Rue de l’Enfer, one of Europe’s narrowest streets. It is also the departure point for the Vendée Globe single- handed, round-the-world yacht race.
Check into La Maison l’Épicurienne, a charming chambre d’hôte housed in a renovated 1920s building near the town centre. Whether you choose to laze on the beach or get a shopping fix in the bustling streets, Les Sables-d’Olonne is the perfect place to end your tour of the beautiful Vendée region.
Lead photo credit : Wikimedia Commons