Maritime heritage is very present in the coastal regions of the Vendée. Popular fishing harbours such as Saint Gilles Croix de Vie is renowned for its sardines. Les Sables d’Olonne’s original port dates back to the 15th century. Several impressive lighthouses stand proudly as landmarks for navigators. As well as the authentic quarter of La Chaume shows us the real atmosphere of a fishing port.
Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, a fishing port with a strong maritime heritage
A fishing harbour well known for sardines
The fishing harbour of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie plays a major part in the town’s Maritime heritage. It is the first French port to be labelled "Site Remarquable du Goût": corresponding to a quality label for places associated with the richness and diversity of French gastronomy. This distinction was awarded in 1998 for the port’s sardine fishing, a local tradition. Indeed, Saint Gilles Croix de Vie specialises in fishing “blue fish” otherwise known as sardines and mackerels.
La tour Joséphine- an elegant hommage
The Tower was built in 1850 after the request of sixteen captains, and was erected in homage to Joséphine de Beauharnais (Napoléon the first’s wife). It became the first lighthouse indicating the entrance to the port. In 1875, it was converted into an explosive’s depot, which earned it the name of "Dynamite Tower". An important part of the town’s maritime heritage.
Did you know?
An old custom says, that if newlyweds go the end of the pier and walk in a circle around the base of the tower, it would bring them happiness.
Le Grand Phare stands proudly overlooking the sardine fishing port
Built in 1875, the Grand Phare Lighthouse is 17 meters high and dominates the Gîte and Gabio quarters of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie. The Grand Phare’s light is aligned with that of the Adon lighthouse situated a little further inland. It is still used by mariners to facilitate their entry into the port.
La maison des écrivains de la mer – a voyage through maritime literature
La maison des écrivains de la mer is situated in the heart of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, facing the sea. A museum and library dedicated to maritime literature.
La maison du pêcheur – a peak into characteristics of a fishing harbour in 1920
La Maison du Pecheur, is tucked into the heart of the Quartier du Maroc, not far from the port. Among other traditional fishermen’s houses, this private museum and visitor centre presents the maritime history of the town. Here you can experience the living environment of sailors in the 1920s: surrounded by antique furniture, period clothing and objects from their daily lives.
Le quartier de Boisvinet – its seaside architecture is just a marvel !
In Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, the Quarter known as Boisvinet has retained its distinctive character, dating back to the Belle Époque. Between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, many picturesque villas appeared on the Vendée’s coast. In an eclectic style, this seaside architecture has left its mark and is marvelled over even today.
Saint Gilles Croix de Vie has a second "flagship" element which is part of the town’s maritime heritage. It’s an old vessel called "Le Hope", which navigated until the end of the 1960’s. Le hope is a former caseyeur: a fishing boat equipped for catching crabs and other crustaceans. Classified as a Historic Monument in 1998, it is often moored in the town’s port.
Le feu de Grosse Terre – a lighthouse proudly looking out to sea
The light named Grosse Terre stands on the coast near to Saint Hilaire de Riez. There is a stunning view across the rugged shoreline and the well-known rocky features Pil’hours. The navigator Garcie Ferrande called this place the “Pointe de Ryé”, making it a landmark for navigators. An amazing spot to enjoy the sun setting over the fishing harbour of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie.
Sion sur l'Océan, a reminder of the Belle Époque
The coastal resort of Sion is part of Saint Hilaire de Riez. It is a reminder of the bygone year of the 1920’s and 30’s when sea bathing was all the rage. Charming bourgeois villas are dotted throughout this seaside resort.
Les Sables d’Olonne – a unique maritime heritage
The seaside resort of Les Sables d’Olonne has a famous nautical history. It is also home to the mythic round the world singled handed yacht race known as the Vendee Globe. Besides its various touristic, its rich maritime heritage hides a legacy of its vibrant past. Behind the obvious tourist assets (sandy beaches, attractive seaside architecture), its maritime highlights are an absolute must!
Le port de pêche – an active fishing harbour since the 15th century
The fishing harbour was built in the 15th century under the leadership of King Louis XI. Known for whaling the 16th century, the harbour was also home to trade countless other products during this time i.e. salt, wine, wheat and sailcloth. These activities made it one of the most active ports on the West coast of France.
The port was also renowned for cod fishing. Sardine and tuna fishing were developed at a later date. In the 18th century, a series of renovation work was carried out and has reshaped the fishing harbour to the way we see it today. With piers and docks…
Le phare de l'Armandèche - the last lighthouse to be built in France
The lighthouse Phare de L’Armandèche is 36 metres in height and has a range of 42km across the open sea. Since 2011 it is listed as part of the Historic Monuments. It was built to replace another lighthouse - Le Phare d'Arundel.
Le Phare des Barges – a spectacular lighthouse spot to film big waves
Constructed in 1861, the Phare des Barges announces the entrance to the harbour and stands over 24.81m tall. In 1970 it was the first lighthouse to be automated. Crashing big waves exploding onto this rocky plateau constituted a great danger to coastal navigation. It is however a fascinating phenomenon during stormy weather on the Atlantic coast.
La Chaume Quarter – the true birth place of Les Sables d’Olonne
The fishing quarter of Les Sables d’Olonne is known as La Chaume and is the veritable birthplace of the town. Its rich maritime heritage is ever present in the narrow streets, delightful small houses typical to this fishing community. A special friendly atmosphere radiates from this captivating place, that of a small village where everyone seems to know each other…
Did you know ?
The quarter of La Chaume is also known as the « Le Berceau de la Cité » or the "Cradle of the town".
La grande jetée "Saint Nicolas", a popular family walk?
First sketched in 1764, it was completed in 1910 with the addition of the lighthouse. Nowadays, it is a very popular place for family walks all year round, especially when the sun comes out.
The Saint Nicolas priory – an edifice dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen
Towards the end of the quayside of La Chaume, the Priory of Saint Nicolas dominates the entrance to the port. A legend tells us that the chapel was built in the 11th century by a sailor who survived a shipwreck. He dedicated the edifice to Saint Nicolas, the patron Saint of fishermen. This chapel which was in the form of a Greek cross, was then transformed into a fort in the 17th century. Inside, temporary exhibitions are organised. From here there is a stunning view across the Bay of Les Sables d’Olonne.
Le musée de l'Abbaye Sainte Croix – an art museum housed in a 17th century abbey
The Sainte Croix Abbey museum is housed in a 17th century abbey and classified as a “Musée de France”. It was one of the first modern and contemporary art museums created in France. The museum exposes the works of Gaston Chaissac, famous for his Totems and Victor Brauner, renowned for his surrealist style. On the second floor, the spotlight is on local traditions, the coastline and life in a seaside resort.
La petite jetée – the small pier with its green lighthouse
Built in the 17th century, it protects the port from silting up. In the 19th century, the two jetties were used as a towpath. The lighthouse leans a little which is due to the subsidence thus giving it the nickname of "Little Tower of Pisa".
L'île Penotte – an unexpected maritime pearl in the heart of the town
The Ile Penotte is an interesting discovery, just off the seafront in Les Sables d’Olonne. While exploring these pretty alleyways, adorned with hollyhocks, you will come across the work of local artist Danièle Arnaud-Aubin. She has decorated the facades with mosaic created from sea shells. Something that you wouldn't expect in the heart of the town!
Château Saint Clair and its maritime heritage museum devoted to fishing
The Château Saint Clair is situated on the Quayside of La Chaume. This old dungeon dates back to the 12th century and is now used as a lighthouse, named Arundel Tower. The Chateau houses a museum whose theme is the sea and fishing. One room houses an exposition on the maritime heritage of yesteryear. The second exposes numerous models, documents and various objects related to fishing.
From the top of Arundel Tower at over 33 m high, an orientation table describes the different elements to see and offers a fabulous view over the Bay.
Noirmoutier island and the sea, two intertwined fates
Le Gois, a maritime road under the sea!
Ile de Noirmoutier can be reached either via a bridge or by a 4.2km submersible causeway, making it a very unique place in Europe. The Passage du Gois is listed as a national picturesque site for the 3/4 of a century. Le Gois is only accessible twice a day when the tide goes out. Crossing is possible 1 hour and a half before and after the designated low tide times, in total roughly 3 hours. The causeway is marked out by 9 beacons dotted along the road. Some of these are refuge beacons where you can take shelter if necessary, from the incoming tide. At low tide this exceptional site often attracts amateur fishermen searching for clams, cockles and oysters… an ever-changing spectacle!
Sebastopol polder, a natural and maritime haven of peace
The Sébastopol polder is a protected site stretching overs some 132-hectares which was reclaimed from the sea using Dutch polder technique. This exceptional haven of peace is classified since 2008 as a regional nature reserve. Home to more than 900 animals, sea birds, fish, invertebrates, insects and countless listed plant species.
It is the refuge of hundreds of migratory birds that arrive for the winter to lay their eggs.
The Passage du Gois and the Polder Sébastopol both have an unparallel natural and maritime heritage.
L’hôtel Jacobsen, a maritime museum exposing the local cultural heritage
This private hotel is rich in history and exposes strong island heritage. The former property of a shipowner, it has been classed as a Historical Monument. Everybody knows it as the "hotel de la mer" and main Centre of the island’s maritime cultural heritage.
The museum proposes ten rooms where different themes in relation to the sea are exposed:
- decorative arts,
- different trades and commerce,
- the territorial formations,
- the hazards at sea,
- the cultural risks,
- the seaside phenomenon, presented with using new interactive technologies.
This enables visitors an immersive experience, to better understand and discover the Ile de Noirmoutier.
Talmont saint Hilaire sitting proudly on the Payré estuary
Talmont Saint Hilaire hides the Payré estuary, protected from the ocean by the rocky cliffs at the Pointe du Payré. The estuary has preserved its unique flore and fauna. Continuing on along the river Le Payré, you’ll arrive on 800-hectares of marshland where the typical oyster port of La Guittiere can be found.
Take a break on the beautiful beach "plage du Veillon", which stretches along the dune for nearly 1 km. Access is prohibited to this preserved dune, being classified as one of the most natural and “Remarkable heritage site in the Vendée”.
La Tranche sur Mer and la Faute sur Mer, both involved in environment protection
The nature reserve of la Belle Henriette is spread over 340-hectares between la Tranche sur Mer and la Faute sur Mer. The lagoon has a remarkable natural heritage with nearly 360 different plant species and provides a stopover point for migratory birds.
Quite nearby, there is another nature reserve which deserves a visit… It’s tucked in the Pointe d'Arçay peninsula, bordered on one side by the river Lay and on the other by the Atlantic Ocean. This secret area is normally closed to the public. You can however discover its exceptional flora and fauna, thanks to free guided tours organised in July and August by the ONF (National Forestry Office of France).