Play "Misty" for me...
June 15, 2000

(The canal of Noirmoutier at low tide, June 15, 2000)

Our drive up the Atlantic coast was pretty quiet this morning.  Many of us took advantage to get a few extra minutes of sleep as we drove along the coast and through the marshes of northern Vendée.

As we arrived, the Atlantic fogs still hung tenaciously over the island.  Our guide, Anne-Marie, suggested that we take a walk through the Woods of La Chaise, one of the most beautiful areas of this part of France.  As we approach the forest, we view the Beach of the Ladies, a site where legend says Celtic druidesses of prehistory gathered to work their magic.


The famous Impressionist painter Renoir came to these coasts a century ago to work his own sort of magic.  Hidden in the mist to the right is another painter who continues in the master's tradition.



This island was settled many centuries ago and quickly became a prime target of invasion both for its strategic position and for its incredibly rich soil -- a soil fertilized by the sea weed that often washed up on some these coasts.  Originally wheat was the main product here.  The exposure to the sea breeze made the construction of numerous windmills a natural extension.  Wheat was thus turned to flower almost on the spot.  As the Renaissance came and the New World began to export its own riches, it was discovered that the new and exotic plant we call "potato" (and which is known in France as the "apple of the earth") grew extremely well in this rich soil.  Today the potatoes of Noirmoutier are a delicacy sought after in all of France. 


Noirmoutier, whose name comes from an expression meaning "Black Monastery", was dominated in the Middle Ages by the Benedictines and Cistercian monks who came here from the mainland.  In addition to cultivating the soil, they also cultivated the sea, thus creating salt marshes like those we visited earlier near Les Sables.


By far the most important of those monks was Saint Philbert, who came here from a place we now call Normandy in the 700's in order to evangelize this island.  After a somewhat tumultuous luncheon, featuring the famous potatoes of the island and a now infamous chef who was extremely displeased with our own New World culinary inclinations, we prepare to enter the church called Saint Philbert.


Soon after Saint Philbert had christianized this area the monastery began to flourish.  The good times were to be short-lived, however.  In the 8th and 9th centuries the Vikings from lands north began marauding these and other areas along the coast.  The Northman or Norman would quickly settle the land now named after him -- Normandy.  When these pagans showed that they intended to settle this island for themselves, the monks here took the precious relics (read bones) of Saint Philbert from their resting place here and moved inland.  As they crossed France, they left parts of the relics in churches along their route.  Now there are villages and churches called Saint Philbert in a meandering line running from to distant Burgundy.


Some of Saint Philbert's remains were eventually returned to the church of his original burial.  Here a few Vendéens observe the reliquary that contains those remains.


To the right is a vertebra of Saint Philbert's spine.


The crypt containing the relics also holds Philbert's original tomb.


Leaving the church of Saint Philbert, we stroll toward the nearby castle of Noirmoutier.  From the darkest Middle Ages, this island has served the mainland as a point of strategic defense from seafaring invaders.  Of course, it was at times a prime landing area for those same invaders.  The castle has thus served primarily as a military fortress or even a prison, functions it has filled well into the 20th century during both World Wars.


The donjon, or main towers, of the castle have kept their essential form intact since the 12th century when the "modern" fort we see today was first erected.


The early days of the castle date back much further, of course.  Here the Vendéens inspect the tombs of knight or monks buried here in the Merovingian times that predated Charlemagne.


As the afternoon progresses, the fog lifts on the island and we can almost glimpse the mainland from the highest towers of the castle.


A few Vendéens celebrate their return to earth from the heights of the donjon's towers.


At high tide some 60% of this island is below the level of the sea.  The famous dike here was built by one of the island's most famous inhabitants, a man named Jacobsen who came here, not surprisingly, from a country north of here called Holland!  

Jacobsen did such a good job that we need no little Dutch boy's thumb to follow him up.  That was true even during the record breaking tempests that struck here last December.  Unfortunately those storms did destroy one of the most impressive aspects of this island's geography -- the famous passage of the "gois".   Unique in the world, this is a section of the sea that opens up twice a day at low tide, this allowing foot or motor traffic on to the island.  In truth, the gois itself was not destroyed, but the road laid across it and the "balizes" (towers designed as a refuge for the unwary who are yearly caught in midcrossing by the waters that rush in at rising tide) were severely damaged.  Repairs are now underway, but they are too late for our visit today.


The skyline in late afternoon is a bit different from that hidden in the mists and fogs that awaited us on our arrival here earlier today.


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