West Virginia University in Vendée, France
The Isle of Noirmoutier...
June 8, 1999
Our first outing on the Vendée-Mobile begins with a smile and a cloudy sky. Temperatures are to be mild today, though, and there is no threat of rain. This is good news as we head north-west along the Atlantic coast toward the island of Noirmoutier. The name of this isle comes from the old French, which we might translate as Blackminster, "noir" meaning black (the color of the monks' robes) and "moutier" coming from the old word for "monastery."
Until 1971, when a bridge was built from the continent to the island, the only access to Noirmoutier was by boat, by plane, or, when tides were just right, across the "Passage du Gois," pictured below. As you see, we arrived today by the new bridge. This morning the "land" passage across the bay is covered by the high tide.
Our 1999 Vendéens stand where the road back to the continent ends in the sea.
Through the centuries, wheat was the main product of the island, which explains the remains of so many windmills here. Those mills converted the wheat to flour for the bakers who fed the population here and on the mainland. Today, however, it has been discovered that the sandy soil of the isle, especially when fertilized with the seaweed from the many kilometers of surrounding beaches, is ideal for growing potatoes. Below, we see an island farmer with his produce, as well as our driver Francis and our guide Murielle. Murielle notes, among other things, that at a recent auction in Paris, a kilo (2.2 lbs.) of potatoes from Noirmoutier sold at auction for 3,000 francs (about $500)! These especially tasty potatoes are prized throughout Europe.
The port of Noirmoutier was once devoted to fishing for sardines, but today we stand on one of the more "polyvalent" fishing docks of the Atlantic. Fishers here now bring in all sorts of seafood from the Atlantic ocean.
From the earliest Middle Ages it was discovered that the wind and the sunshine here could turn the seawater into the precious commodity of salt, used to conserve food and as a valuable trading commodity. The monks that came to the island used great skill and calculation to build "salines" or salt producing bassins like the one below. Situated below sea-level and fed by locks built into dikes that surround much of the island (56% below sea-level), these intricate labyrinths of water concentrate the salt in the water at it flows toward the center of the apparatus where the salt is skimmed out of the water and stored for sale.
The greatest monk of Noirmoutier, Saint Philbert, christianized much of western France in the 7th century. He and his fellows are those who built the first facilities for the production of salt. Soon this source of wealth, combined with the strategic position of the island and the wealth of its soil, would bring a series of invaders. The first, but not the least of these, were the Vikings or Normands who came in the 8th and 9th centuries. To save the remains of their beloved saint, the monks here took his remains inland and fled the barbarians as they moved far across France to Burgundy. Below is the crypt where Saint Philbert was first buried.
As I mentioned, Saint Philbert's body was moved across France. Later, however, a bone from his body was returned to its original resting place, as we see in the reliquary below.
Lunch today is a feast of fish and of the famous potatoes grown on Noirmoutier.
The castle of Noirmoutier was first built in the 7th century, and was a wooden fortress. Today's edifice dates in part from the 1100's and has served in almost every imaginable conflict in western Europe since, the last being as a prison in WW II.
Below, we look out over the entire island from the ramparts of the castle.
The locks that control the flow of seawater in the island:
After our visit of the castle, we return to the Passage du Gois, where we find the tide has begun to fall.
Some of us are mystified to see the ocean fall back before our very eyes.
Just in case, a few of us stay near the famous "balises", poles built all along the Gois as a refuge for the unwary travelor who is caught by a rising tide. Every year a few victims find themselves atop one of these things for hours, awaiting the next low tide. Through the ages, many of these miscalculations have been fatal, and almost every year some one loses their car to the waves of Noirmoutier.
Thankfully, today the tides draw peacefully away, and we return to the continent by the Gois. We'll soon be back in Les Sables d'Olonne.
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