West Virginia University in Vendée, France


Dark Skies, White Gold

 15 juin 2010

The gray skies and light rain do not deter us from starting a wonderful day on the the island of Noirmoutier, one of the geographical wonders of France.  In the VIIth century, when the monks, led by Saint Philbert, arrived on the island, it was nothing more than a large rocky spur.  Their task as they saw it was to first help the local population feed themselves, then, once their stomachs were full, to Christianize them.   How do you scratch a living on a rocky spur?  The answer was obvious for the learned monks: you fight the sea to gain arable land, through the digging of canals, the building of dikes, and more. The success of the monks was such that two centuries later, they erected the main part of the church, our first stop this morning.


The current church is built on the chapel of the original monastery, now the crypt, in which we stop to admire the statue of St. Philbert, who holds the symbols of his development program: sheaths of wheat in his right hand, a church to his left.


We are now back on the main level of the church, where we admire the round arches, testimony of its Romanesque architecture.  The round vaulted ceiling is a reflection of the original profession of its  builders: they indeed built more ships than they did churches.


This replica is an excellent example of an ex voto, literally "after the wish," an object deposited in a church after an answered prayer.  In coastal towns, wishes and prayers were often about safe ships, so  miniature ships hanging from the ceiling, such as this one, are not a rare sight.  Most commonly, ex voto are marble plaques with a date and an initial--discreet and anonymous thank you notes.


When the island developers were done gaining land over the ocean, the southern tip of the island was quite close to the continent, and the sea was actually quite shallow there.  So shallow in fact, that during low tide, the seas part and uncover the bottom of the ocean, upon which the resourceful islanders  built a road, which is accessible only twice a day at low tide.  Until a bridge was built in 1977, this road was the only way to access the island by car.  Here, we stop to check the time of the next low tide, about 2:00pm.  It is about 11:00am now, so let's check the road...


Before our guide allows us to come closer, she wants us to understand the severity of the warnings given to drivers.

The posts that you see have been built for the imprudent travelers who do not heed the warnings.  If they are lucky, they can climb one of the rescue posts and wait for the next tide (or the coast guards).


Here, Brigitte, our guide, who lives on the continent, demonstrates how she must constantly consult the tide schedules she keeps in her pocket to avoid being caught in the rising tide.  Melaney looks worried that we might not make it...


Can you guess the point of this shot, with Alicen and Tory's horizontal hair?  Extreme hair day!  Emily is still smiling, though!


In spite of the wind, our intrepid Vendéens pose for a group picture next to the road that is beginning to emerge.


Shall we go for a drive?  Not quite yet.


The locals, unshaken by the stench of the black mud, are eagerly clamming.


The dike allows for the lands to the left (a polder) to be mostly drained.  As you can see here, the polders are below sea-level. 


The dikes are built with rocks that ships would bring to the island as ballast, before they loaded salt, the "white gold" of the region, as cargo.


Whew!  Finally inside!  The whole gang is thrilled to be sheltered from the cold wind and ready to enjoy a great meal at La Cormaroune, a restaurant in the Port de l'Herbaudière (the north-western-most point of the Noirmoutier island).


For starters, we have the Salade de chèvre chaud au saumon fumé, a combination of warm goat cheese on small rounds of toast laid upon a bed of lettuce that includes smoked salmon.


Next, we enjoy a Papillote de colin à l'étuvée de choux, a delicate white fish steamed within a light parchment-like crust with a base of specially-prepared cabbage, all surrounded by a lemon butter sauce.  Wow!


To finish, we are ecstatic with the profiteroles--cream puffs filled with vanilla ice cream, smothered in rich chocolate sauce and topped with home-made whipped cream.  Students were practically licking their plates!


One of the most important products of the island of Noirmoutier was salt. Salt became the "white gold" of this region, in particular during the Middle Ages, when it was critical in preserving foods before refrigeration.  In earlier times, the salt marshes (as you see here) covered a large portion of the island.  At this point, salt from Noirmoutier is still sought as a culinary specialty, but its role in the local economy has diminished due to the prevalence of other forms of food preservation and industrialized salt production in the south of France.    


Here we visit the Eco Museum of Daviaud, a largely outdoor museum dedicated to highlighting the farming lifestyle of the salt marsh-working local families who, even until very recently (e.g. 1950), were living in the islands thatched-roof huts. In order to be self-sufficient, the farmers raised animals, grew vegetables, made their own foods, etc., and because of this, were able to remain quite insular, not depending on outside products.  This is how their lifestyle was maintained untouched for such a long time. 


Our guide, Léonie, holds in her hands a ningle, a critical form of transportation for this area covered with channels of sea water used in cultivating the salt marshes.  The ningle is a pole with a small metal fork at the end used to help walkers propel themselves across the water channels.    


The students were particularly taken with these "duck teepees," a form of housing and protection for the farm birds. Unfortunately, the students distracted the Drs. Lastingkoff to such an extent, we don't remember the teepees' real names!


No farm worth its salt ;-) can exist without a pig!  Here we meet Diane, a beautiful example of porcine elegance.


The huts were constructed of materials resistant to the occasionally difficult weather conditions, particularly wind.  The walls are made with clay from the marshes, straw, sand and water, while the roofs are made with the reeds that grow next to the water channels.  Students were very impressed that these houses had lasted so long!


Although the outside of the bourrines, the huts with thatched-roofs, look somewhat primitive to our modern eyes, the inside is quite nicely appointed and offer some comforts.  From our students' perspective, however, it's only missing a bathroom, a formal kitchen, running water, enough room for this family's 11 children, a TV, etc., but otherwise, is quite livable and warm--remember, we were freezing from the blustering wind! 


Lucie Lastinger, the principal (and only) member of "Groupe Lucie," is bearing the harsh winds with Liz.  Unfortunately, Groupe Lucie will no longer be with us as she is off to a big adventure in Quebec City with her school friends and teachers. 

BON VOYAGE, LUCIE!  Tu vas nous manquer!


Please send e-mail to   V. Lastinger or J. Orlikoff to provide feedback about this page.