West Virginia University in Vendée, France

Les Sables d'Olonne

A town about the size of our WVU's home of Morgantown, WV, Les Sables d'Olonne has a normal population of around 35,000 inhabitants.  By mid-July to early August, however, visitors and tourists bring the population to over 200,000 people.  By arriving in early June, WVU-V is scheduled to beat these crowds while still giving us a taste of the climate that so many find irresistable.

Best known for its beaches and mild climate, Les Sables is also traditionally a seaport and fishing community.  Ironically, the famous "sands" that give the town its name were once considered a menace to the economy since they continually threatened to fill in the port that was the town's life blood.  Today, the fishing boats (12 Kb)are still a vital part of the economy, and the fresh seafood is one of the major factors in the quality of life in Les Sables d'Olonne.  To explore this side of the town's life, WVU-V will schedule a morning outing to the docks where we will greet the fishers as they return with their catches.  We will also take a fishing cruise on the famous fishing boat, the Kifenlo.

Overlooking the precious port of Les Sables is the ancient Priory Saint-Nicolas  .  Nearly a thousand years old, the priory has often served a function more military than religious.  Its strategic location on the seaward point of La Chaume across the port from Les Sables has made Saint-Nicolas a prime site for those on the lookout for the arrival by sea of dreaded enemies.  Whether it be the simple Christians hoping to ward off the marauding Norman Vikings of the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Catholic monks fearing the imminent arrival of the Protestant armies from nearby La Rochelle, or even the German occupiers on the lookout for the British and American landing that actually took place to the north in Normandy, Saint-Nicolas has witnessed some of the most dramatic moments in history.

More inland on the port stands the imposing Tour d'Arundel  (10 Kb).  Built on the site chosen in the twelfth century by England's King Henry II of Pantagenêt who had by now married the legendary Eleanore of Aquitaine, this tower, too, has seen many turbulent moments in French history.

Another among the many sites in Les Sables that have played a rich part in the town's long history, it the former Abbey of Sainte-Croix  (21 Kb).  Originally a Benedictine monastery, Sainte-Croix is today a museum with exhibits ranging from the earliest prehistory to the most modern forms of art.   Just as infomative and interesting are the museum's facsinating exhibits devoted to the past ways of life in Les Sables.  Here we see close up the traditional coiffe  worn by the women of Les Sables.  In traditional France, each town and village had its own special form of dress for both men and women (19 Kb).    From the interiors of the traditonal Sablais home (23 Kb) to the shapes and sorts of sailing and fishing boats (17 Kb) that brought them, most times, their livelyhood and, sometimes, their watery deaths, these exhibits offer a true look at a way of life whose traditions still influence the people of Les Sables d'Olonne.

Below are a few other photographs of the people and places of Les Sables:

A typical "rue piétonne" (16 Kb), a street reserved for pedestrians only.  Keep the cars out and the people will come!

Like the "rue piétonne," attractive public parks (16 Kb) are considered an essential element of a pleasent urban environment of any French town.

In addition to the supermarkets and "malls" familiar to us in America, the local market is still a vital part of French life.   The "Halles" of Les Sables (21 Kb) are a famous landmark in the town.  An impressive piece of late nineteenth-century architecture, the open spaces here are occupied by vendors and mechants of all sorts of seafood, fruit, cheese, wine, and vegetables all fresh from the latest catch or harvest.

Needless to say, there is much more to tell of Les Sables d'Olonne, but in this case, seeing for oneself is truly believing.  And those of us who have seen do indeed believe!