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Holiday: Dreamy land of food and water.

Byline: MOIRA COOKE

EVERY so often the waitress cast a suspicious eye in our direction. Yes, we were still there, establishing a record for eating starters.

Even by French standards, an hour and a half's a long time to demolish crabe mayonnaise!

Sunday lunchtime in Les Sables d'Olonne, where the French have come to see and be seen since the mid-19th century. The imposing bay, with its backdrop of hotels and apartments, may have changed over the years but the food's just as good.

What else to eat but the catch of the day delivered that morning from the colourful fishing boats which ply the port.

We were staying further up the coast in a mobile home near Bretignolles sur Mer, which enjoys some of the finest beaches the Vendee has to offer. With a backdrop of pine forests and hardly a high rise in sight the area takes some beating. Miles of golden sands stretch south to La Tranche and the Lle d'Oleron and north to St Jean de Monts and the Ile de Noirmoutier.

Noirmoutier, or the Island of Mimosas, can be reached by bridge or by waiting for the tide to recede over the Passage de Gois. As the last waves ebb away locals arrive with buckets and shovels to delve for shellfish amongst the exposed rocks. If the tide is slow to turn then linger in the nearby restaurant and enjoy a meal of local lamb flavoured with the tang of the salt marshes.

Most tourists understandably restrict their visit to the beaches for which the Vendee is justly reputed.

But head inland and you won't be disappointed. Marshlands criss-cross the area providing a rich habitat for birdlife and a fertile breeding ground for eels destined for the dinner table.

South of Coulon lies a larger area of marshland, the Marais Poitevin or Venise vert - green Venice, a fertile area of dykes and canals. For a nominal fee, locals with flat-bottomed boats will punt tourists around its shadowy waters for a leisurely hour or two.

Small villages and towns inland never fail to turn up a wealth of markets, fetes, churches, ruins, windmills, small museums and homes of the famous to distract holidaymakers seeking respite from the sun's powerful rays.

In recent years the cinescenie festival at Puy du Fou has become world famous. The pageant, set against the dramatic ruins of the chateau, starts as night falls. In music, dance and narrative it tells the story of Jean, a Vendeen, and his struggles with king and country and of Catholic resistance in the area to the French Revolution.

The Vendee may be less well known than other areas of France.

But those who do take time to holiday here discover sleepy villages, fields of gaudy sunflowers, hearty local dishes of ham, moguets or Vendeen beans, eel and freshly caught fish. What's more when you do finally reach the end of that crabe mayonnaise no-one will object if you take another hour over the next course!

Vendee fact file

For general information on the Vendee, contact Vendee.online.fr/

Matthews Holidays offer mobile homes on various sites in the region. Tel: 01483 285213 for brochure.

Book the Puy du Fou on line at www.puydufou.tm.fr/

PHOTOS

1. Church at brem sur Mer

2. View of the marais towards Chateau d'Olonne

3. Les Sables d'Olonne river front restaurants

5. House of painter Milcendeau near Soullans

CAPTION(S):

TRANQUIL WATERS... flat-bottomed boats near Coulan in the Marais Poitevin region of the Vendee - locals will punt tourists around the shadowy waters SLEEPY CHARM... a windmill at Raire in the Vendee
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Mar 18, 2001
Words:603
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