Dis-moi la Vendee
This is brilliant walking country. As well as the many kilometres of trails in attractions such as the Mervent Forest, there are designated walking trails in every commune, highlighted by arrows painted on trees in different colours to indicate shorter or longer routes. Here, the terrain includes open fields, small woodlands, streams and tracks that pass through tiny hamlets. A cart track up behind the local chateau reveals itself as an ancient road that crosses a Roman bridge. Beside an old mill is a monument to the Maquis (the local war-time French resistance).
The French love of walking includes a passion for organised events. My neighbour invited me to join her family on a walk in a nearby commune organised by a group call Dis-moi la Vendee (roughly translated as Tell me of the Vendee), which I understood combined a walk, a picnic and information about local history. So it was that I set out at eight-o’clock on the last and very stormy day of February to join a group of over 100 walkers setting off from St Maurice le Girard, all, unlike me, equipped with proper wet weather gear.
Preceded by energetic marshals, we set off on the 10k route through wind, rain and the occasional outburst of sun. More used to solitary and meditative rambles, walking in a large group was a challenge. They walked very fast, for one thing. It was also important not to follow blindly as those just ahead might have stepped off the track to satisfy what the marshals called out as a “problème urinaire”. You could also hear an occasional warning chorus of “pi pi”.
You don’t get to admire the country so well when it’s raining and your vision is curtailed by a hood, but the walk involved some lovely woodland tracks, an extremely soggy muddy cross-field trek and an interesting break. Half-way through our 10k, we marched (or rather straggled) into what appeared to be an ordinary farmyard. Here, in a basic farm shed, we were treated to a demonstration by the Rolf Circus, a duo combining motorbike acrobatic stunts with modern dance.
After an allegedly brilliant talk about one Jean-Gabriel Gallot, a local hero from the French Revolution, we continued on our circular walk back to St Maurice for a picnic in the local hall. When all the now wet walkers returned to their cars to collect their picnics and put on clean shoes, I realised I was about to commit a crime of heinous proportions by having to enter the hall with muddy feet. No-one warned me to bring clean shoes!
The picnic was preceded by too many speeches, but accompanied with gusto and a fair few bottles of wine. The day was not, however, over at this point. After lunch, we had a Q&A session with the fabulous Rudolphe and Leslie of the aforementioned Rolfe Circus. From what I understood they want to widen what is largely a very macho Mad Max genre into something with wider family appeal. Even their dog joins in. And they have just moved to the Vendee.
And then we were off again to visit La Corbière where retired famer Jean Brémaud has a collection of ancient farm machinery and where brioche is still baked in an eighteenth century four à bois or bread oven. Whatever one’s own sore feet felt at the forensic description of every single blessed exhibit in the museum, the French could only rave about the use of patois in M Brémaud’s delivery, his authentic dress of tunic and flat hat and the wonder of all the machinery they or their parents could still remember using. This enthusiasm is in part what makes me love this part of France.