Moo la la: cycling from Nantes to the Carlow of France
Our correspondent’s cycle through western France continues into the Vendée, land of bored cows, small houses and conservative politics
Grape harvesting in the Vendée
It was easy enough to cycle out of Nantes, and within half an hour I was on a quiet country road, lined with trees and hedge. Coming around a slow bend, I got a strong whiff of cow dung, the first indicator that the area I had picked for my cycling trip was different from the land I had seen coming up from the south.
The train up had passed through miles and miles of rolling, almost flat, countryside where there were no fields, just open expanses of grain with the occasional, small wood.
Now the countryside I was cycling into had irregular fields and the familiar sight of bored cows standing on the far side of the hedge.
However, there were also fields of maize and sunflowers and other crops I didn’t recognise, as well as the frequent sight of small agricultural and industrial enterprises, in standalone locations, adrift in the otherwise deeply rural landscape.
I was thinking what a fortunate part of the world France was when I cycled into a village called St Colomban. The cafe was closed but there was a small open tabac across from it, where I bought a bottle of water and sat on a chair outside the cafe. With that, a small group of junior Eminem lookalikes came to join me. Where was I from? Where was I going? Why not take a bus?
The woman who owned the closed cafe emerged to tell me to get the hell off her chairs, so I moved over to the steps of the church, followed by the group of bored locals.
I asked the oldest, who I thought was in his early teens, whether he liked St Colomban. He spat. He liked to smoke, he said. I said I didn’t smoke. “I like to smoke weed,” he responded, in good English, and the other youngsters laughed along with him. “Strong weed.”
‘A more right-wing area of France’
Not long afterwards I was on a particularly small, shaded country lane. I free-wheeled down a hill and over a stone bridge, on the other side of which was a sign welcoming me to the Vendée.
According to Thierry Ballu, a journalist with Ouest France, the political culture of the Vendée is very different from that of Nantes and the Pays de la Loire.
“It is a conservative, more right-wing area of France. Nantes, on the other hand, is more republican, more left.”
The political culture of the area is linked to its geography. Whereas Nantes, with its port and, during the 18th and 19th century, its huge role in the slave trade and French interests in the West Indies, was always more open to the world, the Vendée, with its marshland along the coast and its pattern of fields and isolated agriculture, has a tradition of being more inward-looking.
During the French revolution, local people took grave exception to Parisian interference with the role of their priests, and when this was followed by an attempt at conscription, a huge army formed to fight for the king and church.
“The Vendée was not a big fan of the revolution,” is how Ballu puts it. “The people in the Vendée wanted free priests.”
Johnny le taxi
I spent my first night on the road in Challans. My legs were weary, if not sore, and I cheated the next day and took a taxi for the first part of that day’s planned route.
The driver, Johnny Caillault, was from Tours but lived in the Vendée. Had I noticed, he asked, that the people of the Vendée are very small?
I hadn’t, though I had noticed that the housing in the towns and countryside, both old and new, tended to be small by Irish standards. There were lots of tiny cottages in the villages and towns.
Caillault ran me though a list of local manufacturing enterprises, which, he said, had helped keep the employment levels up locally.
These included a bag-making operation of Louis Vuitton, for which he did occasional bits of work and which never quibbled about his bills.
Caillault also mentioned Le Puy de Fou, an historical theme park in central Vendée that attracts more than 1.5 million visitors a year and is among the top five tourist attractions in France.
The park was the 1970s brainchild of two local entrepreneurs, one of whom, Philippe de Villiers, is now head of a right-wing political group, the Mouvement pour la France.
He is a nationalist, traditionalist and eurosceptic, and is well-known for his strong anti-Islamic views. He believes Islam is not compatible with the French Republic.
I spent the second night of my trip in Fontenay le Comte. It was like Carlow on a particularly sunny Sunday.