Getting on the ferry that crosses the maritime channel of Les Sables is like a short trip to another world.
Nothing to do with the festive pleasures of the Clémenceau promenade and the seaside activities of the Grand Plage.
We are at The Thatch, a district of small streets rising with hollyhocks, sailors’ houses, private gardens enclosed by ballast stone walls.
A sector whose architecture and atmosphere betray the popular origin. ” When I was a child, it smelled like sardines », Illustrates Hervé Retureau, a kid from the neighborhood who grew up in rue Alfred Roux, not far from the Quai des Boucaniers where the sardine boats unloaded their cargoes.
The history teacher, in his early forties, has never denied his origins. While others went to the beach, he, a teenager, browsed the municipal archives to better understand the past of his territory.
This visceral attachment led him to the head of the Olona association, a historical, maritime and archaeological society of Sables d’Olonne and its region. In 2017, he published a book, “ Remembering maritime life in Les Sables d’Olonne, 1900-1940 »(Editions La Geste).
Saint-Nicolas Priory and Arundel Tower
La Chaume is therefore a dead end, an isolate. This ancient rocky island cut off from the mainland at high tide was attached to the peninsula at the beginning of the Christian era.
To the north it is bounded by the Olonne forest and the marshes, fitted out by monks in the Middle Ages. The polder is connected to the ocean by a basin-arm of water, the Chnoue, which connects it to the sea channel. In short, all the geographical conditions were met to make La Chaume a village apart… and a religious and military outpost.
It was monks, again, who built the first large monument in the 11C. : the priory of Saint-Nicolas.
The Benedictines of Sainte-Croix-de-Talmont, at the origin of the building, are far from imagining the tumultuous history that it will know. Looted during the wars of religion, restored under Louis XIII, ” it became a military fort and ammunition storage from 1779 until the end of the 19th century. », Explains Hervé Retureau.
He will thus defend the port against the incursions of English corsairs. Now transformed into an exhibition site, it majestically dominates, flanked by seven 18C cannons, the entrance to the channel.
74 cod boats in 1664
The second monument of La Chaume is Arundel’s tower.
Dominating also the maritime channel, and symbol of the district, it is the vestige of the Saint-Clair castle, built in the 15th c. by the princes of Talmont.
Its history was no less troubled. Taken in 1622 by the Protestant leader Soubise, it housed a garrison under Louis XIII, was bombed by the Anglo-Dutch in 1796, bought by the State in 1835 and then restored from 1986 to 1994, to house the Musée de la Mer .
” Its function was to watch over the entrance to the port. Today, with its lighthouse on the tower 33 meters high, it is an important landmark for sailors “, Specifies the historian.
Not content with welcoming TV teams during the Vendée Globe, with its bird’s eye view of the channel, the tower is also a belvedere on the roofs of La Chaume. Where we can see clearly, with the cluster of light tiles gathered around the gray steeple of the Saint-Nicolas church, that it is indeed a village!
Association of the free commune of La Chaume
Having arrived in the wake of the monks and princes of Talmont, the inhabitants, a little market gardeners, a little seafarer, quickly made fishing their raison d’être.
First in the whale, in the 15C, then in the cod. ” Between the middle of the 17th c. and at the start of the 18th century, a period when this fishery was prosperous, La Chaume had 15,000 inhabitants. We even recorded 74 cod fishing boats in 1664 “.
On the other side of the channel, a new town already exists, built on the sand and fortified by Louis XI at the end of the 15th century. ” But there the bourgeois lived, while here they were the hardworking “.
The antagonism will only increase. During the wars of religion, La Chaume was Protestant, while Les Sables was Catholic. And two distinct municipalities will coexist until 1754, when they no longer form a single entity. ” But there is still a town hall-annex! », Smiles Hervé Retureau. And even an association of the free commune of La Chaume.
Up to 12 canneries …
The cod collapsing, the sardine takes over. This period still haunts the memory of Hervé Retureau, who lived through it.
” Over thirty years ago, sailors still unloaded their fishing here. She took the road to the canning factories of the district and the fishermen made the accounts in the bars “. There was up to 12 canneries… And a whole lot of poetry associated with maritime activities.
The historian leads us Place Saint-Anne. A contemporary fresco represents a village scene. ” The refreshment bar is reminiscent of the Chez Marie-Ange café, where a cheeky waitress called La Crabotte served. She is still alive and the other painted figures are sailors who really existed.
This cafe was a real social unit where you could meet the boyish girls, women from La Chaume so named because they brought back the nets “.
Laundry in the wind
These women had found a clever way to dry the laundry.
In their gardens, they hoisted it to the top of poles using pulleys, so that the textile could better take the wind. We can still see one of those ingenious systems Tourne-Bride Street.
Hervé Retureau also remembers the old women sitting in front of their door, dressed in black because widows of sailors.
The district paid a heavy price to the ocean, as evidenced by the stele of peris at sea, next to the priory of Saint-Nicolas. The names of sailors whose bodies have never been found are listed there.
The last shipwreck was in 2003, when three fishermen from the trawler Pepe Roro disappeared off the island of Oléron after being struck by a cargo ship.
Streets of Love and Sighs …
The harshness of life did not prevent lightness, on the contrary. ” Each had a nickname. My own grandfather was called Patella. And me, kid, it was Ouiouite “.
This missing grandfather – his grandmother and mother still live in the neighborhood – he remembers going to see him at the railing, from the quays of the channel. ” He was fishing for eel in a canoe. With his hand he made me understand how many there were and how big they were “.
The historian takes us a little higher up in the village, streets of Love and Sighs. ” In the first, a secret corner was where the guys waited for the girls when they came out of the cannery, sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning … “.
Each factory had its own siren, different from the others, to call its workers at work. ” And there were still marine carpenters, the neighborhood would live to the rhythm of the work », Says Hervé, clearly nostalgic for this past.
La Chaume also keeps the memory of some local figures: Yvonne brothier, singer who died in 1967.
And Odette Rousseau, known as Florelle, film actress who debuted at the Folies-Bergère and starred in films by Renoir, Allégret, Clément. She owns her street in the neighborhood.
Hard head, sandy head …
One event, above all, will mark the early childhood of Hervé Retureau: the destruction of the bridge that linked La Chaume to the port, in 1978.
Shot to allow construction of Marina Port Olona, it revolted the inhabitants of the district, for whom it constituted a link to the city and the station, from which were sent, in particular, the sardines of the canneries.
” There was an uproar. The Chaumois are hot-blooded and hard-headed, like their original rock. Here, people across the way are told that their heads are made of sand … », Laughs Hervé Retureau gently.
– Vendée Tourism : vendee-tourisme.com
– tourist Office : lessablesdolonne-tourisme.com
– The Black Rocks : hotel-lesrochesnoires.com. Facing the Grande Plage, a comfortable 3 *. Good welcome. Double rooms from € 83. Reopening in 2021.
– Atlantic Hotel & Spa : atlantichotel.fr. Of a superior standard, facing the ocean, it has a restaurant, the Sloop, with elaborate and tasty cuisine. Rooms from € 114.
Restaurant : La P’tite Sablaise. A neighborhood creperie, at the end of the Grande Plage.
Arundel Lighthouse Tower : oceam.org. Superb view of Les Sables from the platform at 33 meters. Also museum of the Sea and Fishing.