The Isle de Noirmoutiers is an island just off the coast of the Vendée in France. Connected by a bridge to the mainland in the 1970s, it maintains a very distinct identity. The best evidence of this may be the roadsigns back towards France which directs you to ‘Le Continent’, not simply towards the nearest large town, Challans.
Before the bridge was built, the island was simply connected by the Passage du Gois on the road from Beauvoir-sur-Mer to Barbâtre. ‘Gois’ is appropriately derived from a local word for waders, as the roadway gets covered over by the sea at high tide. However, it is still possible to travel across the Passage at low tide so we decided to take Brian and try it out. The advance information was clear: it is safe to cross in three hours between 90 minutes before low tide (basse mer) and 90 minutes afterwards. Big automated warning signs tell you the next low tide time and the current time, though there is no barrier to control access.
Every year a number of people get stuck and have to be rescued – but people are rescued, not the vehicle. You can find pictures of a large modern mobile home upended in the sea at the Passage, with the driver and passenger stranded at one of the very useful towers (often little more than poles with climbing brackets) placed at intervals along the route to stop people drowning. The message is very clear: you have access 90 minutes either side of low tide, then get off!
The reason for caution is that many visitors do not know the sea. Either side of the Passage is a wide and slowly shelving sandbank stretching into the distance, quickly covered by the incoming tide. At any time this is dangerous and at peak tides with larger tidal margins between low and high tide, the speed the sea comes in is even faster than we witnessed.
We left our camping at Notre-Dame de Riez in good time to get to the Passage within 90 minutes of low tide, and arrived with 24 minutes to spare. At first sight the 4km long Passage is a big wide open space with dozens of cars parked on the sands – you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived at a beach festival. I half expected U2 to appear!
Officialdom tells you not to drive on to the sands and to stay on the causeway, which is made of stone blocks for most of the way. But you can’t stop or park on the causeway either. With traditional French sang froid, when faced with contradictory rule, the locals clearly ignore this advice and indeed it seems they ignore nearly everything that the Town Hall says about the Passage.
We drove to somewhere near the middle and pulled off onto the solid sand alongside dozens of other vehicles. Into the far far distance you could see people hunting for the fruits of the sea: some were cockling, some looking for rock oysters, some harvesting seaweed or mussels.
There was a local with a van paying foragers by weight for their cockles, after which they were of course also offered a petite verre of something to celebrate a happy sunny morning gathering this thoroughly natural harvest. We didn’t see anyone collecting razorfish, a local delicacy, but wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were there too.
Further out, we could see where mussels were being farmed naturally, and saw a couple of tractors returning with sacks of that day’s mussels for market. Everyone was having good hearty fun and I was able to get some lovely photographs. However we were conscious of time, so when we saw the very first cars beginning to head home we thought it best to follow as it was already past the 90 minutes.
Arriving at the other end of the Passage we parked up to watch the tide come in, joining dozens of people there to see the sport that was to follow. This involved a gradual clearing of the sands, mostly with time to spare, though some left it a bit late for comfort. The best spectacle was a parked car with the sea water reaching halfway up its wheels, whose driver came running, reversed further into the water, but managed to get out and up onto the causeway, the last but one vehicle to make it. The crowd gasped, secretly disappointed that she hadn’t stalled.
There were also the hardy characters who decided to cross just as the tide came in. Everyone enjoyed the theatre as people shouted to drivers and waved their arms furiously to tell them not to be so stupid, but still they came. We could sort of understand the 4x4s and pickups, but when we saw a Mini make the journey successfully we were full of admiration. If you get stuck halfway in your car there’s nowhere to turn round and you will lose the vehicle and its contents. Fortunately everyone did in fact make it across that day, apart from two cyclists who turned back fairly smartly. The crowd went home amused at the spectacle and ready for lunch.
And how long after low tide was it when the last car left the causeway? Well it was a bit more than 90 minutes after low tide. But if you ever do this yourself don’t assume you’ve got extra time. You’ll need to watch out and make your own judgement. Watch the locals is the best advice but remember that some of them will leave it until they have to get wet to get to their car, taking a big risk.