The Guérande salt marshes: a landscape between sky and sea

mtf14-07Located in southern Brittany not far from the Loire river mouth on the Guérande peninsula these salt marshes stretched between the Middle Ages town of Guérande in the north and the fishing harbour Le Croisic in the south. Swamps were naturally created 10 000 years ago by allowing clays to settle on a granitic bedrock. Thus maritime meadows were created where peat and wetland vegetation grew, regularly submerged by the high tides.

Soon men understood how they could take advantage of this unique natural environment and salt marshes were created during the Roman occupation. Then the Bretons took over the salt production during the 7th century and through the centuries the salt making technique improved producing a better quality salt in higher quantities. The salt from Guérande was not only sold and eaten locally but was also exported abroad, as far as Northern Europe. By the end of the 18th century the salt marshes spread over 5000 acres.

mtf14-08Decline began after World War 2 when industrial production took off in southern France and in Spain offering a lower gustatory quality salt but at a much lower price. The Breton production dropped and the salt marshes were deserted. In the 1970’s a huge urban planning project was about to destroy them all by creating a marina, apartment buildings, a 4 lanes road, hoping to double the amount of tourists in a few years.

A strong mobilization of the local people succeeded to put an end to that project and slowly the salt marshes came back to life. A school was opened in 1979 to train new salt workers and a new producers’ cooperative guarantees a traditional method: everything is done by hand without any mechanical help. Guérande’s salt isn’t washed and keeps its natural grey colour proving that all the good mineral salts and trace elements are still there giving it its gustatory and nutritional qualities.

Nowadays the salt marshes looks like a patchwork of small ponds sparkling in the sun. Many salt workers will be happy to show you the way to use the “lousse” a kind of rake with which they collect the crystallized salt on the surface of the water. They will tell you how to make out the difference between the precious “fleur de sel”, flower of salt; and ordinary salt. They will even share their recipes with you: baking a fish or a chicken in a salt crust, making Breton biscuits or a kouign amann the famous butter cake won’t be a secret anymore.

mtf14-06For centuries men have been working in the marshes without using any machine tool, pesticides or weed killers so that plants and animals could live in a preserved country. They are a nature lover heaven. More than 180 bird species live there permanently or on their way north or south during their migration: avocet, ergret, brent goose, marsh harrier, coot, grey heron, plover…There are guided walks with trained birdwatchers where you will learn to identify different birds, plants and other rare animals such as otters.

The town of Guérande is one of the last one in France that still has its complete ramparts from the Middle Ages. They look quite impressive with their 10 towers and only 4 doors. Once inside let your feet lead you at random along the cobbled streets to discover antique shops, artists’ workshops, tea-rooms. Why not taste the famous kouing amann or salted butter caramel? The Collégiale Saint Aubin is the church standing in the middle of Guérande. It’s possible to climb up its tower and get a wonderful view of the city and the salt marshes.

mtf14-02Each summer in August a Celtic Festival takes place in Guérande. This year from August 5th till August 10th there will be concerts, fest noz (meaning night festival in Breton), and dance shows by Breton, Galician and Irish companies.

Not far from Guérande, in the small village of Saillé surrounded by the salt marshes, you can visit “La Maison des Paludiers”, the house of the salt workers, where you will get an overall description of the salt marshes functioning and of the day-to-day life of its inhabitants.

More information’s:    The tourist information office    They organise all kinds of thematic excursions in the marshes   An independent salt worker

Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny


About Annick Dournes & Frederic De Poligny

Annick Dournes and Frederic de Poligny are two French tourism journalists who travel the world for many years. They will share with you their very favourite experiences of worldwide travels. Those about France, their native country, will be found on a regular basis in their chronicle “Meanderings through France”. Web