The Little Venices of France

The Little Venices of France

All over France, at least 50 localities claim the title ‘Petite Venise’. Explore the origins and aesthetic appeal of these charming French towns criss-crossed with canals and rivers.

From the port cities of Provence to the towns and villages of Alsace, Normandy and Picardy, the list of French ‘Little Venices’ in tourist guides is long: at least 50. In all cases, there are no gondoliers or Doge’s Palace in sight, but these towns, large or small, have one thing in common: they’re located on waterways and are usually crossed by picturesque canals which make them comparable to the Italian Serenissima.

“In Brantôme, one thing is certain: it’s not a marketing term,” says Julie Martinet, director of the Tourism Office of Brantôme-en-Périgord, one of the most picturesque spots in the Dordogne.

“It was invented in 1913 by French President Raymond Poincaré, who came to visit the village. As he crossed the Coudé bridge, which spans the Dronne, he was struck by its bucolic setting and its river, and exclaimed, ‘This is the Green Venice of Périgord!’. Since then, the term stuck.”

The term will no doubt remain because the whole village is surrounded by waters of the Dronne, which was partly transformed into a canal in the 16th century by Benedictine monks. In addition, Brantôme shares with Venice a great architectural wealth. The most visited monument is undoubtedly its abbey, built at the foot of a steep wooded cliff, where the Cave of the Last Judgment houses two monumental bas-reliefs sculpted by 15th-century monks. The abbey is said to have been founded by Charlemagne and its bell tower is one of the oldest in France.

Read More: Dordogne Travels: The Lure of Périgord

Brantôme, the ‘Green Venice’ of the Périgord ©OT_Brantôme en Périgord

Italian churches
Almost as old is the title ‘Venice of Provence’ given to the town of Martigues, in the Bouches-du-Rhône. “As early as 1934, the singer and actor Alibert sang about Martigues in the song Adieu Venise provençale, for which Vincent Scotto wrote the music,” explains Didier Cerboni, director of the town’s tourism office.

“Actually, this merely confirmed an already established reputation for which there’s no lack of justification. Martigues is situated between the Mediterranean and the Étang de Berre and the Romans created a canal there. Until the 19th century, nine canals, used by fishermen, traversed Martigues. In addition, around 1860, the Orientalist painter Félix Ziem, who had painted seascapes and landscapes in Venice and Constantinople and remained nostalgic for these places, settled in Martigues and opened a studio. Other painters such as Dufy and Van Gogh followed him, all fascinated by its setting and colours. The association with Venice came naturally.”

Today, with three canals, fishing boats anchored everywhere and the famous Miroir aux Oiseaux, an inlet spanned by the Sébastien bridge and reflecting façades of brightly coloured fisherman’s houses, it’s almost like being in the City of Water. Martigues, which can be visited by boat via its canals, also has many tourist attractions, including the Ziem Museum and the Chapelle de l’Annonciade, a jewel of Provençal Baroque art.

Staying in the south, it’s also due to old fishing traditions that L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has long been known as the ‘Venice of the Comtat Venaissin’, after the territory once controlled by the popes in Avignon. It’s in fact an old fishing village built on stilts along the Sorgue, whose waters were once rich in trout, crayfish and eels. Today famous for its antiques market, the third largest European market after London and Paris, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is traversed by canals, along which watermills once allowed the development of silk, wool and paper factories. A few waterwheels remain and the town’s layout is not unlike the City of the Doges: the collegiate church, Notre-Dame des Anges, with its Roman-style façade and rich 17th-century interior decoration, is also reminiscent of Italian churches. Its traditional fishing boats, long and thin (called nègo chin, which means ‘drowning dog’ in Provençal) are manoeuvred by boatmen standing at the rear, like gondoliers. Every year in July, illuminated floats festooned with flowers parade along the Sorgue’s canals at nightfall.

Read More: Purple Reign: Lavender and Provence

Lovely Isle sur la Sorgue in the Vaucluse © OT Isle sur la Sorgue

Floating gardens
In the Eure department, near Rouen and Honfleur, it’s once again a network of canals which allows the town of Pont-Audemer to claim the title ‘Little Norman Venice’. Situated between two branches of the Risle, the canals were used by fishermen who cast their nets as far as the Seine estuary. Some of the leather that equipped William the Conqueror’s army in the 11th century was tanned on the banks of Pont-Audemer. In the Middle Ages, flat-bottomed barges, called échaudes, used to transport lime or grain. “The canals were used to supply private mansions. Each mansion had a direct access to the docks. You can still see remains of wooden piers here and there,” says Nathalie Delanney, director of the Pont-Audemer Tourism Office. “And today, as in Venice, pedestrians can go from one canal to another through medieval streets. And there’s a signposted route where they can walk in the footsteps of Thierry Hermès, founder of the luxury design house Hermès. In 1821, he was apprenticed to a saddlery craftsman and learned the trade here.”

Further north, in the former province of Picardy, the Somme has earned Amiens its nickname ‘Little Venice of the North’. The river, one of the longest in France, flows through the famous Hortillonnages, 300 hectares of former marshland which were transformed in the Middle Ages into floating market gardens. They were interspersed with rieux, canals fed by the river’s branches around which the city was built and which still remain today.

The importance of the river’s past can easily be appreciated by walking through the maze of streets and canals of the Saint-Leu district, in the centre of the Picardy capital. It’s impossible to get lost in this area, because when you look up, you always see Notre-Dame Cathedral, the largest Gothic building in France. It’s also possible to visit the Hortillonnages by bateau à cornet, a type of flat-bottomed boat once used by market farmers to sell their produce. The tradition has been maintained: every Saturday of the year, a market takes place on the edge of the canals and the vegetables still come from the Hortillonnages.

Read More: Following the Seine in and Around Paris

The Saint-Leu district in Amiens © OT Amiens

Acqua alta
Not all the Little Venices can boast such a long history. With its 400 inhabitants, the commune of Soulaines-Dhuys, in Champagne, adopted the name ‘Venise Verte de l’Aube’ only 20 years ago, with the idea of promoting the sites of the Aube department. “The village of the Champagne wetlands is crisscrossed by streams, spanned by a dozen bridges, the oldest of which, the Henri IV bridge, was built in 1607,” explains Elisabeth Guindot, from the Grands Lacs de Champagne Tourist Office. “Since ancient times, it has been shaped by a resurgence from which two rivers flow: the Laines and the Dhuys, which meet in the centre of the village and thus form a small island. A third river, the Ru des Vignes, crosses Soulaines-Dhuys and flows into the Laines. In fact, in old Celtic, Dhuys means ‘resurgence’. The Ru des Vignes is usually dry, but when the water level rises, it causes flooding in the village. The last one was in July 2021.” It’s probably not dissimilar to the Acqua Alta in Venice, the phenomenon of the rising waters of the Adriatic Sea which cause the city to flood at certain times of the year.

To these towns and villages, we can add Annecy: its nickname of ‘Venice of the Alps’ comes from the blue-green waters of its lake and canals but, unlike its Italian model, they are closed to navigation. We could also add Goudargues, the ‘Little Venice of the Gard’, crossed by a single canal; Port Grimaud, on the Mediterranean coast, the most recent ‘Little Venice’; the ‘Little Venice of Colmar’ in Alsace; La Canourgue, the ‘Little Venice of Lozère’; Bonneval, the ‘Little Venice of Beauce’; and Sète, ‘Venice of the Languedoc’.

The point is that, without a doubt, Venice is everywhere. Because, as Serge Reggiani, himself of Italian origin, sang: “Venice is not in Italy, Venice is in anyone’s home […] It’s anywhere, it’s the other side of rainy mornings, it’s the place where you are happy.”

From France Today Magazine

Lead photo credit : Le Miroir aux Oiseaux in Martigues © OTMartigues-KK

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A former foreign correspondent in the United States for leading French newspapers, Patrice is currently based in the south of France where he writes for various magazines.

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