Les Sables d'Olonne > Discover > Patrimony > History and geography

History and geography

A long-standing history

The Pays d’Olonne has been occupied by man since the dawn of time, as shown by the many remains discovered in the region. The sea once covered a large part of the land. ‘Ol-ona’, meaning ‘Hill above the water’, is thought to be of Celtic origin and to have given its name to four of the six municipalities forming the region. At the time, it was Olonne that ruled over the area.

Under the Roman Empire, Olonne became a major crossroads thanks to its tiny harbour ‘Le Havre d’Olonne’ nestled in a bay sheltered by the long island of Vertime (now Côte Sauvage and forest of Olonne). The creation of the salt marshes and vineyards of Ile d’Olonne are thought to date from this time and have brought wealth to the region for 2000 years.

Between the 5th and 9th century, the land was ravaged by a succession of invasions and the Normans were in occupation until the 10th century.

Then, through the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II Plantagenet, the region passed under English rule for more than fifty years. For their son, Richard the Lionheart, Talmont became his preferred residence and the land of Orbestier his favourite hunting ground.

In the Middle Ages, the land witnessed an incredible economic boom under the impetus of the lords of Olonne. This gave rise to a wonderful religious heritage.

The flourishing Sables d'Olonne

In the late Middle Ages, sea trade was growing & the flourishing Pays d’Olonne was exporting its salt and wine to northern Europe, while the surrounding villages (Château d’Olonne, Vairé, Sainte Foy) devoted themselves to a more
agricultural activity on fiefdom soil.

The 13th century saw their little sister town, Les Sables d’Olonne, rise from the shadows, or rather the sands. In fact, in order to replace the harbour of Talmont, which was silting up, Prince Savary de Mauléon decided to develop Le Havre d’Olonne. He granted lands and rights to the district of La Chaume in 1218 to set up an urban settlement. In 1472, Louis XI separated Les Sables d’Olonne from the town of Olonne sur Mer to turn it into the main harbour for the region. The parish of Les Sables d’Olonne was born in the 17th century, and a church was built. The religious wars curbed the town’s expansion. The people of Les Sables, devout Catholics, came into conflict with ‘Les Chaumois’ who had converted to Protestantism.

The Golden Age and the beginnings of Tourism

The 17th century marked the apogee of Les Sables d’Olonne, now the leading cod-fishing harbour in the kingdom. More than 100 boats were fitted out for cod fishing on the banks of Terre Neuve (Nantes 89, La Rochelle 32).

During the Revolution, the region remained Republican (there were no less than six prisons in Les Sables d’Olonne, one guillotine and a revolutionary court). Under the Empire, the town coped with the Continental blockade instituted by Napoleon I and the threat of the English warships. Then a long decline began in the 18th century, which would only end with the rise of fishing and tourism in the late 19th century.

From 1845, the harbour was modernised. Sardine and tuna fishing ensured the growing success of the canning companies (known as ‘confiseries’). The shipbuilding yards built dundees and other sardine fishing boats on the quaysides at La Cabaude.

As for tourism, although the first spa bath regulations date from 1816, it was not until 1825 that the first thermal baths and bathing machines appeared. Les Sables d’Olonne became a sophisticated resort frequented by the aristocracy and artistic elite and opened its first casino, the ‘Casino des bains de Mer’ (now known as the ‘Casino des Atlantes’). It was the Belle Epoque for Les Sables. The arrival of the railway in 1866 injected new dynamism into tourism with ‘the leisure trains’, which connected Paris to  the ‘finest beach in Europe’. The new vogue for Sea Bathing was born. A second casino appeared in 1898, the ‘Casino des Pins’, and in 1900 there were already more than 35 hotels close to the Embankment.

Traditions, past and present


The highly distinctive women of Les Sables, (brown hair, dark skin, black eyes) had the reputation of being very well-turned out, as can be seen by their elaborate traditional costumes: their relatively short skirts and petticoats in bright, shimmering colours, high-heeled clogs called ‘YouYous’, elegant, light headdresses measuring 43 cm high embellished with fine embroidery, make the Les Sables folk costume one of the most colourful in France.
The wearing of the regional costume is a tradition kept alive by the ‘Queens of Les Sables’ and the folk group ‘Le Nouch’. A number of headdresses from all over the Pays des Sables d’Olonne are on display at the Museum of Folk Traditions in Olonne Sur Mer, at the Sainte Croix Abbey Museum in Les Sables d’Olonne and at the Little Station Museum of Ile d’Olonne.

Le Nouch

Founded in 1950 under the patronage of Léo David, ‘Le Nouch’ draws together around fifty ambassadors of the customs and practices of the Pays des Sables d’Olonne. Performing all over France, but also appearing on the international stage, the Sablais group is undeniably the best representative of local traditions. ‘Le Nouch’ is the patois name for a sailor's knot, the knot of friendship. Song and Dance
Tel : +33 6 99 76 94 51. www.lenouch.fr


With its four harbours, Les Sables d’Olonne is exposed at 270° to the ocean.

  • The fishing port is ranked fourth amongst French harbours (sole, cuttlefish, squid, etc…) with 59 boats and 170 seamen.
  • The commercial port serves one of the main French cereal producing regions (corn, wheat…) trading 500 000 tons of cereal per year.
  • The marinas at Port Olona (one of the leading marinas on the Atlantic coast) and Quai Garnier offer 1,500 and 120 berths respectively. Les Sables d’Olonne is home to the Vendée Globe, non-stopround- the-world solo yacht race.
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