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Les Sables-d'Olonne (Municipality, Vendée, France)

Last modified: 2017-03-18 by ivan sache
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Flag of Les Sables-d'Olonne - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 21 February 2009


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Presentation of Les Sables-d'Olonne

The municipality of Les Sables-d'Olonne (15,596 inhabitants in 2006; 883 ha; municipal website) is located on the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1218, Savary I of Mauléon founded a new town near the villages of La Chaume and Olonne; lord of Olonne, Savary was also lord of Talmont, whose port was silted up, and therefore needed a new port. Set up south of Olonne on the northern side of the coastal dunes, the new town, called Les Sables (lit., The Sands) attracted several traders and shipowners.
In 1472, King of France Louis XI decided that Les Sables-d'Olonne should be the main port of the kingdom; at the end of the 15th century, some 80-100 ships moored at Les Sables each year. From the 16th to the 18th century, the main activity of the port was whaling and cod fishing. In 1602, Les Sables-d'Olonne was made the seat of one of the eight élections (administrative divisions) of Lower-Poitou.
Louis XIV's wars seriously hampered trade and fishing in Les Sables; in 1690, the town was bombed by an Anglo-Dutch fleet, with limited damage, though. In the 18th century, the funders of the port activity withdrew to Nantes and the port started to silt up. From 1750 onwards, the entrance of the port was revamped and the town was protected from floods by a system of wharfs and quays.
During the French Revolution, Les Sables-d'Olonne remained loyal to the Republic and was threatened from sea by the English fleet and from land by the Catholic Royal Army, that attacked the town on 24 and 29 March 1793, to no avail. The situation of the town did not improve during the First Empire because of the Continental System set up by Napoléon I and the persistent English threat.

The town reemerged in the first quarter of the 19th century; sea bathing was regulated for the first time in 1816, while the first sea resorts and "bathing machines" appeared in 1825. Published in 1854, the Guide historique et pittoresque du baigneur aux Sables- d'Olonne (The Historical and Picturesque Guide of the Swimmer in Les Sables-d'Olonne) contributed to the fame of the resort in Paris and the main western towns. From 1854 to 1863, the port was modernized for pilchard and tuna fishing; the famous canning factories Amieux and Maingourd date from that time. Several shipyards were set up on the quays. The maritime life of Les Sables has been depicted by the local painter Paul-Émile Pajot (1870-1930), a former fisher highly estimated by Cocteau, Marquet and Foujita. Until the 1990s, Les Sables-d'Olonne ranked as the 5th biggest fishing port in France.
Tourism really started in Les Sables-d'Olonne in 1866 with the inauguration of the railway line (known as trains de plaisir, pleasure trains) linking Paris to la plus belle plage d'Europe (The nicest beach in Europe). Two casinos were founded in 1876 and 1886, respectively.

The marina of Port Olona, built in the 1970s, is the home of the single-handed sailing race around the world Vendée Globe (website), ran for the first time in 1989, as Vendée Globe Challenge. Known as "the Everest of the Seas", the race was won by Titouan Lamazou (1989-1990; 109 days and 8 hours), Alain Gautier (1992-1993; 110 days and 2 hours), Christophe Auguin (1996-1997; 105 days and 20 hours), Michel Desjoyaux (2000-2001; 93 days and 4 hours - 2008-2009; 84 days and 4 hours) and Vincent Riou (2004-2005; 87 days and 11 hours).
In 1997, Catherine Chabaud (140 days and 4 hours) was the first woman to finish the race; in 2002, Ellen Mac Arthur (94 days and 4 hours) ranked 2nd. In 2005, the two participating women finished the race, Anne Liardet (119 days and 9 hours) and Karen Leibovici (126 days and 8 hours, as did Samantha Davies (95 days and 4 hours) and Dee Caffari (99 days and 1 hour) in 2009.
The race has its legend made of wreckages and epic rescue operations; Nigel Burgess (1992) and Gerry Roufs (1996) died during the race.

Ivan Sache, 21 February 2009


Municipal flag of Les Sables-d'Olonne

The flag of Les Sables-d'Olonne (photos; photos) is white with the municipal logo.
The municipal logo is a white rectangle bordered in blue with a blue sea charged with the name of the town in white letters, a yellow circular sun and a red sail with two white stripes.

A light blue flag with the municipal coat of arms on the middle, is hoisted near the Arundel Tower, together with the flags of France and of Poitou. The three flags are also represented on a painting of Arundel Tower by Raphaël Toussaint (b. 1937), which seems to indicate that they must be part of the landscape.
Arundel Tower was the square donjon of the St. Clair castle, built at the entrance of the port in the 14th century by the lords of Talmont. The tower was transformed into a lighthouse in the 18th century. Revamped in 1855, the lighthouse was brought electricity in 1932.

The arms of Les Sables d'Olonne are "Azure a vessel with sails and masts argent sailing on a sea vert issuant from the base ensigned by a Virgin of the second the armed crossed on the breast and a veil moving to sinister placed on a cloud of the same flanked by two cherubs argent with displayed wings cantoned in dexter and sinister.
The arms, granted in 1765, recall the maritime history of the town, placed under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, as said in its Latin motto, Advocata nostra, ora pro nobis (Our mediator, intercede on our behalf).
According to Amédée Odin, the religious elements seem to have been removed from the arms during the French Revolution, of which remained only the ship and the sea on a background azure, with the writing "LES SABLES DOLONNE"; the shield was surrounded by weapons, flags etc. The original arms were subsequently restored.

Ivan Sache, 21 February 2009