… including a podcast with Daniel Pouplot President and Director of la Fédération québécoise de la marche
Like so many words and so many cultural experiences, “it sometimes loses in the translation.”
A randonnée in French suggests a purposeful way of getting about – on foot – but at the same time there is an element of freedom that the word signifies. Whereas the word marche is probably closest to the English word “walk” or “walking,” randonnée evokes images and sensations of discovery, of getting closer to the landscape (physical, human, and cultural); and the term also suggests a means of travel that is at the pace of nature itself.
And as we discovered, Martinique is an island in which you can travel at leisure — and at your own pace.
A timeless concept
The Fédération québécoise de la marche is a not-for-profit organization that has been in existence for more than 30 years. A member-based organization, its mandate is to promote and develop what may seem to be a simple human activity, that of walking.
And yet, walking takes many forms, from adventurous trekking, to hiking, to what in Britain is called “rambling,” to a gentle stroll through a content-rich environment or milieu, whether it be urban or rural.
The culture of walking
As a cultural activity and a fundamental means of travel, walking has always been a principal means of exploring any destination whether it be international, national, regional, or local.
And the Fédération québécoise de la marche fulfills many functions related to this primary form of travel including providing information on special walks, bringing together all kinds of different clubs devoted to walking, and encouraging and promoting the development of pedestrian-friendly pathways.The association is also a role model for a healthy lifestyle which also emphasizes the leisure benefits of simply walking.
Made up of over 3000 members in the province of Québec and 100 other related organizations, the association also produces a magazine called Marche-Randonnée, topographical guides for walkers, and even a resource guide for walking and snowshoe trekking in the winter; an activity that is very much at the heart of the québécois culture.
The Fédération is also responsible for special events such as an annual “Festival of Walking,” “Snowshoe Festival,” and a national day devoted to the creation of walking paths. Above all, the Fédération solicits funding that supports its many activities.
Martinique as a walkers’ paradise
I met Daniel and his partner Nicole Blondeau on the island of Martinique.
La Martinique (an official département of France) is a luxuriant cultural environment in a topographical, historical, and environmental sense.
Volcanic in nature, this is a multidimensional island destination that is as fertile culturally as it is agriculturally. Furthermore, Martinique is an island that is a mosaic of sensory experiences, and a destination in which you can get up close and personal with the landscape.
And as we often say, landscape shapes culture.
Organic farming Creole-style
In Martinique, the Creole Gardens are one of the best examples you will find anywhere of good land management, of cultural self-determination, and of natural beauty.
Without a doubt, the economy of Martinique benefits from tourism because of its natural and cultural diversity. The industry of agriculture however is also a fundamental component of the island’s economy, in particular the cultivation of bananas, and to some extent sugar cane which is used primarily for the production of rum. It is important to point out that 14 per cent of the active population of Martinique work in the agricultural industry (compared to four per cent in what the Martinicans call La Métropolitaine ( “metropolitan France”).
The “Creole Gardens” we visited in the highlands of the interior of the island are maintained by individuals and families who work in other sectors of the economy of Martinique but at the same time pursue centuries-old farming practices on the nutrient-rich slopes and small cleared fields of the island.
For those interested in agritourism (one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel and tourism industry) a walk through this unique and very bio-diversified terrain is a highly engaging and horticulturally-rich travel experience.
Other walks recommended by Daniel Pouplot and Nicole Blondeau
1. The “wet” rainforest
Starting from Fond-Saint-Denis, just east of the old capital of Saint-Pierre, Daniel and Nicole completed a circuit in the tropical forests of the neighbouring mountains. Towards the end of their walk, they also visited a section of Le canal des Esclaves (the Slave Canal) which is an historic small irrigation canal constructed by slaves about 1770.
Their guide was Richard Montredon of the tour provider Ékokay, a “green tourism” company that also specializes in walking tours.
2. The nature reserve of la Caravelle
I also had the pleasure of accompanying Daniel and Nicole on a walk through this natural reserve on a peninsula in the north-east part of the island. Le Parc Naturel Régional de la Caravelle is especially well-known for its mangrove and dry forest, both unique environments that are excellent examples of natural sustainable and regenerative ecosystems. Nearby are also the ruins of Château Dubuc, a stunning site with magnificent views. Near the town of La Trinité, the Château is also an important heritage site as it is an historic sugar plantation, in terms of its black history, and in terms of the role it played in the extermination of the Carib Indians (who called the island Madinina the “island of flowers”), and because it was a site known for its extensive smuggling operations.
3. La Trace des Caps
Martinique has an official Bureau de la Randonnée, a government agency that promotes walking throughout the island. La Trace des Caps is a walking trail that follows some of the most beautiful beaches you will ever see in the Caribbean, along the most southernly coast of the island. Its total length is 27 kilometres but you can begin and end your walk at numerous locations.
4. Mt. Pelée
On May 8, 1902, Mt. Pelée erupted, destroying the city of Saint-Pierre, once known as the Paris of the Caribbean. The eruption also killed over 30,000 people. However, as ironic as it may seem, and as is the case in so many areas of volcanic activity throughout the world, the soil eventually became enriched again and the inhabitants (farmers especially) returned because the land was cheap.
One can walk up and around Mt. Pelée using a number of different routes and hiking trails. Daniel and Nicole followed the Aileron trail on the eastern side of the mountain. In my chat with Daniel, you will hear him refer to “the Chinese” (in French Le Chinois) which is the summit of the mountain because it is said to resemble a conical Chinese hat. Often in the clouds, Mt. Pelée, as Daniel points out, is also a botanist’s dream.
Their guide was Christian Bapin of the company Terre de Mornes.
I found the article “How Volcanoes Work” on the website of the University of San Diego especially useful for understanding the importance of Mt. Pelée and other volcanoes like it.
5. The Creole Gardens Walk
For me, the most significant walk in socio-cultural terms was our walk through the Creole Gardens in the highlands of Martinique accompanied by one of the most learned and committed guides I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Patrick Duchel is un homme à tout faire (a jack of all trades but also a master of many). The proprietor of the gîte aux Z’Amandines (a rural hospitality provider not unlike a bed and breakfast), Patrick is a member of the Réseau Tak-Tak, a collective of relatively low-cost suppliers of accommodation, soft adventure activities, and other hospitality providers, all of which emphasize the “up close and personal” authentic travel experience in Martinique. For those who are especially interested engaging in first-hand encounters with the history, heritage, and rich ecosystems of Martinique, the Réseau Tak-Tak may be for you.
As you will see from my Flikr slideshow, Patrick took us into the heart of the Creole experience in Martinique. Along the way, he also gave us lessons in biology and botany that provided an in-depth understanding of this island’s extraordinary natural resources. And experiencing first hand “the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things,” we also were given perspective and insights into the complex and rich history of Martinique.
The Creole Gardens are also referred to as Les jardins de résistance (the gardens of resistance), which is both an appropriate metaphor for this nutrient-rich landscape but also a very realistic expression of Creole history in Martinique and the struggles of people of African descent in this former French colony.
When slavery was finally abolished by France in its overseas colonies, Black Martinicans gained the right to own property in the interior. Initially, farming these small and quite inaccessible plots of land, was certainly a challenge for newly emancipated people. However — and this is why Martinique is also an island that symbolizes self-determination — today these gardens are models of sustainable agriculture.
For more information see the following: