Dotted along the banks of the Gironde Estuary are countless wooden fishing huts which have been built on stilts. Their main implement is a square-shaped pulley-operated net (or “filet carré”) which has given the humble shacks their name: “carrelets”.
The recurring characteristics of carrelets are that they are sometimes elaborate and often colourful structures which can be reached via invariably precarious walkways. They may appear somewhat flimsy but each carrelet has to meet stringent norms and construction projects are closely monitored by local authorities. From a legal/real estate point of view, carrelets may be the private property of their owners, but the latter are solely registered as “occupant temporaires” of their waterside plot, subject to an authorisation administered by the relevant body (“Bordeaux Port Atlantique” for much of the Gironde Estuary).
While the word “carrelet” dates back to 1360 (originally spelt “quarlet”), the associated square net fishing technique developed in the area in the 18th century. As fishermen found they were getting their feet and trousers wet, so they conceived the first stilt-borne huts, soon combined with the winch system for their nets which they could thus lower into the Estuary at high tide... before quickly raising them laden with whichever fish happened to be swimming above the net at that time. (There is generally no need for bait although some fisherfolk do place bait in the middle of their net.) The now-familiar silhouette of carrelets with their walkways back to dry land appeared in the early 1900s.
At the time, carrelet-owners were generally wealthy people (doctors, traders and rich land-owners) who would employ fishermen to watch over and maintain their property in their absence. As the standard of living progressed throughout the 20th century (along with the amount of time available for leisurely pursuits), the desirable structures became accessible to an ever wider cross-section of the population.
However, carrelets were to endure two particularly trying periods. The first was in the 1950s when they became a source of conflict between advocates and opponents who claimed the fishing huts were an eyesore on the otherwise unblemished landscape. Carrelets prevailed though and had cemented their status as treasured local heritage by the time of the second ordeal: the horrific storms which hit the region in 1996 and 1999, and again in 2010. Virtually all Estuary-side carrelets were either destroyed or seriously damaged by these instances of extreme weather. Owners refused to give in though and strived to restore or rebuild their property. It is estimated that around 80% of the carrelets have now been rebuilt. And their heritage credentials are stronger than ever, with many fishermen lobbying for carrelets to be officially listed as "petit patrimoine régional".
This is all very well but one vital piece of information is still missing: what can you expect to catch in the square net of a carrelet when fishing in the Gironde Estuary? Well, potential nibbles include estuarine shrimp, meagre, mullet, shads or river herrings, and lamprey eels, with many catches available for more-or-less immediate consumption in local restaurants!
Finally, although the carrelet is very much a symbol of the Gironde Estuary (the opening paragraph claimed the figure was countless; there are in fact around 400 to be seen), it is by no means an exclusive commodity: carrelets can also be spotted further up the coast on the banks of the Charente Estuary, along the Vendée coastline and even as far north as the mouth of the river Loire. Additionally they can be found further inland, on the banks of the Dordogne and the Garonne. Some are even within easy reach of Bordeaux, slightly upstream, approximately mid-way between the city centre and Rives d’Arcins shopping centre in Bègles… the logo of which is none other than a carrelet. The mall's name is a reference to the nearby Île d'Arcins while, coincidentally, its namesake village of Arcins (further north in the Médoc) also happens to be one of the prime spots for carrelet spotting!
- Photos taken at various locations along the left bank of the Gironde Estuary.
- Carrelets are generally out-of-bounds for anyone other than their owners and immediate entourage, but in Royan one owner has opened his property up to the general public. Further information in this Sud Ouest piece.