Ile de Re

Friday 5th October 207, Ile de Ré, Charente
Yesterday morning, on the campsite in Bergerac, we debated our onward route back towards Caen. Originally we intended to travel through the area of the Loire. However, it is not so long ago that we were there and it is an area we will certainly return to before long. We realised that it has been a long time since we last saw the sea. Strangely, we never actually went down to the sea while we were recently near the Mediterranean! The nearest we got was seeing it from the Noilly Prat factory in Marseillan! For several years now we have harboured a wish to explore the Ile de Ré with Hinge and Bracket and as the weather has been perfect for cycling we decided to continue westward to the Atlantic and have now settled on a campsite at St. Martin de Ré from where we hope to explore the island by bike tomorrow.

Yesterday we drove north-west across a pleasant landscape, passing through very few towns, none of which we had heard of, until we reached the banks of the Gironde with the vineyards of the Médoc on the further shore.

Fishing huts on the banks of the Gironde

Cliff beside the Gironde

We followed the sandy coast northwards along the side of the estuary to Royan from where a ferry links to the tip of the Médoc. Royan is a typical French seaside resort. Badly damaged during the war it was largely rebuilt during the 1950s. All along the seafront, as in the Côte d'Azure, we found notices banning camping cars from stopping and barriers preventing vehicles more than two metres high from entering the parking areas. At 6pm on an October evening we were almost the only people around. Most of the hotels and restaurants were closed for the season, but we dare not stop for fear of being wheel-clamped. There were dozens of signs to camp-sites but after following several and finding them closed and deserted we gave up and continued our route northwards. Dusk was falling as we drove along the Côte Sauvage. We were alone on deserted roads through endless pine forests that protect the coast road from encroaching sand dunes. Only rarely did we see another vehicle. Any isolated hotels or restaurants were closed and shuttered for the season and nowhere was there a campsite open. A large mobile home overtook us, looking purposeful, so we followed it. After all, it had to be going somewhere and at last we thought we might discover where all the big camping cars we saw during the day disappeared to at night. In the depths of the pine forest it turned off the route down a side road and right beside the sea we discovered a huge parking area reserved for camping cars, free from 1st October! It was full with over 40 huge vehicles lined up side by side! There is safety in numbers so Modestine tucked herself in at the end of the row, looking comically small. In fact we spent a very comfortable night there, with the beam from the lighthouse on the far side of the dunes raking through the trees every few seconds. The evening was really mild, and with no electricity to run the computer we sat outside in the darkness until bed-time. Despite so many people sleeping nearby we saw hardly anybody and it was completely silent. For us, unfortunately, using such sites is not usually practical as we do not carry an onboard toilet or shower, but in an emergency it was an excellent solution, especially as in this instance, because there is usually a charge made for overnight parking, the council had supplied clean toilet facilities!

This morning we took a walk along the beach to a nearby harbour of small fishing boats and pleasure craft, returning through the forest where cyclists were out enjoying the sunshine. Rejoining Modestine we continued along the coast and round to Marennes, passing through several deserted holiday villages sheltering amongst the pine trees. Once the season is over in France coastal resorts become ghost towns.

In the pine forest of the Côte Sauvage

Marennes turned out to be a very nice little town indeed. It was quite bustling, being anything but a holiday resort. It lies in Charente Maritime, a strange area criss-crossed by a dense network of small drainage canals and irrigation channels. The economy of the town is based on oysters and it lies between the sea and a massive salt water lagoon laid out as oyster beds. They were on sale everywhere around the town. Even the PMU betting shop/café was selling them for just a few euros served with lemon and bread and butter together with a glass of white wine! We lingered here over our morning coffee watching the customers. In particular there were three elderly ladies in cardigans and slippers, each with their open newspaper, selecting their bets as they drank glasses of beer at 11am! Having made their choices they handed over their betting slips and money at the bar before settling to do their knitting until the race was due to run! It's quite an education seeing how strange other people's lives can be!

We passed this way several years ago, returning from visiting a friend at Arcachon, on the coast near Bordeaux, famed for having the largest sand dune in Europe. Then we visited the Ile d'Oléron which lies off the coast near Marenne. It did not impress us so much as the Ile de Ré so today we didn't stop to revisit. Instead we continued to Rochefort, a delightful town which developed in the 17th century, established by the French minister Colbert as a place to built and repair ships for the French navy. We have spent most of the day exploring the old dockyards, and the marine rope works. Here is the oldest dry dock in the world, rather overgrown with weeds and in need of restoration. In another dry dock a replica of the18th century ship, the Hermione, has been under construction for some years, beside the river Charente. The rope works is an architecturally beautiful building stretching right along the river bank overlooked by attractive public gardens with colourful flower beds.

Entrance to the arsenal, Rochefort

World's first dry dock, Rochefort

17th century rope works, Rochefort

17th century rope works on the banks of the Charente, Rochefort

Back in the town we sought out the house of the writer Pierre Loti. He was a naval man who led a colourful life, travelling around the world and developing a love affair with the Orient during the late 19th century. Eventually he settled back in his native town, writing novels and travel accounts and turning his home into a microcosm of his travels. Each room is dedicated to a different area of travel, filled with exotic costumes, fabrics and furniture. He even turned one room into a mosque! France respects her literary figures and there is a large statue dedicated to his memory in the town.

To the writer Pierre Loti, Rochefort

With regret we left Rochefort. It is the second time we have passed through the town and on each occasion we have wanted to stay longer. Our route continued to La Rochelle. Signs warned us that it was a day when traffic was banned from the city, so we decided not to try to visit today. We did not have enough time to do it justice. So we continued to the beautiful, huge, arching bridge, three kilometres long, that now links the Ile de Ré to the mainland. After paying the nine euros toll we drove steeply up, out and across the sea on the narrow ribbon of steel, the woods and sand dunes of the island showing hazily at the far end as we gradually approached. It is an impressive piece of modern architecture.

If the bridge is modern it is the only thing about the island that is. It is such a peaceful, place of fields and small, scattered villages that it is hard to realise that the busy, sprawling city of La Rochelle is so close by. Here time seems to stand still. The villages are small, single-storey whitewashed cottages with hollyhocks leaning against the walls and doors and shutters all in toning shades of pale green. The island is long and narrow, so the warm sandy beaches, deserted after the season, are never more than a few minutes away. Once, the island was mosquito-ridden and the donkeys that worked in the fields and around the salt pans suffered from permanently being bitten on their legs and rumps. The villagers came up with a novel solution, clothing these beasts of burden in gingham knickers! Blue ones for the boys and pink for the girls! Now of course it has become something of a tourist attraction, but we are rather anxious about our own beast of burden, Modestine! She is here completely knickerless! A revolutionary "sans culotte". Tomorrow we will have to search the island for some pink gingham!

Typical cottages, Ile de Ré

Now though, Ian is yawning in the corner and it is time for bed. We need to get going early tomorrow as Hinge and Bracket are eager to explore the island.

Saturday 6th October 207, Ile de Ré, Charente
We cycled 35 kilometres around the island today and this evening the only one left with any energy is Modestine. She has spent the day resting on the campsite and showing off as usual to various groups of French campers. This evening they were back again, this time intrigued by Hinge and Bracket, wanting to know how we could fit so much into Modestine.

Actually, Hinge and Bracket have very little stamina and are leaning wearily against a tree on the corner of our pitch, quite exhausted after a day spent bouncing over the cobbled quaysides of the various little towns and village we have passed through. We meanwhile are sitting painfully on cushions, wondering how we will possibly cope with our planned 45 kilometre ride tomorrow! The tiny wheels and lack of suspension do not make for a comfortable ride!

But we have at last achieved our ambition. Several years ago we visited the Ile de Ré for a day as we travelled north. Stopping to explore the ruins of the 13th century Cistercian abbey, standing silent and alone in empty fields, we watched with envy as a couple cycled up to it along a tiny track. We remembered that moment today as we approached along the same deserted track to stand alone within the silent, ruined walls, in the distance the ghostly outline of the bridge linking the island to La Rochelle just visible through the hazy morning mist.

An ambition realised, Cistercian abbey, Ile de Ré

Cistercian abbey with free range hens, Ile de Ré

The island is really flat and except for the bumps there is little effort involved. We have discovered lots of joints and muscles however that have become lazy over recent months, particularly around our knees.

We stopped to explore a wonderful second-hand bookshop and for a picnic lunch beside the quayside in La Flotte, returning to St. Martin during the afternoon where we had been assured the donkeys would be wearing their finery. We were sadly disappointed however. The only ones we have seen today have been cute and friendly with long velvet ears but absolutely no knickers!

Quayside at La Flotte, Ile de Ré

Sweet shop window, La Flotte, Ile de Ré

Original mediaeval market, Ile de Ré

Donkeys in the ramparts of the fort, St. Martin en Ré

The morning sunshine had disappeared and there was a light mist during the afternoon as we cycled off along the low, sandy cliff top between the sea shore with its oyster beds and salt pans on one side and vineyards full of grapes on the other. We followed the cycle routes across salt-flats where little embankments had divided the area into muddy squares where salt water is evaporated off and the salt crystals that form around the edge are packaged up and sold as sea salt. Salt seems to be one of the major industries of the island after fishing, tourism and cultivating oysters. We even saw expensive bottles of 18 percent alcohol caramelised wine for sale enriched with two percent salt!

It has been a very different day and wonderful to cycle along safe, flat routes across such a peaceful landscape with so many different perspectives to take in. These include flat fields with heavy horses and donkeys, vines, vegetable plots, farmyards where chickens really are "free range", tiny villages of picturesque whitewashed cottages and gardens of bright shrubs, roses and hollyhocks. There have been drystone walls, church towers seen from far away across the landscape, the sea shore, a yachting regatta off the coast, the heavy, defensive walls of the 17th century Vauban fort at St. Martin, sacks of oysters arriving in the market and fresh fish being cleaned and scaled. We have been offered free samples of almond gateaux and biscuits and chatted to dozens of friendly people. Often a place can be a disappointment on a second visit, but certainly not here on the Ile de Ré. It is a beautiful, peaceful, holiday haven, full of charm and far removed from the bustling world of the nearby mainland.

Vauban defences, St. Martin en Ré

Quayside, St. Martin en Ré

Back at the campsite this evening we discovered a couple of English camping cars. Both drivers were eager to tell us that Britain has just beat the Aussies in the quarter finals of World Rugby and France is guaranteed to be slaughtered by New Zealand tonight. We are quite ignorant of what else may be happening in the world, having access to neither newspapers, television nor radio, but at least we always seem to be kept informed about the really important issues affecting people's lives!!

Sunday 7th October 207, Ile de Ré, Charente
It was well after midnight before the sound of hooting died down on the island, signifying France had beaten the New Zealand All Blacks against the odds. The French are really enthusiastic about their Rugby. Next Saturday they will be playing England in the semi-finals. Fortunately we should be back in Caen by then as we don't fancy sharing a campsite TV room with our rivals for such an event. We risk being lynched if by any chance England wins!

We have not been impressed with the campsite at St. Martin which is overpriced and underprovided with facilities – unless you are keen on shellfish. We discovered four places to wash your coquillage but only two toilets! Furthermore, overnight there is a light permanently lit in the fish cleaning area whereas the sanitaires are in complete darkness! So this morning, deciding our knees were not really up to the long return cycle ride to the Phare de Baleines (lighthouse of the whales) on the furthest tip of the island, we left the campsite and drove there instead.

The lighthouse was built in the 19th century with an earlier, lower one designed by Vauban nearby. Being Sunday the area was quite busy with people out from La Rochelle for the day, enjoying seafood, mussels and sardines in the several restaurants and buying local specialities - such as caramel sweets enriched with salt, bags of sea salt, liqueurs flavoured with salt, and special ceramic containers for storing salt! On our way we passed across the mudflats and salt meadows that constitute the whole of this end of the island. Salt drying pans are laid out between mud embankments. The water is left to evaporate and the grey mess around the edges is raked together as sea salt. The atmosphere of the marshes is wonderfully peaceful and the area a haven for sea birds. The Ile de Ré is on the migration routes for birds flying from both Canada and Siberia down to Africa for the winter and many species are currently to be found resting amongst the reed beds of the marshes. We only saw ducks, gulls, egrets and kestrels but we are not knowledgeable bird-spotters.

Phare des Baleines, Ile de Ré

Village street, Loix, Ile de Ré

Port at Loix, Ile de Ré

Marshes near Loix, Ile de Ré

Egret fishing on the Ile de Ré

Piles of salt raked from the evaporation beds, Ile de Ré

During the afternoon we left Modestine and rode our bikes out across the marshland on tiny, narrow cycle routes that wound between the dykes, sluices and salt pans. Around us was the pungent smell of salt, seaweed and drying mud. There was total silence except for the occasional cry of a gull. The area is a haven for wild flowers and plants, most of which are unknown to us. However, the predominant plant was salsify, or salicorne as it is known here. (Is this the same as samphire?) This is a short, green, succulent plant of tiny fleshy fingers tasting salty and sharp.

Beside the cycle route through the mudflats, Ile de Ré

We also found time to walk along the coastal footpath where we watched the tiny fishing boats bobbing off shore and the flat bottomed craft used for tending the oyster beds. The light along the coast seems unusually bright. There is so much sea and sky with the flat marshes stretching away into the distance where the light house and several church spires tower above the single storey whitewashed villages.

We had been told of a place where camping cars could stay overnight, complete with sanitary facilities. Unfortunately they do not seem to have ever been cleaned. It was quite impossible to stay there and it is illegal to park off-site on the island overnight. Almost all the campsites are now closed for the season but eventually, at Loix, we discovered one still open. There are only four vehicles staying here. It is clean and friendly and only half the price of the one we left this morning. Campsites are a complete lottery. Price is no guide at all to quality.