Ile de Ré

I have never actually believed in France. Whenever I travel there, I spend an awful lot of time just touching things to make sure that they are real. I place my hand on a marvelously designed copper lamppost, expecting it to instantly fall apart. I open and close my eyes to reconfirm the perfect picture that sits politely in front of me, patiently waiting for me to accept it as truth. I blow on things, convinced that everything is just covered by a thin layer of fairy dust. Believing in France is not easy to do. I read enough of the news to assume that these little corners of heaven disappeared a long time ago.

And yet, there we were, flying through salt fields and poppy patches, on bicycles with baskets, on a sky-blue Monday afternoon. We passed donkeys wearing pants, deliciously fresh oyster stands, and mile after mile of vineyards and white sandy beaches. I tried to touch everything I could. I really did. I even made more than one attempt to crash my bicycle into Damián’s, certain that we would both “wake up” from this dream on impact, but instead we just crumpled into a fit of laughter onto a field of perfectly rolled hay.

Biking in Saint MartinIt’s real. It’s all real and the locals refer to it as Ile de Ré.

Ile de Ré is a small island off the west coast of France, approximately 35 minutes by car from its closest mainland city, La Rochelle. A toll bridge connects the island to the mainland for a fee of 8-16€ per car, making it the most expensive road in France. But it’s a small price to pay for paradise.

Damián and I arrived to the island without a plan. We had been told of this place by someone from somewhere that we couldn’t quite remember, like a distant summer dream, and it had finally made it to the top of our list. We parked our car on the outskirts of the main port city, Saint Martin de Ré and embarked on our first “-connaissance.”

We had barely made it to the edge of town when we were greeted by a great herd of rastafari donkeys that were quite eager to make small talk in exchange for eating grass out of our hands. They told us that they were the famous Poitou donkeys, believed to have been introduced to the area by the Romans centuries before. Even the donkeys themselves don’t remember exactly. Poitou donkeys were used in the breeding of the Poitou mule, considered to be “one of the finest working mules in the world” in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We told them not to let all that go to their head and they responded that they were in fact prized for their uncharacteristically large heads, strong necks, and stocky feet. Go figure.

 

Poitou Donkey

 

On Ile de Ré, however, they are best known for their pajama-striped stockings, a fashion statement that arose out of the need to protect the animals from the flies and mosquitos of the salt marshes where they worked. As if they could be any cuter!

While the mechanization of agriculture eventually led to the decline of the Poitou donkey, more recent conservation efforts and collaboration with private breeders have helped to maintain a healthy population on Ile de Ré and other parts of the world. In Saint Martin de Ré, children can even get a ride a donkey with pants in the local park.

We opted for bicycles instead, which is the primary mode of transportation on the graciously flat island. There are a number of shops in Saint Martin de Ré where you can rent a bike for approximately 8€ a day and there are more than sixty miles of smoothly paved bike lanes that allow you to explore the island at a luxurious pace.

Before heading out, we weaved our way in and out of the city walls and fortifications. They seemed out of place amongst the soft sea breeze and stillness of the harbor, but history insists that this was an island plagued by Norman invasions in the 9th century and fought over by the English and French, and Catholics and Protestants, well after. A star-shaped fortress was built in 1681 by Louis XIV’s famous engineer Vauban to improve defenses. Vauban also created the citadel, which now functions as a present-day high-security prison. I wondered if being sent to prison on Ile de Ré still strangely felt more like paradise than punishment, but there was nobody around to ask.

We pressed our noses up against the windows of chic boutiques, lavish restaurants, and charming art galleries, but were careful not to touch anything. I knew that part wasn’t real, at least not for me. Like most of France, the price was never right, but we have learned how to rub elbows with the well-heeled without missing out on anything. Instead, we found a cheap (ish) little bakery where we were able to buy a picnic lunch before starting our exploration.

Ile de Re

Ile de Ré can be done in a day, but we don’t recommend it. It’s much better to toss out your phone, fold up your map (does anyone use maps anymore?), and get utterly lost. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you stumble into a quaint white village with lovely green shutters and a hollyhock infestation. Here, you will be forced to sample some of the local wine or cognac and a have a mouth-watering lunch that may feature some famous potatoes. Before you get back on your bike, a stoic French salt farmer might tip his hat to you from the distance and his big, furry donkey friend will give you an encouraging bray to send you on your way. This scene could repeat itself over and over again until your heart quite literally bursts with happiness for having found a way to live your life like a movie. Even if only for a day.

If you grow tired of biking, you can lay out on one of the many pristine beaches that sweep the coastline or visit one of the island’s historic lighthouses, like Le Phare de Baleines (the Lighthouse of the Whales). This lighthouse was built in 1854 to replace the original from 1652, which still holds its ground as well. Just 257 steps will gift you with the best vantage point of the island and the sparkling blue Atlantic. The whales don’t come ashore here anymore, which is how the lighthouse got its name, but the large swathes of rock that can be seen sprawling out into the sea in low tide can easily play with one’s imagination. We were told that this was by far the best sunset spot on the island, but unfortunately, our bike rental deadline didn’t give us enough time to experience it.

Plage de la Conche

We had arrived without accommodation and so we weren’t able to be selective on where we spent the night, but we found a reasonably priced hotel in Rivedoux-Plage. It’s not one of the prettier towns, but it’s location near the bridge allowed us to get a necessary early start in the morning, as traffic returning to the mainland can often be a problem. Had we had more time, we would have preferred to stay on the west side of the island. It has a wilder, more rustic feel. The wind picks up your hair there, the salt hangs in the air, and for a few moments, you forget that you are a tourist. You’re just another human being, having a conversation with your own mind.

The next morning, we drove out to the skeleton of the Abbaye des Châteliers, just outside the village of La Flotte. Cistercian monks first built the abbey in 1156, but the many invasions led to its repeated destruction. Fire also left its mark until it was finally abandoned in 1574. Yet there is nothing sad or defeated about what’s left of this place. It’s a beautiful set of architectural bones, surrounded by smiling poppies and a vigilant sea. The roof disappeared hundreds of years ago, but standing in the middle of what remains, you can still feel a kind of grandeur. You can still look out the window and hear God whispering a prayer.

Chateliers

It hurt a lot to leave Ile de Ré, like in a way a place has never hurt me before. It wasn’t that I wanted to stay there or that it took a part out of me. It was a new kind of worry. A worry that I should leave it and that at some point, it might disappear. I needed to know that it would always exist, exactly as we had discovered it. And even if I am never able to visit it again, I still want to be able to tell people something on their deathbeds, should I have the privilege of saying good-bye. Something like, “Go to Ile de Ré now. Go there and your passing into the next life will be seamless and serene.”

-Ashley

HOW TO GET THERE

Ilé de Ré can be reached by car by crossing the toll bridge just outside of La Rochelle in southwestern France. Depending on the season, the toll is between 8-16€. You can also park your car in a car park before the bridge and take a bus onto the island or rent bikes before crossing the bridge. There are also trains from Nantes, Bordeaux, and Paris. For more information on how to arrive, visit their tourist information website.

WHERE TO SLEEP

Ile de Ré offers a range of accommodation options for different kinds of travelers. There are very comfortable campsites, a few reasonably priced hotels, and a fair number of luxury locations. We recommend using Airbnb, especially if you are traveling outside of the summer months. As the island is a popular holiday home location, it is likely that you will be able to find a unique place to stay for a decent price.

Saint Martin, France

 

 

Recent Posts

Comments/Comentarios

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.