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Île de Ré

 Île de Ré a haven for cyclists

 

A visit by David and Marjorie Willdigg in June 2003, published in Practical Caravan March 2004 under the title "Island in the Sun".

 

Returning from southern Spain early this summer and finding the Dordogne difficult to appreciate in a heat wave we headed for the Atlantic coast. Looking for somewhere less stifling to spend a few days, we discovered the Îl e de Ré.

Expecting it to be similar the neighbouring Île d’Oléron, with which we had been unimpressed, we had only intended stopping for a few days, but instead stayed until we were forced to leave for our ferry twelve days later. 

Connected to the mainland at La Rochelle by a 3-kilometre toll bridge, it is formed from three separate islands and reclaimed land.

At only 25 km long, a maximum 3 km wide and totally flat, although it has good sand beaches on the west coast, its' charms are man made rather than scenic. 

The small towns are delightful collections of mostly single storey cottages with shutters and the islands “trademark” hollyhocks growing alongside whitewashed walls. As a designated “Heritage zone”, strict rules designed to maintain taste and style, right down to what colour the locals may paint  their shutters.  Buildings of more than two storeys are not permitted and the same goes for intrusive advertising.

The uniform appearance of the villages can be disorientating at first and, considering the Island's size, we got lost more often than expected.  The solution to the confusing tangle of narrow streets was to leave the car on the site and use the network of cycle tracks that criss-cross the island.  Traffic free, paved and level, they connect all the towns and villages and there are 100 km to explore.  From our base in the middle of the island, it was possible to visit most of the attractions without being Olympian cyclists.  We had our own bikes but there is a least one hire shop in each of the towns and many families were hiring trailers for their children or even dogs to ride in.

 

 
 

There are plenty of campsites; we chose the three star, La Tour des Prises just north of the small town of La Couarde, adjacent to the cycle track and walking distance from a beach.  On the site of an old orchard, it has hedge-marked pitches and is surrounded by a wall that provided a useful windbreak at times.  The facilities were clean, water very hot and the well maintained swimming pool was a godsend when the temperature reached the mid thirties.

 

Apart from tourism the principle activities of the island are food related, cultivation of oysters and shellfish, potatoes that are famous throughout France having an AOC status and wine growing.  For anyone who enjoys the chance to buy fresh, quality food, there is ample opportunity there with shellfish straight from the water at the producers and wonderful fish, fruit, cheese and vegetables from the markets.

 

The island produces a simple range of Red, White and Rose wines and a visit to the wine Cooperative at Le Bois-Plage can be recommended. The wine is pleasant and fresh tasting and although they only sell by the case it’s not very expensive and can be any mix of Red, White or Rose.

 

Much of the cycle track network is across the salt marshes where sea salt is still being gathered using traditional methods. Seawater trapped in reservoirs during high tides gradually runs, by gravity through a maze of holding ponds and sluices all the time being concentrated by evaporation at a rate dependant on the wind and sun.  When it finally arrives at the gathering pans, small shallow rectangular pools, it has been concentrated to the point where the salt crystallises and is carefully removed using a type of rake. The method is unchanged since the middle Ages and no machinery is involved apart from vans that have replaced donkeys used to transport it to the packing station. 

After years of decline the industry is making a comeback with a number of young people returning to this hard manual job.  Salt produced this way is for the luxury market and is said to be superior because of the various trace elements it contains.

At the Ecomusée du marais salant near Loix, the process is demonstrated and the function of the tools and equipment explained, we asked for an English tour and it was arranged just for the two of us the following day.

This is one of a number of visitor centres designed to put across the island’s economy, history and wildlife, and reduced fees apply at 2nd and subsequent sites visited.



With many more salt lagoons than are now used, many have come to provide an internationally important site for water birds and waders.  There is a reserve and visitor centre near Les Portes, but we ran foul of the French lunchtime closedown.  Even so, we had been able to watch avocets caring for chicks and eggs, families of redshanks and various sea birds at their nests on our way there without even leaving the cycle track.





As a result of the centuries of conflict between France and England, a number of forts were built around the coast, the most notable being the 17th Century citadel at the islands capital, St Martin. Later used as a prison, this was the temporary home of convicts awaiting transport to the penal colonies including Guyana and the infamous Devils Island. For over a century the quayside was to be the last sight of France for the many thousands marched from the citadel to transport ships moored here. Captain Dreyfus, whose false conviction for spying provoked a national scandal and Henri Charriere, better known as Papillion, escapee from Devils Island and best selling author, both made the journey from here and were among the few to return.  In “Papillion”, Charriere describes “huge silent crowds watching as men disappear from ordinary life forever”.  The prison is still there but the now the quayside is a delightful place lined with restaurants and moored yachts.

 The Citadel is not open to the public but it is possible to take a tour of the ramparts and fortifications and if you are a fort enthusiast there are boat trips to view the offshore Fort Boyard, famous as the dramatic set of the TV game show.

 

 

Practicalities

The bridge is well signed from La Rochelle and, from the north and east the motorway avoids the city.

As tolls have been abolished on the nearby Île d’Oléron bridge we were a bit shocked to pay €16.5 for a car and a caravan in low season, solo trips off the island would cost €9 to €16 although fit types can walk or cycle over free. We had wondered if we might feel trapped by the toll but after 11 nights there was plenty left to see and do without leaving the island.  (n.b. the toll was €19 in 2010).

 

The Caravan Club site guide has a number of sites listed under St Martin and the local tourist office has about 45 in their island guide, so there shouldn’t be any problem having a choice of site except in the height of French holidays when it may be very crowded

 

Travelling to Cherbourg we used the free routes national and broke the 290 miles journey at Camping St Gregoire at Servon nr Avranches, a pleasant camp within sight of Mont St Michel and close to the main road.  At just 90 miles from Cherbourg we were able to finish our last minute shopping with ample time to arrive at the docks for the last night. There are sites around Cherbourg but we found the parking on the dockside more convenient when getting an early ferry, it was quiet and with a considerable number of others doing the same, felt quite secure.

 

 

Having the luxury of travelling as “free spirits” with lots of time we are generating a longer and longer “must return list” and  Île de Ré has certainly been added to it. We will be going back.

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