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Ile de Rť     By Tate

Sud Vendee.. Haut Bocage.. Coastal Region.. Marais Poitevin.. Marais Breton.. Bas Bocage.. Plaine.. Marais Olonne..
If youíve read my piece on la Rochelle youíll know that our assault on the town was launched on the back of a visit to Castorama, a large B&Q type shop just outside La Rochelle, to replace broken swimming pool equipment. Now as Murphy, or at least his law, would have it Trevor gave the pool a good clean with the new equipment and wandered in with one of the filters from within the pump announcing that it now needed replacing. You know the good news bad news thing well the good news was that the filter didnít come from Castorama, the bad news was it came from Cash Piscines, a shop on the same industrial estate, so we were off to the La Rochelle area again. The silver lining to this particular cloud is very Alice in Wonderland, as jutting from the coast beside La Rochelle is a most amazing three kilometre bridge, and at the other end of it is a small island, ďLíIle de ReĒ

First the technical stuff. The Isle de Re is in the Department of the Charente-Maritime, and has an area of 85 square kilometres, it is 30 km long and 5km wide although in places that is reduced to mere metres. It was originally an archipelago of 3 separate islands running east off of La Rochelle but due to silting and human intervention, it has become one island. The strategic value of the island has long been recognised, and as such the island sports what almost amounts to a display of ďFortifications through the AgesĒ. Many people have tried to invade it but few have succeeded. Those who have failed include the English. In 1627 the Duke of Buckingham invaded, landing thousands of troops on the beaches of the Ile de Re. After 3 months fighting the islanders and failing to subjugate them, he gave up and left the island for good. The Island has a winter population quoted as 16,000 rising to 160,000 in summer and with annual visitor numbers of over 3 million, the islandís main source of revenue is undoubtedly tourism. Sea salt works to the North West of the island, an active fishing fleet and markets selling everything from fruit and vegetables to African artefacts, indicates that there is a vibrant island community outside of tourism. The Islanders who are known as Retais view the mainland, which they refer to as the continent, and its population with suspicion. As an Island race Iím sure those Brits amongst you will identify with that sentiment. I just canít get out of my head that they could have called themselves Reguns, not after a former President of the USA but after the armaments of mythical intergalactic warriors, but then I am a bit out there. The Retais however have now taken their battle with the continent just a touch further, and the 3 km bridge connecting the island to the mainland has become what I consider to be the strangest of battlefields. The bridge like many other motorways and bridges throughout France is subject to a toll, levied to recoup the cost of construction, as I write this the toll is 9 euros out of season and 16.50 euros in season (June 19th to September 20th) but in 2012 the bridge is due to become toll free. This has brought about a movement amongst the Reguns (Oops! sorry) Retais to retain the toll under the thin veil of being an environmental tax. The truth more than likely lies in the fact that the removal of the financial deterrent is seen to be tantamount to the opening of the floodgates which will mean that the island will become prey to hordes of the great unwashed, further clogging up the roads and taking the charm away from the few existing towns by the sheer weight of tourist numbers. With the waning of exclusivity will likely come a crash in the extremely high prices of houses and land along with the exodus of those stars and dignitaries who are purported to frequent the island because of its beauty and selectiveness. Even though this sounds to be elitist it is something that I can identify with. Our visit was out of season for both French and English holiday makers alike and yet everywhere was still full to bursting.

The trip to la Rochelle was uneventful, the shopping done and the 9 Euros paid we were crossing the bridge, they donít make ordinary bridges in France, this bridge is no exception to that, like some giant tensioned longbow with a twist, it has a little bit of the bridge over the Loire at Nantes about it although much longer of course. It was quite amazing we had left in thick cloud but on the coast the sky was clear and blue and throughout the day we could look back and see the huge cloudbank sitting morosely over the landmass while we enjoyed continuous sunshine, statistics show that the Isle de Re has the same number of hours of sun per year as the French Riviera,
Making landfall we, unlike many others I suspect, stopped at Rivedoux Plage in truth it was because we were in search of a coffee, which I desperately needed,. It being out of season for the French we did struggle a bit but we eventually found a cup in a roadside cafť/shop, we sat outside and drank from plastic cups, there was no view of the beach, in fact there was no view at all, but the coffee was very welcome and inexpensive.

After coffee we went straight along the coast to la Flotte, the largest town on the island, it has a quaint harbour with echoes of a mini La Rochelle. There were a mixture of luxury yachts and working boats in the harbour and the cobbled quaysides were festooned with restaurants, but at one end of the quay was an oyster market and past that along the quayside running away from the harbour was a row of attractive little single story dwellings which appeared to be inhabited by Retais. There were small boats laid up on the opposite side of the quay to the local housing and it would be churlish to refer to the scene as anything less than charming. It was just a little early to eat otherwise we might have stopped there, but Trevor satisfied his hunger pangs with a pastry and we wandered off up a side street away from the harbour just to see what we could find. What we actually found, through an archway off the road was a vibrant local market, selling everything, it was situated in a little cobbled square and it was packed, we took a small lane out of the square which was extremely pretty, if you ignored the dogs mess, with old buildings and hollyhocks lining either side. The end of the lane brought us out in close proximity to where *T2 was parked so we loaded up and off we went, past the Abbaye des Chateliers a 12th Century Cistercian Abbey which was ruined during the 100years war and the wars of religion. Not much further along the road is the start of the fortifications for St Martin de Re, first there is an extensive fortress with a dry moat which is yet another example of the Islandís fortifications and continues to house the islandís prison. Our next stop was the islandís jewel in the crown St Martin de Re. We stopped in the car park just outside of the town and wandered through a park and along the ramparts towards the harbour. This really was a mini La Rochelle except it had that special feeling that is only generated in an Island community. The harbour has an almost circular feel accentuated by a central island, the evidence of fortifications are everywhere, as are the quayside restaurants. There are shops on the harbour, but this is obviously primarily a place of entertainment, we wandered all around it and then went over the bridge onto the small central island. I could imagine that it might take on an almost magical quality at night, with the lights sparkling on the water and I suspect music and street entertainment.

We were by this time a bit late and we stooped at a restaurant called Marco Polo which looked back towards the rest of the harbour, we were amongst the last people to be served, but even then most of the tables were still full. This is obviously a fish loverís paradise but ridiculous though it was I was still feeling the after effects of the previous evening and couldnít face eating more fish. I had the house pizza, it had ham and peppers and mushrooms and in the centre an egg, it was good enough and was just what I needed, not too heavy, not too much topping. Trevor being an enforced abstainer was not suffering at all and tucked into a pretty little sea bass with mixed vegetables. It was a small fish and in the UK would have only been allowed if it was farmed. I used to fish for bass professionally and I know that to keep a line caught fish now in the UK it would have had to be almost twice the length, so make of that what you will. Personally I canít see the point in serving farmed fish on an island with a vibrant fishing industry, however Trevor enjoyed it, but he was hungry and would probably have eaten a dog with relish by then. The service was very good and the waiter spoke good English, Trevor thought that he might not be French but when I questioned him he said that although he was born on the island he had grown up in Angers where he said they speak pure French without any regional accent and that was probably why Trevor thought he wasnít French. Having grown up in a holiday town in Devon I could get all cynical here, we used to tell tourists all sorts, but Iím going to let is pass. We both drank tonic water and had large coffees and the bill came to 40 Euros.

Time was moving right along and we had to move along with it if we were going to make it around the island. We stopped at a beach at Le Matray, on the narrowest part of the island which in places is literally only a few meters wide, so that Trevor could take some photos; there was a car park and the bank which protects this part of the island, then the beach. There were some people donning wet suits who were going to hire jet skis. We didnít stay long and continued on to Ars-en-Re, it looked as if it had a pretty little square, but it had those bollards that come up out of the ground and not wanting to get caught inside, I regretfully chickened out so we didnít get to see it. Next stop was the very tip of the island where you can take the one road out and then the same road back; there are a lot of beaches most serviced with car parks and none seemed crowded.
This end of the island is where the salt production takes place, it also seems to have a lot of very high quality housing with Iím pretty sure prices to match. Iíve heard rumour that plots here are valued at 1 million euros plus. We came back from the point to les Portes en Re which was a very small working harbour, I didnít venture out of the van and left Trevor to take a photographic record. It was getting late and we headed back to take a look at the lighthouse, unfortunately we were turned away by the police as the car park was full, there was another car park further out but we were hot and decided that our time would be better spent in search of an ice cream and a coffee. The island has a reputation for ice cream and ice cream parlours; however we searched high and low on our way down the south side of the island, but everywhere was closed, and it wasnít until we reached the Southern side of Rivedoux Plage, where we stopped at a beachside bar and had, no not an authentic Isle de Re creation but ďJust one CornettoĒ, (in fact Trevor had two), and a large coffee each. Trevor wanted to get a picture of the bridge from the south side of the island and so he wandered off along the beach. When he came back he said that I could get closer to the bridge in the van so that I could see it, in fact we got more than even he bargained for as I decided to go off road and got us right under the bridge on the very point of the island, Trevor got some great photos not just of the bridge but also of the kite surfers on the Northern side, it was a fitting end to a long but very enjoyable day

About the author: Tate spends the summers in the Vendee and is passionate about good wine and good food,he now writes exclusively for the website. This article may be reproduced as long as it's in it's entirety including this Bio..

* T2 is the name he calls his Mercedes mobility van after the series "Thunderbirds are go". His mobility scooter he calls T8

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