There are some places ideally suited to taking at a slow pace, idly wandering around the sites whether they are small picturesque villages, stunning harbours and beaches, vineyards or even lighthouses.
The island of Île de Ré in the French Charente-Maritime region and fits the bill for this laid back way of life perfectly. The whole island appears to be from a different era, narrow winding streets lined with pretty little houses often covered with hollyhocks or other similar floral displays. Splashes of vibrant reds, pinks or yellows against the brilliant white or natural stone of the buildings, often the only other colour is the pale blue of window shutters.
Connected to the mainland by the three kilometre bridge “Pont de Ré” making access particularly easy, it is popular with Parisians from where it is possible to reach within three hours. For this reason many choose it as the ideal spot to purchase their holiday homes.
“speeding set of cyclists shoot past”
It is not actually completely out of time, there are cars just not that many, people seem to take the opportunity to walk or ride a bike. Cycling in fact is a very popular way of getting around the island, groups, families, couples and lone cyclists weave their way along the network of roads and paths that criss-cross the island.
Be careful though even these can move quite quickly and often the riders seem absorbed in the surroundings. They hardly notice pedestrians and it can become quite a shock to suddenly have a speeding set of cyclists shoot past when attempting to cross the road.
Clear azure skies providing the roof to the adventure obviously help but in fact during this visit it was not always so. There were several heavy bouts of rain and yet it did not really take anything away from the enjoyment of this island, there always seem to be somewhere to go, something to see away from the worst of the weather.
“resembling life-size dolls houses”
I have to admit however my favourite moments were spent exploring the towns and villages. Wandering along the streets which always seemed quiet, possibly due to being late season but I was not complaining. The houses are so quaint resembling life-size dolls houses, the streets incredibly pretty, row after row of these attractive cottage-like homes. It is easy to get lost amongst them and several pleasant hours were spent doing just that.
St. Martin de Ré is the main town of the island, built around its attractive harbour. This is a highlight of the island, with boats of all descriptions, from yachts to traditional, colourful fishing boats, reds, blues and mahogany is everywhere. Surrounded by fortifications which are up to 8m high and 2m thick there are around 12km of fortified walls. It is probably the busiest place to visit, but its well worth spending sometime there and a trip up the St Martin’s Church tower provides a great panorama especially over the Breton Strait.
“is seeing donkeys in trousers”
A slightly peculiar sight is seeing donkeys in trousers, which were originally donned to protect them from mosquitoes. They now provide rides for kids along the beaches and it is common to see them grazing just outside the town. What better way to relax after the ride than with an oyster or potato ice cream? Not for you, maybe the 24ct gold covered one will suit your expensive palate more.
Markets are a favourite place to visit for me and the small one located in La Flotte is especially good for a visit. The stalls are closely packed with all manner of local produce with wines, meats, cheeses, vegetables and even fish which despite its size provide plenty of interest to help wile away an hour or so. It is very popular with locals and tourists alike browsing the stalls overflowing with colour in search of something tasty to eat or drink. Red peppers, green artichokes, white wines, various cured meats providing both colour and a mixture of aromas perfect ingredients for a picnic on the beach.
The beaches are generally wide and sandy ideal for walking the dog or if a little more active there is the opportunity to try sand yachting, kite-surfing, windsurfing or just surfing when the conditions are right. I wandered through some rock pools in the hope of finding some the inhabitants, however beachcombing may not be a career path open to me.
“This will make an amazing bed and breakfast”
The island is blessed with picturesque lighthouses; unfortunately there was not enough time to visit all of them. However managing to visit the Grand Phare des Baleines (literally Lighthouse of the Whales) seemed to be the pick of the bunch. Taking the time to climb the narrow stairs to the top is well worth it, providing great views over the island and along its coast.
Some of the original rooms are being renovated and living quarters being restored to enable paying guests to stay overnight in future. This will make an amazing bed and breakfast, it will surely be a commercial success and a very popular place to stay.
Dining out on the island is exceptionally good and as might be expected seafood dishes are favourite choices for many visiting here. Fresh mussels, scallops and fish dishes are available in almost every restaurant and hotel. France is a popular gastronomy destination it is unlikely many will be disappointed with the choice on offer on here.
There is much to recommend this island to the traveller, there is plenty to keep most entertained. Those seeking a quiet time to relax or preferring an activity holiday cycling or beach activities will not be disappointed. Île de Ré really is a pleasure island.
I am very grateful to the Poitou-Charentes Tourist Board for organising this trip and the agencies that made it possible by providing accommodation, transport and meals. All opinions expressed however remain my own.