Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Ile-de-Ré en velo

After much racking of brains we have settled the question of whether we have been here previously. We have decided no, remembering we took a day trip to lle Normoutier when we stayed on a campsite on the Vendée coast one Spring bank holiday. It must have been 2007, as we have a photo of a good luck message scrawled in the sand to Matthew and Sarah who where sitting their first year exams at the time. We think we visited Ile d'Oleron a couple of years previously when we rented a gite inland from Royan. Though we managed a day out in La Rochelle we never made it as far as the Ile-de-Ré. However, it's not surprising we are confused, France's Atlantic islands between the Loire and the Gironde have a distinct family resemblence, differentiated mainly by the colour of shutters. lle-de-Ré seems to prefer sun-baked green to the ubiquitous ultra-marine found elsewhere on France's Atlantic seaboard.

Of the three, Ile-de-Ré is the smallest island, but seemingly the most populous. It developed in the seventeenth century as a major fortress defending the important naval base at La Rochelle. The main town of St-Martin-de-Ré is built within the walls of a gigantic star shaped citadel. Inevitably it was constructed by Vauban, who during the reign of the 'Sun King' fortified France with his trademark beautifully geometric bastions.

Vauban - the Taylor Wimpey of 17th century fortifications
More cute - furry donkeys, we wondered if they had struck up an intimate friendship with the local alcpacas we spotted...

sun dappled Marie - Vive La Republique!

These days the town is a swanky yachting harbour. The other Ile-de-Ré villages may be cute, but St Martin notches its pretentions up a tad; with its St Tropez style harbour-front the place definitely has aspirations towards being chic. A great place for watching the world go by as you wile away half an hour or so at one of the quayside café.

View from the table
checking the shot
Gill's a bit of a lighthouse afficianado.
As well as being more populated than the other islands, Ile-de-Ré seems more productive. The spine of the island is one big vineyard, producing a range of white and red varietals. Style-wise these seem to lean towards the Loire to the north rather than emulate Bordeaux to the south. We tried a Merlot, which was palatable rather than delicious. The island also produces its own version of pineau, which we failed to sample.

Oyster beds run along the northern, bay-side coast. The southern, Atlantic side has great beaches, lots of campsites and bungalow developments as well as empty stretches of saline ponds. A path led from the campsite to a long beach. It had a great view of the Ile de Normoutier to the south, and each evening a small gaggle of us gathered to watch the sunset.

Waiting for sunset
time to admire the colouful seaweed - small delights.
there it goes!
time to take a photo of people taking photos.
Dedicated cycle tracks meander their way through all of this. They are well signposted, which is a relief because they are somewhat maze-like. For such a small island it's cycle tracks are astonishing, there must be a well over 100kms of them. Given the level of bum ache we suffered, I think we must have covered most of them.

Gill, vines, bike track...
They were rarely this uncrowded,
We found the lle-de-Ré delightful. It is not some quiet back-water, however. It seems to be a late season hotspot for the recently retired. The French grey-haired population were out in force. At times there were bike jams on the cycle tracks and bouchons of shiny new camping-cars clogging the roads. As we contributed to the traffic jam in our less than shiny dream machine it was sobering to reflect that your preferences and predilections are not the product of doughty individualism but simply a reflection of an inexorable demographic. 

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