A visit to the “21st arrondissement of Paris” is the perfect antidote to the pressures of normal daily life says Linda Matthieu as she visits the beautiful Ile de Ré…
Joined by a bridge to the mainland, not far from La Rochelle, is the delightful little island called Ile de Ré. Luckily for me, it’s just a short drive from where I live and I love to take guests for a visit. It’s a very popular island for well-heeled Parisians and now has the nickname of “the 21st arrondissement of Paris”. It used to be isolated and poor but, although it is now visited by thousands each summer, it has somehow managed to retain its rustic and undeveloped aura.
There are beautifully preserved landscapes with cypress and pine trees, beach grass, long wide beaches and vineyards.
Local wine is produced, as well as cognac and pineau des Charentes (an aperitif liqueur blended from white wine and cognac).
Salt and fleur de sel are still gathered from the marshes using traditional methods. The local oysters are delicious. The locally grown potato (pomme de terre primeur d’Ile de Ré), became the first AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) of its type in France, although, to tell the truth, I can’t really tell a difference from the taste of other potatoes but I like to buy them.
There are ten little villages all containing small white cottages and it seems as though they all have hollyhocks growing against the walls; the colour contrast of the bright flowers is striking. My favourite village is la Flotte which has a marvellous Renaissance market every morning and I think it is the best I have seen in France.
Local products abound and samples are handed out everywhere. The people running the stalls there have to be the friendliest group I have ever met in France. I was asked many times where I came from even though the market was teeming with tourists. When I told one man that I was originally from Texas, he went into raptures over the Dallas Stars, a professional ice hockey team, and told me he had just ordered the newest Stars t-shirt.
Saint-Martin-de-Ré is the capital of the island and sports a lovely little lighthouse and a small port in the centre of the village. It has the most sophisticated air and the streets are lined with high end shops, many restaurants and a five star hotel. In the little park seen as you enter the village (parking has to be done in a lot outside the village) you will find donkeys wearing culottes. This was first introduced by the wife of a farmer to try and protect the legs of their donkeys from mosquito bites. Now they are a draw for tourists and photographers alike and children are given rides on them. There is even a breed of donkey with particularly shaggy hair that is found only on Ile de Ré. You can see them out in fields around Saint-Martin-de-Ré looking badly in need of grooming.
Another popular village to visit is Ars-en-Ré, the old salt capital, marked by the slender black and white bell tower of Saint Etienne church. The streets are narrow and there is another delightful harbour there. Ars-en-Ré, along with la Flotte, is on the list of the most beautiful villages in France and you will see why when you visit. There is a large lighthouse on the end of Ile de Ré which can be climbed for a breath-taking view.
This little island is a paradise for cyclists with 60 miles of bike paths criss-crossing all over the island and beaches are easy to find when you want to take a rest and simply take in the splendid views and chill out.
If you can’t spend a week here, I recommend even a day, it’s just a delightful experience and far too good to miss.
Linda Mathieu, a native Texan, lives in France with her French husband. She was a Paris Tour Guide and is the author of Secrets of a Paris Tour Guide, available at www.amazon.com.