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Wednesday, 2 June 2010

France trip 2010 - St Gilles de Ville to Ile de Re

12th May.
Hoping to use the free wi-fi in the local PMU café, we made the ten minute walk back to the waterfront, but having ordered our coffees we found that the wi-fi “ne marche pas” again! This time France Telecom got the blame.
Still, we got some jetons for the aire service point from the tourist office and had a browse around the shops. Having established that the following day was going to be a Bank Holiday, we did a stock up of fuel, gas and food and moved on to Bretignolles sur Mer.
To our surprise, after following the well developed coast road out of this town we came across a large open car park with access to the beach and a boating/swimming lake over the road. No restrictions were apparent and eight vans had already settled themselves. It seemed too good a spot to pass up, so we joined them.
GPS: 46.6166 N, 1.8595 W

A walk along the beach at Bretignolles sur Mer

13th May
It seemed a while since we’d had a warm sunny morning and we gratefully stretched our legs on the coast path. A friendly French couple in the van next door commented that we were a long way from home – feels like our second home to us!

Down the D38 some more, then we turned off onto the D80 alongside the Foret d’Olonne, a very pleasant area with many attractive picnic spots, none with height barriers designed to decapitate motorhomes!
Trying to find our way through Les Sables d’Olonne to the corniche road we found ourselves wedged up a very narrow one way street. Oops! After a few sweaty moments and bewildered looks from passers-by we made it to the sea front, but no chance to pull up for a breather!

Roadworks demanded a detour away from the coast road for a while, but we soon returned and stopped off at Bourgenay Querry Pigeon. Here we found a new aire not in any of our guides, a quiet shady area with spacious pitches. 5 Euro a night plus another 3 for water.
GPS: 46.4409 N, 1.6633 W

Thereafter, marshlands dictated a return to the main road at Talmont St Hilaire, before we hit the coast again at Jard sur Mer. This is all holiday home country but there was an aire with beach access provided and plenty of campsites. St Vincent sur Jard was similar and again provided a reasonable aire, 5 Euro a night seems to be the going rate around here.

Now tracing the edges of the Foret de Longeville we turned off for a sign announcing an aire de stationnement. This turned out to be a grassy pitch cut out of the forest, over the road from a large car park. The smell of pine and proximity of the forest was almost enough to make us call a halt for the day, but we had more or less decided to get to close to the Ile de Re by the day’s end. Next time perhaps!
GPS: 46.4032 N, 1.5054 W. No services.

Colourful blossom in the fields alongside the Foret de Longeville

Next up we had a look at La Tranche sur Mer, very similar holiday country again with an aire provided next to a sports hall. L’Aiguillion sur Mer was our last visit before heading inland. The aire was not very appetizing, a large tarmac area next to the sailing school and a noisy skateboard park. Time to move on and head for one of our favourite destinations – the Ile de Re!

At this time of year the toll for the bridge to the island is only 9 Euro. Still being in the 2nd April to 16th May holiday period there was plenty of traffic and as we entered a campsite we have used several times before - Camp du Soleil. We thought we might struggle to get a good pitch, but no worries, our favourite pitch was vacant and free for the next couple of weeks – yippee, time to chillout!

Snug, well planted pitches at Camp du Soleil

The pool awaits!

We love Camp du Soleil because it’s small and informal with a rural feel, a nice swimming pool, free wi-fi and only a few minutes walk from the beach and the village of Ars en Re.
GPS: 46.2036 N, 1.5205 W

14th May - 7th June
Much has been written about the Ile de Re, so I will only echo some of its features - such as the luminous Atlantic light, the cleansing air with its scent of the sea and wild flowers, the beaches and dunes, forests, vineyards, oyster beds, salt marshes and a glorious nature reserve. The ten main villages, all with their own communes, history and character.

Early morning light on the Ile de Re
We have been coming here for over twenty years, Sue first discovering the island from a yacht, sailing under the magnificent 3km bridge linking it to La Rochelle, before berthing in the capital St Martin.
Since then it has gone from being an impoverished rural backwater and summer holiday destination known only to a few French, to earning the Sunday Times travel writer’s epithet “Island playground of the stars” - property prices climbing in the process from the interesting to the astronomical, snapped up by the likes of Johnny Depp!

Cafe culture, Ars en Re

Somebody's pride and joy in Ars lock basin

Inevitably some of the peace and tranquillity has been shattered in that period, some of the freedoms and access lost - but while it can now be hard to find a shabby old dwelling in need of restoration, such has been the building control that there is little to jar the eye, much to appeal, and the tenacious cycle rider can pedal the entire coastline, or criss-cross between the villages, largely on purpose built paths.

Even new properties follow the Re tradtion of flowers along the walls

In the summer season however, it is bedlam, and Re residents who can afford it put up the shutters and head for the hills - though at an a elevation of 19 metres at its highest point above sea level, hills are one thing Re doesn't have. So come off season, bring your bikes, pick a campsite roughly in the middle of the island - and Re can be your own oyster, all of it accessible by pedal power without any great effort or cost.

Dedicated cycle paths through the best bits

To catch the Ile de Re at its best you really have to be an early bird, but it's worth it.
If the sun is out, the light is fantastic, so bright, so clear - the atmosphere so fresh. The streets are free of all the limos and oversize 4x4's; the poissionneries, boulangeries and market stalls are piled high with unbelievable produce, and the Re residents are about their business - the streets have a buzz, not just a crush of cycling holiday makers. Best of all, if you can get to any of the natural areas, the wild life will be about its business too.

Not your average fish monger, more a seafood deli!

More produce than you can see in one go!

There is virtually no free camping for motoromes anymore on the Ile de Re, a total ban from the hours of 2300 to 0700 exists within the communes and all of the natural areas. The only places we know of now are a rough old roadside car park by the sea wall at Le Martray, and a dirt carpark just before the Phare des Baleines - you take your chances with the authorities here or anywhere else you can find. There is a new official motorhome parking bay at La Patache at the top of the island, this has a free water tap and toilet disposal, but was packed with vans when we visited – on a non public holiday weekday!
Beware of car parks which have no obvious motorhome ban but still have signed height and width restrictions - we heard of a Belgian van which was fined by police on one such car park in St Martin during the day!

There are however Aires at Rivedoux, St Martin, St Clements and Les Porte, but expect to pay around 7-10 Euro, most are limited to 48 hours and the one at St Martin is very small and rarely has a space.
Other campsites offer overnights for camping cars but again, expect to pay 7-10 Euro.

That blinding Ile de Re light at full power!

Note temporary repairs to huge holes in the sea walls

From Ars, you are a moderate and scenic off-road cycle ride away from some of the best parts of the island - the most peaceful and charming villages of Les Portes en Re and Loix, and the Lilleau des Niges National Nature Reserve, through which you can cycle and visit the Maison du Fier, a natural history museum housed in an old salt warehouse. The reserve is a lovely ride through the salt marshes on any day, but the amount of wild life that can be seen from your bike is amazing.

Colourful harmonies in the Lilleau des Niges Nature Reserve

Avocets feeding in front of your eyes

Black Winged Stilts come too!

All the villages have distinctive, different and beautiful church spires, the church of St Clement des Baleines was used in the filming of The Longest Day.

The church of St Clement des Baleines

At the top of the island, past St Clement, is the Phare des Baleines, a working 57 metre high lighthouse, within which you can climb the giddying 257 steps to admire the view, for a
modest Euro 2.50. There is also a lighthouse museum (Euro 3.50) and a street of tourist shops and restaurants.

The Phare des Baleines rises above the dunes

East of the lighthouse is a beautiful 3 km cycle path through the Foret dominale du Lizay to Les Portes. The vast Plage del la Conche which lies adjacent has sadly been scoured of a lot of its sand in the winter storms, but as a bonus the exposed rock is now a home for shellfish.

Cycle through the Foret dominale du Lizay

East of Les Portes, there are a string of beautiful beaches including the famous Trousse-Chemise. It is possible to park up here during the day in a motorhome, though most other beach carparks have height barriers.

Heading down the island from Ars there is a wonderful coastal cycle path to Loix, however this year we found it totally barred off as major repairs were still going on to the sea wall. Likewise, the path through the marshes to Pointe du Grouin was also closed off. Finding our way to Pointe du Grouin by the main road we were stunned to see the damage the winter storms had wrought – worse than anything we had seen in many years of visiting the Ile de Re. An entire section of sea wall had been dislodged on the north side, trees ripped up and broken, and over the road, a field of private caravan pitches had just been devastated - nothing left except gravel thrown up off the beach.
Around the point, by the beach where we used to wild camp, a small but obviously cared for yacht was high and dry on the dunes, a hole smashed in its side.

Sad evidence of the winter storm's wrath

A longer cycle trip from Ars can take you to visit the island’s capital and port of St Martin, and the smaller port of La Flotte. The inland route takes you by the pretty village of La Couarde sur Mer with its distinctive and poignant war memorial, and the slightly less attractive Le Bois Plage en Re. Both have access to great beaches, but not for motorhomes anymore!

La Couarde sur Mer

On the inland cycle route - just outside Le Bois Plage and next to a windmill - is probably the best, certainly the best reasonably priced restaurant on the island: La Bouvette.

Out in the sticks a bit, it has to succeed on its reputation and it wins awards year after year, but the meal we ate there was one of our best ever, certainly for seafood. The Eclade de Moules sur un lit d'Aiguilles de Pin, or mussels cooked on a bed of smoking pine needles, was just sensational.

Pots of pine needles ready to add amazing flavour to plump, juicy Mussels


St Martin is probably just too touristy for us now, but it’s worth a visit on a quieter day.
La Flotte is our favourite - smaller with its simple square harbour surrounded by accessible quaysides, plus a long waterfront promenade, together with its historic and atmospheric market place, interesting side streets and a cosmopolitan air. We never fail to have a pizza at La Fiance du Pirate or moules frites, at the imaginatively named Bistrot de la Flotte. Amazingly the quality is there, year after year, some of the best we’ve had ever.

La Flotte - have some moules frites, kid yourself you belong here!

From La Flotte it is possible to cycle along the coast all the way to St Martin. The narrow path has prohibition signs for cycles, but they are totally ignored by everybody, natives and holiday makers alike. There was more evidence of heavy storm damage and much rebuilding of the sea walls.
From St Martin to up to the sailing school at La Couarde there is a dedicated cycle way - always a pleasant run, past oyster farms and salt water marshes.

If you really want a good day’s bike ride from Ars you can take the western route from Le Bois Plage down to Sainte Marie de Re and Rivedoux Plage, but it’s a much more boring ride after Le Bois Plage, largely alongside the main road.
Sainte Marie is a quiet village where you can sit and eat your sandwiches under shady trees by the church, but Rivedoux is a different kettle of fish altogether being the first stop over the bridge and blessed with yet another wide sandy beach, albeit looking across to the docks and La Rochelle. If you want to join the young disco set this is the place to hang out.

There are many other bike trails on the island, some unofficial, that we have used to explore the island, but the above are the main routes which we enjoy the most and have done time and time again.

Poppies alongside the vineyard path

There is plenty else to visit too, many outlets selling products from the vineyards, salt marshes and oyster beds, many stunning markets – some operating everyday in the season. It’s possible to take guided tours of the salt marshes to see how the salt is produced, visit an oyster farm and see how the foreshore is fished - both in the island’s past (within hand built stone locks) and today, by individuals with the simplest of equipment.

Remmants of the old fishing locks

Perhaps the reason we love the Ile de Re so much is that it is, and feels like, a world apart. If you can sample it when the weather is at its brilliant best, but the crowds are not swamping it, there is no place to compare. Fantastic beaches, marshlands full of bird life and wild flowers, pine forests, cute and peaceful villages, endless flat cycle trails, superb produce to buy and eat, as well as great restaurants…..
Find a good campsite - there are plenty and most have mobile homes for rent if you want to come with friends. Visit off season, and don’t forget your bike!

Evening sun lights an old windmill behind the campsite

The Ars bell tower, utterly distinctive, day or night

It was hard to tear ourselves away this time, a planned week turned into two, into three - you could say we spoiled ourselves!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

we've just been on ile de re, so it was great to find your blog and see the lovely photos! we completely loved the island, as it looks like you also did :)