31 July 2013

Away on the Ile de Ré

... which is why there has been a long gap between posts this month.

The Ile de Ré is about halfway down the French Atlantic coast and is linked to the rest of the Charente-Maritime département (17) at La Rochelle by a road bridge opened in 1988 to replace ferries. I've never been able to understand the economics of the French seaside, almost deserted for much of the year and packed out for only eight weeks. How do the restaurants, ice-cream sellers and hirers-out of bicycles ever recover their capital costs? But they do, partly through seasonal pricing - it costs 16 euros to cross and return over the Ile de Ré bridge (below left) in the high season, but only 8 the rest of the year.

Although prices may have gone up over the years, the atmosphere of French coastal towns in season is still reminiscent of some of the films directed by Eric Rohmer (1920-2010), from The Collector in 1967 to A Summer's Tale in 1996, though none of the four which were set at the seaside* (the others being Pauline at the Beach (1983) and The Green Ray (1986) ) was filmed on the Ile de Re. To reinforce the sense of time stood still, particularly marked on Ré, there are plenty of Citroën Méharis about (above right), despite their production having stopped in France in 1988.

The island is a favourite with well-off Parisians, who have pushed up property prices in a manner familiar to those residents of Notting Hill who have a little place in Cornwall, and all too familiar to the Cornish as well. A small house in one of the pretty lanes lined with hollyhocks in the largest town of Saint Martin de Ré could easily cost well over 1 million euros and the island's harbours are full of appropriately sized yachts. To cater for this up market clientele, Saint Martin and the other smaller towns are full of chic boutiques and restaurants which open up for the season and close after September. The permanent population is only 20,000 but surges tenfold in the summer, so the islands' supermarkets (there are just a few) are larger than might be expected. There are also street and covered markets (above) in the towns. The challenge of meeting the increased demand in the summer for water, not so much for electricity, must be considerable, but infrastructure is a French speciality. The domestic broadband speed was as good as anything I've come across in the UK. Rural areas in France already seem to be getting service levels which are just promises from BT.

As well as offering beaches and sailing, the island is exceptionally cycle-friendly and easy to cross on pistes cyclables which run through vineyards and pinewoods. Traffic calming in the towns seems to have induced levels of consideration from motorists for cyclists and pedestrians which are only rarely encountered in the rest of the country. Cross-island expeditions by bike are relaxing, not too arduous - it's very flat and the towns, each with its own character, are not far apart - and provide an unusual chance to see primary producers of sea salt and oysters at their work (below).

This isn't a travel blog so I'll stop now - it's enough to say I would like to go back to the Ile de Ré, and also visit the nearby Ile d'Oléron, which, I'm told, is less bourgeois, more sauvage. But beware, French resorts are crowded in August, less so in July and September. The British presence on Re seems quite small by comparison with Dordogneshire, in or out of season. There are a few second homes which are UK-owned (or more likely owned by UK-controlled trusts), probably bought by bankers looking for something more sophisticated than Padstow or Salcombe - better weather for sure.

* La Collectionneuse, Compte d'été, Pauline à la plage, Le Rayon vert are the French titles.

UPDATE 27 JULY 2014 

I have it on good authority that the Ile de Ré is as enjoyable in 2014 as it was in 2013, although there seem to be more English and Irish visitors this year. Philippe Le Guay’s film, Alceste à bicyclette (Cycling with Molière), mostly set on the Ile de Ré, is currently on release in the UK.

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