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france’s western isles:

île de ré

 

sketch map indicating the Ile de Ré and Ile d'Oleron

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France’s western iles: Ile d’Oleron

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introduction - île de ré and île d’oleron
île de ré
•  After the storm Xanthia
•   climate   •   île de ré bridge  
•   beaches   •   cycling
•   agriculture   •   birdwatching
•   salt production/saliculturelighthouses
•   other places to visit
end notes

île de ré and île d’oleron

On the western edge of France, and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, these two islands are remote from, yet close to mainland French society. Both islands were part of the English empire of the 13th and 14th centuries. Both islands are now connected to the mainland by modern, arching bridges. Both islands rely on tourism and marine industries for the most part of their incomes. Both are somewhat reminiscent of the British Channel Islands, with sandy beaches, low road speed limits, little high street commercial development, white or brightly painted cottages in narrow-laned villages, and lots of sunshine.

But here the similarities end. The Île de Ré, the smaller of these two islands, is close to the major provincial town of La Rochelle. Both before its viaduct was built (finished in 1998) and now, the island was a favoured holiday retreat for affluent Parisians. In summer, the island is even nicknamed the 21st arrondissement of Paris. One such affluent Parisian who has a holiday home there is former Prime Minister (1997 to 2002), Lionel Jospin. Its less developed cousin, the Île d’Oleron, has not yet received the same attention, even though some may prefer its quieter roads and beaches.

Plenty of hotels, vacation homes and lots of camping opportunities abound. the climate is usually mild and offers plenty of sunshine. The locals are known for their friendly and laid back temperament.

 

île de ré

This island is low-lying, its highest point at Peu-des-Aumonts being a lofty 27 metres/29.5 yards, while the average height above sea-level is 20 m/22 yards.
Île de Ré is 26 km/16 miles long and
its width varies between 70 m/76 yards and 5 km/3 miles wide.
There is 100 km/62 miles of coast-line, half of which is beaches, mostly to the south-west.
Its area is about 85 km²/a bit over 21,000 acres, and approximately a quarter the size of the Ile de France [the region surrounding Paris].

Originally three small islands, the spaces between them either silted up or were filled by the extensive saltbeds that are a major part of this very flat, lowland island’s landscape. [Here is a four-image animation of how the islets joined over the millennia.]

After the storm Xanthia

Region affected by Storm Xanthia
Region affected by Storm Xanthia

8 April 2010:
Government officials announce black zones, where housing will not be built, and existing housing will be demolished (from July this year). Almost 1,400 land plots will be returned to their natural state. 915 houses in Vendee and 595 houses in Charente-Maratimes are to be knocked down. This includes many houses in the worst hit communes of La Faute-sur-Mer (674 houses, including 92 main homes) and l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer (241 houses, including 25 main homes), as well as some houses on the Ile de Ré.

Affected house-owners will receive an average of 250,000 euro compension on the building, but nothing for the value of the land. Most house owners are not happy with this announcement, especially after their communes had given building permits for the houses now to be demolished.

2 April 2010:
Faute-sur-Mer coomes back to life, with one campsite, hardly touched by Xanthia, opening this weekend. Another will take some months to be repaired and refurbished. Elsewhere in the coatal regions of la Vendée, camp sites and holiday homes are opening fore business as soon as the are able, even if the locals are still waiting for summer weather.

10 March 2010:
Trying to return to normal after the multiple funerals and a memorial service is difficult for l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer and La Faute-sur-Mer. The children have gone back to school, with trauma counsellors at l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, but La Faute-sur-Mer is now a ghost town - completely evacuated and the electricty cut by the mayor.

At l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, a house has now collapsed after the ocean’s battering, and the Hotel de Commerce, built in 1922 and a local landmark, is being demolished today - its walls are no longer stable. Of course, the farmers continue to have huge problems because their land is completely salt-sodden, even the animal feed is affected, let alone this seasons crops that had been growing in the now ruined fields. There is now talk of shutting down the Municipal camping, completely flooded and built within a floodable area.

3 March 2010:
The Île de Ré has returned to its original arrangement of three small islands! As well as the digue de Martray collapsing, separating the northern part of the island, the part that contains Loix, the smallest town on the island, has also been cut from the neighbouring parts of the island. It was at Loix that the two deaths from the storm occurred.

Despite being so low-lying and (as an island) surrounded by the ocean, the Île de Ré and its inhabitants weathered this extraordinary combination of storm and Spring tides much better than their mainland neighbours. The locals believe this is because, not only are they used to the wildness of the sea and its storms and floods - “everyone has a pair of waders”, but the Rétian mayors have ensured that houses are not built on the more low-lying parts, unlike on the mainland where houses have been widely built on floodable agricultural land. There is also the small matter of, on hearing that there was a Red Alert for the night to come, Rétian mayors went out at 3 am waking up their villagers and telling to move to safer places. The many drownings on the mainland were mostly of elderly people living in bungalows, at home and asleep in their beds.

Sea-wall breached at Saint-Martin-de-Ré
Sea-wall breached at Saint-Martin-de-Ré Image: AFP

1 March 2010:
On the night of 27th February, Xanthia blew through, with wind speeds of 150kph, from the Azores, during a period of high Spring tides [with a coefficient of about 115]. The result was high tides 1.50m above normal high tides, and a ‘storm tide’, similar to a mini-tsunami. This has caused the Île de Ré to be divided in two near Ars-en-Ré, the digue de Martray being smashed .

On the Île de Ré, the Martray sea wall has suffered the effects of the wind and the sea.
“On the Île de Ré, the Martray sea wall has suffered the effects of the wind and the sea.”
Image:
sudouest.com

As a result of this storm system, which affected the Atlantic coast from La Rochelle to the Channel, at least 28 people drowned locally (51 deaths overall), while throughout the Atlantic coast region, one million homes were without electricity. Most of those that died, lived in l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer and its close neighbour La Faute-sur-Mer, on the coast just north of La Rochelle. The village was submerged during the night when its protective, 200-year old sea-wall collapsed under the battery of the wind and tide.

10-20% of visitor beds are now out of action, the campsites have faired better. Most of the cycle tracks are still under water, especially on the west of the island. Now to wait until the water has gone, the damage assessed and the repair works can be done. President Sarkosy has already released 3 million euro to help the storm’s victims.

salt beds on the Ile de Ré
salt beds on the Île de Ré

There are ten communes [townships] on Île de Ré. The most populated town is Sainte-Marie-de-Ré (pop. 3,027), but Saint-Martin-de-Ré, a small town rich in history, together with the nearby town of La Flotte has 5,504 inhabitants, so making it the main urban focus on the island. The smallest town is Loix (pop. 703).

Characteristically, the towns have narrow lanes lined by old, whitewashed cottages and houses, colour often being provided by the ubiquitous hollyhocks. Because of their narrowness, these lanes are often difficult to negotiate by car - often only one car may pass, with tight corners and parked vehicles providing further tricky obstacles to navigate.

whitewashed, sun-drenched street in Ile de Re;
whitewashed, sun-drenched street in Île de Ré


climate

Île de Ré has a mild climate, thanks to its coastal position close to the warm Gulf Stream. The island has an average of 2,300 hours of sunshine a year, making it the third sunniest area in France after South-eastern France and Corsica. Île de Ré is sometimes called the “Atlantic Midi”. In the summer, heat is mitigated by the proximity of the sea. In winter, the temperature is fairly mild and snowfall unusual, though rain is more frequent in winter and autumn. This is due to the low-lying nature of the island.

There is a daily online metéo [weather forecast] service (in French, but pretty intuitive). This link is to the forecast for Saint-Martin-de-Ré.

 

 


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île de ré bridge

At the eastern tip of the island, at Sablanceaux, the tip of the island is connected to the mainland at La Renpentie / La Pallice by the bridge of the Ile de Re, 2.9 km/1.8 miles long and inaugurated in 1988. The bell-shaped middle portion of the bridge, that rises 30 metres above the sea, was required by the Navy to allow the passage of warships. The horizontal curve [swerve] over almost the entire length of the bridge was incorporated in order to avoid a particularly deep marine trench cutting the axis of the Pallice - Sablanceaux crossing (according to a former deputy for the island).

Satellite view of the Ile de Re bridge/viaduct, showing its curve
Satellite view of the Ile de Ré bridge/viaduct, showing its curve
Note the shadow of the bridge.


beaches

Sand, sea and sun at a random Ile de Ré beach
Sand, sea and sun at a random Île de Ré beach

Windy and exposed to Atlantic swell, the island has many places for surfing and windsurfing, such as the Grenettes. All around the island are beaches, mostly sandy and easy to access.

The Plage de la Conche (beach of the shellfish) at the western end of the island near Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, as well as being wide and sandy with a view of the Phare des Baleines, still has the remains of German bunkers, defences built when Germany occupied France during World War Two. The film, The Longest Day was filmed here.

Beach overlooking the Ile de Re bridge to the mainland and La Rochelle
Beach overlooking the Île de Ré bridge to the mainland and La Rochelle


cycling

The island has over a hundred kilometres of cycle paths, cycles [velos] being a popular transport method for locals and visitors alike. You can rent bikes in many of the towns.

inter-commune cycle track
inter-commune cycle track


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agriculture

To the east and south, nearer the mainland, the low-lying landscape is mostly agricultural - wheat, vines, greenhouses, grazing.

cycling party passing a vineyard
cycling party passing a vineyard


bird-life

For visitors, an unexpected delight (if you are that way inclined) is the sudden surges of raptors (as non-twitchers, we have not identified the raptors we saw). As an island practically in the Atlantic Ocean, this island is an important way-point for migrating birds. There are several reserves, such as the Lilleau des Niges nature reserve to the north of the island. Tens of thousands of migrating birds pass each year (geese and ducks in winter; white stilts, elegant avocets, bluethroat and terns in spring and summer). Non-migrating birds to be seen include sheldrakes and egrets. The salt beds are also a fruitful place for birdwatching.

pasture with seven raptors who have suddenly sprung into the sky
Pasture where seven raptors suddenly sprang into the sky


salt production/saliculture

In the rest of the Île de Ré, scattered over much of the more western and northern areas, are 350 hectares of salt-beds, where seawater is evaporated and the salt left behind collected for sale. The points of sale may be a souvenier shop in one of the island’s towns, one of the many of the stalls in the market area near the Phare des Baleines, or even a producer’s hut by the side of the road. Here is sold local sea salt, salt flavoured with herbs or spices for using when cooking meats or fish, as well as a wide variety of salt pots and even slightly salted fudge [caramel].

In the past, salt was essential to the fishing industry in order to preserve fish (particularly cod), caught far out at sea, until the boats returned to port.

Saltbeds being worked
Saltbeds being worked

Sauniers at work
Sauniers at work

Before the advent of mechanised transport, salt harvested was transported to depots for packing in paniers carried by donkeys. There were many mosquitoes, midges and other hungry insects congregating around the warm still water, so to protect the legs of the donkeys from insect bites, they were clothed in culotte, trouser leggings. Now that salt is transported by tractor and trailer, or lorries, donkeys are no longer employed. However, donkeys are still kept, dressed in culottes, to draw a cart, providing rides for visitors.

It is possible to find stuffed toy donkeys, complete with brightly decorated trouser leggings, in some of the gift shops near the Phare des Baleines.

Railway poster with donkey in culottes

Of course, along the coast are many small fishing ports, supplying the plentiful seafood to be found in restaurants and cafés. The marine industry also processes 10,000 tonnes of oysters annually.

lighthouses

A centre of fishing, whaling and other maritime commerce, Île de Ré has always needed warning and navigation signalling for sailors nearing the island. [The lighthouses are marked on the map above, labelled as Phare.] Thus, the main ports of the island, such as St. Martin de Ré and la Flotte, have a lighthouse, and there is also the soaring lighthouse at the north-westmost point, la Phare des Baleines, together with its smaller predecessor.

The 57-metre high Lighthouse of Whales - Phare des Baleines - was built in 1854 [on the right] to replace the Old Lighthouse [21 metres] built in 1682 by Vauban. The Phare des Baleines has 257 steps (the 61-metre Monument in London has 311 steps), which visitors may clmb to reach the top and the viewing balcony.

Both lighthouses are set within the Lighthouse domain, that includes a whaling museum and a gift shop. (Note riding bicycles and picnics are forbidden here, while dogs must be on a leash.)

the lighthouse museum in front of the old lighthouse
            the lighthouse museum in front of the old lighthouse

at the approach to the lighthouses are tourist shops and stalls, often specialising in flavoured salt and salt accessories
at the approach to the phares [lighthouses] are many tourist shops and stalls,
often specialising in all manner of flavoured salt, salt accessories, model lighthouses,
postcards, stuffed toys and other tourist treats

 

other places to visit

Ars

  • Ars en Ré is located in the northern island of Ré (remember that the Île de Ré was originally three separate islands.).
  • There are many bike paths.
  • The port, with 550 moorings, opens on Fier d’Ars bay to the north by a channel through the marshes. From the port, you may explore the marshes and its many migratory birds.
  • The church was built in the twelfth century and rebuilt in the fifteenth, its bell tower still being used as a landmark for navigation.
  • The former windmills at la Boire milled cereals from the mainland.

St Martin de Ré

  • Many of this small town’s historic buildings date from the 17th century.
  • In the 1620s, Cardinal Richelieu fortified the island as part of the siege against nearby La Rochelle. This included the Citadel [la Citadelle du Dépôt des Forçats] at St Martin de Ré, but much of the town’s defences were subsequently demolished to remove potential threats to French royalty.
  • In the 1670s, as part of an overhaul of the island’s defences, St Martin de Ré was enclosed by 12 kilometres of new, 8-metre high, 2-metre thick walls and embankments, protecting the town and the island’s major port. Built by Vauban, these walls are now part of a UNESCO world heritage classification.
  • The citadelle was later used as a prison [forçats] for convicts on their way to French Guiana.

17th century map of St Martin de Re and its walls and fortifications
17th century map of St Martin de Ré and its walls and fortifications

  • Today, the town is a time capsule of old houses and the picturesque port, enclosed by the massive walls pierced by a substantial gateway.
  • There are plenty of cafés and restaurants by the sea front and the port for relaxing before the expanse of Atlantic dotted by fishing boats, tankers and private yachts.
  • There is also a 18m lighthouse; painted with black and white bands, built in 1867.

end notes

  1. The inverted v-shaped accent, called a circumflex, over the ‘I’ of Île, is used in French to indicate a silent ‘s’. Thus the French word ‘Île’ is very closely equivalent to the English word ‘Isle’.

  2. La Rochelle was a major port in the era of sail in the Atlantic Ocean. It is still has many nautical connections, often being the starting or ending point for ocean-going sailing races. La Rochelle has a very picturesque port area, now making much of it pedestrianised while providing ‘free’ bicycles.

    In the past, La Rochelle was controlled by the Dukes of Aquitaine who made it a free port. Thus, when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet of England, La Rochelle became English until won back by Louis VIII in 1224.

    During the Renaissance, La Rochelle adopted Protestant ideas and from 1568 became a centre for the Hugenots, declaring itself an independent reformed republic (as had done Geneva). This led to continuing conflicts with the Catholic central government. With the rule of Henry IV (a Protestant who converted to Catholism to become King of France - “Paris is worth a mass”), La Rochelle had some freedom and prosperity, but this changed when Henry IV’s son Louis XIII became king. Under the supervision of Cardinal Richelieu, La Rochelle was besieged for fourteen months in the 1627-1628.

  3. As a result of the popularity of island property, property prices have risen to such an extent that young locals are no longer able to buy a house, while local property owners, often retirees, find that they have to sell part of their property in order to pay annual local taxes based on the current property value, rather than on their income.

  4. Until the Middle Ages, the Île de Ré was composed of islands: Ré, the largest, corresponding to the southern part of the actual island and the islets of Ars and Loix (the islet of Portes became attached to Ars islet from the first millennium). Gradually, the channels between these islands were filled by naturally deposited silt clay: the bri. The build-up of these waterproof sediments, as well as the suitable climatic conditions, give the idea of making marshes/salt beds. To create them on a large scale, land has been taken from low tide areas by building levées [levees or dykes] to keep out the sea at high tide.

    The first salt beds were probably built from the twelfth century by monks of the Abbey of Saint-Michel-en-l'Herm (on the mainland to the north of La Rochelle), and by the lords of Loix and Ars islets, commercial salt extraction did not really take off until the fifteenth century. In the nineteenth century, there were 1,550 acres of salt beds being worked (that is,18% of Île de Ré’s area). At its peak, salt production reached over 30,000 tonnes per year and provided much of the island’s wealth.

    From the 1850s, a long decline began with much of the salt beds being abandoned. Reclaimed salt marshes were lost again to the sea because the levees were not maintained. By the start of the 1990s, the salt miners, the sauniers, seemed doomed to disappear. Fortunately, during the past ten years, an vigorous policy to boost salt extraction has allowed young farmers to settle and rehabilitate abandoned marsh, thus perpetuating age-old skills and knowledge.

  5. Weather alerts are made by Méteo de France, the last local Red Alert being for Têmpete Klaus in early 2009. Yellow or orange alerts occur more frequently. The alerts are also given as part of the news and the méteo on the television (at 13:00 and 20:00).

  6. Tidal coefficient
    Instead of looking at tide heights, the French use a different system, based on percentages, known as the tidal coefficient. A coefficient is a non-dimensional way of expressing size, and is independant of the units used. The Service Hydrographique et Océanographique de la Marine [SHOM - web site in French], the French Hydrographic office in Brest, produces a table of tidal coefficients for the year.

    The coefficient is calculated for the open sea. It is the result of dividing the predicted tide height by the average deep-water equinoctal tide. By convention, the 100 coefficient is assigned to the daily tidal range in medium-deep waters (about 6m) measured at the equinoxes (March 21 , September 21).

    Examples of tidal coefficients and how they translate into tide sizes:
    120 = a very big Spring tide
    95 = a Spring tide (vive eau)
    70 = an average tide
    45 = a Neap tide (morte eau)
    20 = a very small Neap tide




  7. The longest day

    20th Century Fox
    Run Time: 178 minutes

    DVD: 2003
    ASIN: B0000DK4RJ
    2003: Ł4.98 [amazon.co.uk]
    ASIN: B000EHSVRS
    2003: $17.49 [amazon.com]

    Blue-Ray:
    ASIN: B00158K0RY
    2009: Ł17.99 [amazon.co.uk]
    ASIN: B002COJEMW
    2008: $20.49 [amazon.com]



  8. From the twelfth century with the construction of dykes, the inhabitants of the Île de Ré - the Rétais - took land from the sea in order to create salt beds (called in French, salt marshes - marais salants). Over the centuries, more than 1,500 hectares of salt beds have been dug in clay sediments, the salt being then one of the most important resources of the island economy.
    Map showing development od Ile de Re salt beds

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