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Charente-Maritime

With its Atlantic coastline, pretty seaside villages and unspoilt islands, the Charente-Maritime has been a long time favourite with those seeking sun, sea and sand. But travel inland and the Romanesque architecture, cognac producing vineyards and gallo-roman remains will capture your imagination. Find out more about the attractions in the Charente-Maritime here.

We have gathered a number of our favourite features on the Charente-Maritime below...

 

Ile de Ré - an island of treasures

Ile de Ré - an island of treasures

Donkeys wearing trousers, tasty new potatoes, kilometres of cycle paths and beaches- these are just some of the things that the Île de Ré is well known for. But there’s more. How about beached whales, escaped prisoners and picnics in grounded boats?

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There's something about the Île de Ré: a scent of relaxing holidays floats in the light breeze, bringing with it a promise of delights to discover. Yet it doesn't feel like other tourist spots. Ré manages to be simultaneously quaint and wild, and combines the best elements of a resort with the simplicity of its day-to-day life. Perhaps it's the unkempt fields bristling with wild shrubs that separate the trim little villages. Or the lack of high-rise buildings. Maybe it's because of the sea-fronts, where grassy banks give way to beaches rather than the blocks of flats that tend to hog the sea views in other coastal areas. Whatever this special Ré feeling is down to, it captures us with its charm and we can't let go. The island, which is virtually flat, is only 25km from east to west and yet has something for everybody. Some will be attracted to the picturesque fishing ports that are a feature of the villages on the northern coast, while others will be more interested in the beaches. There are different types of beach: from long, sandy beaches with gentle waves, through pebbly beaches, to beaches ideal for rock-pooling at low tide. On the far western coast you'll find a more rugged coastline with waves big enough for surfing, whereas the south coast from Rivedoux to La Couarde is popular with families.

Those of you who like to discover places through sport will be delighted by the I00km of cycle paths taking you to places that you can't reach by car. Nature lovers mustn't forget to bring their binoculars, as the nature reserve Lilleau des Niges is the perfect place to spot migratory birds. And there are plenty of local markets and producers where you can taste the local products: salt, oysters, prawns, the famous AOC new potatoes. Ré biscuits, chocolate, the beer made on the island and the Ré cognac, pineau and wine.

Of course, there's a price to pay. The Île de Ré is connected to the mainland by the sweep of a 3km-long toll bridge. And be warned: driving around in a car on the island can undo all the benefits of a relaxing break, due to the limited road space. There are several options to overcome this problem. Either leave your car in the car-park before the bridge and catch the bus from the Belvedere bus stop to your chosen destination. Or, drive your car to your destination and leave it there for the duration of your stay. Another idea would be to catch a boat from La Rochelle to Saint-Martin. You can then hire a bicycle or a horse to get around the island. As for the best time of year; we suggest June and September: you'll be able to make the most of the mild climate and warm seas without the inconveniences of the high tourist season.

Sainte-Marie-de-Ré

Sainte-Marie-de-Re-street--Roger-Moss

While the west of the island is wilder and more peaceful than the east, the Ré villages are similar in style and you're bound to lose your sense of direction in their narrow, twisting streets. Each corner of the maze reveals a photogenic view of the pretty white houses and their green, grey, or blue shutters, decorated with hollyhocks and other colourful flowers. Many of the streets in are one-way and several, on leaving the boundaries of the village, end in bumpy tracks among fields or scrubland. This is all part of the charm: the villages are ideal for those relaxing strolls after a satisfying dinner on a warm summer evening.

Often, the village is centred around the church, so look out for the spire if you're lost. Apart from certain historic buildings, everything is low-level so the spires can be seen from quite a distance. The reason for the traditional Ré house being low in height and surrounded by walls is for protection not, against invading forces, but from the wind, which can reach 140kmh in winter.

Sainte-Marie-de-Re is considered to be less geared to tourists than the other villages on the eastern side of the island and though it is no less pretty, you can sense everyday life in its atmosphere. The village is surrounded by vines and you may well spot a tractor or two. The locals are more oriented towards nature than tourism, which is perhaps why they have preserved the authenticity of its heritage. Although most of the vineyards and vegetables are in this commune, the cooperative is in Le Bois-Plage where you can visit the distillery.

Sainte-Marie-de-Re--Roger-MossClose to Sainte-Marie are a variety of beaches, some with fine sand, others with pebbles or rocks. We suggest you try the one-hour trip up the steeple of the village church - Notre-Dame-de-I'Assomption guided in English by the friendly ladies at the tourist office. After climbing 70 steps, you'll have a great view of Ré bridge and the surrounding islands.

In true Ré village style, the Hotel du Peu Breton is a rabbit-warren of bedrooms in traditional stone houses nestling around hidden courtyards. Don't be put off by the building at the entrance - the secrets are set further back, and you're guaranteed a warm welcome by owners Patrick and Martine Petit who have a chambre d'hôte approach to running their hotel.

For those who prefer to camp, there is plenty of choice all over the island. At Bois-Plage there are two friendly campsites that are more peaceful than most - Les Genets and Les Pins - each having 20-30 pitches. If quiet camping is what you're after, the municipal campsites are generally the simplest.

Saint-Martin-de-Ré

Saint-Martin-de-Re--Roger-Moss
The capital town of the island, Saint-Martin-de-Re is a must for shoppers, art-lovers, and people wanting a Sunday afternoon stroll. Park in the car park outside the town walls, walk past the children's playground and wander through the cobbled streets with their fascinating luxury boutiques. Admire the boats in the port and, as you circle the islet, stop for an ice-cream at La Martiniere- they're the best! If you only have the time to visit one place on the Île de Re, make it Saint-Martin. Not only might you rub shoulders with stars, you can also delve into the island's interesting history.

Ré has always been coveted: ravaged by the Norman invasions in the 9th century, it was fought over by the English and French between the 12th and 14th centuries and then in the 16th century by the catholics and protestants. A famous siege took place in the citadel of Saint-Martin in 1627: four months passed before the English, under Buckingham, were forced to retreat. In 1681, Vauban, Louis 14th's famous engineer, decided to reorganise the defence of the island and designed the star-shaped fortifications around Saint-Martin. He was also responsible for transforming the fortress beside Saint-Martin into a citadel. This is now a high-security prison and, as one of the locals told us, dangerous prisoners escape from time to time!

Today, the entrance to the town is still through a monumental gateway. In fact, there are two gateways, one of which has a footbridge over a grassy moat where donkeys now graze. Unlike Ré's emblem, these donkeys don't wear trousers. This symbol comes from the fact that the Ré workers used to dress the donkeys in trousers to protect them from mosquito bites as they worked in the salt marshes.

Two art galleries grace Saint-Martin, both of which are well worth a visit. Galerie Plisson, housed in a stone building at the far end of the islet, displays Philippe and Guillaume Plisson's sea and beach photography from all over the world. Here, you'll find an ideal gift: the Plissons print photos onto canvas, giving a startling, captivating effect. The owner of the gallery, Hans Baernhoft, is British and very approachable. Galerie Glineur, opposite Saint-Martin's church, is dedicated to contemporary art and hosts different artists every year. They change their exhibits every 3 weeks.

The Baleine Bleu has a terrace with a view over the port and is reputed to be the best restaurant in the area. Not only is the quality of the food excellent, a great atmosphere is also guaranteed whether you eat there at lunchtime or in the evening. Tables can be pushed to one side to make room for dancing, which makes it a popular entrée for an evening in a nightclub.

Saint-Martin-de-Re-boat--Roger-Moss

For something different, try out the popular seafood degustation held at Au Bord d'un Zinc in the unlikely location of the car-park at the back of the market. Locals pack into the Poissonerie Bordin where Hugo Bordin prepares his seafood with a variety of sauces.

Le Flotte

La Flotte, like many of the villages on the north coast, is centred around a port. With its boutiques, café terraces and restaurants it has an air of Saint-Martin; one local describes it as being like the Saint-Martin of twenty years ago. Ever popular with tourists, owing to its colour and friendly atmosphere, you can be sure to spend a pleasant day visiting its winding streets or sitting on a terrace watching people and boats pass by. Check out the beach at low tide where you'll discover crabs and other seashore creatures.

In La Flotte you'll find an interesting museum dedicated to the maritime traditions on the island - La Maison du Platin. A whole series of guided visits, riddles and treasure hunts allow both children and adults to discover the village and its particularities. Children also have the opportunity to discover the seashore and learn about the creatures living there- you must go to the museum to sign up and find out what time these seashore activities take place, as they depend upon the tide.

Near La Flotte lie two spectacular heritage sites: the Fort de Ia Prée and L'Abbaye des Châteliers. The Fort de Ia Prée is the oldest fortification on the island, dating from 1626, and played a major role in recapturing the island from the English in 1627. Later, Vauban razed its outer walls but kept the donjon and the sea front. The Abbaye des Châteliers was built by Cistercian monks in around 1156. Burnt down and pillaged during the combats over the island, it was later restored and is now a listed building.

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Le Couarde-sur-Mer

La Couarde-sur-Mer has a pretty village centre full of hollyhocks, and is typical of the villages on the south coast of Ré. It is one of the island's busiest resorts. This won't come as a surprise when you see its beautiful long beach of fine sand. To the north of the village is a picturesque water channel called Le chenal du Groisil that leads to a lake ideal for small sailing boats.

Loix

Formerly a separate island that was subsequently joined artificially to the main island, Loix is surrounded by salt marshes and is the most withdrawn of Ré's villages. It's a wild area, reminiscent of the Norfolk Broads, its scrubland bushes a refreshing green beside the salt beds and their little pyramids of blinding-white salt. In fact, the island's nickname - Ré Ia Blanche (White Ré) -comes from these piles of salt.

Around Loix you'll find abundant flora and fauna; so visit by bicycle or enjoy an afternoon trip in a horse-and-cart. On the road between Loix and La Couarde, squatting among the salt flats, is a small, low building that houses the ecological museum dedicated to the salt craft. Although there's a half-hour visit in English at 2pm every day, the site is small and the information is geared more to adults than children.

Ars-en-Ré

Capturing the perfect balance between tourism and working life: less of a tourist site than the villages further east, there is still plenty for the visitor to do and see in Ars-en-Ré. In the village centre, you're compelled to stop and gaze at the stonework, such as the watchtowers of the Renaissance 'Senéchal' house. Yet the salt marshes aren't far, the vines neither, and the ambiance is more natural because of this agricultural influence. Ars is the happy fulcrum of the lie de Ré.

The village can be seen from far away because of its black and white church steeple, which is often depicted in photographs and televised reports about the island. Although this is useful for visitors arriving by car or bicycle, its colouring is meant as a landmark for sailors and enables them to find their bearings.

La fête de la sardine takes place in early July in Ars. This local festival commemorates the traditionel way of life in the village, where there used to be a sardine canning activity. People dress up in traditional costumes and there are dégustations of local products among the general festivities.

Saint-Clement des Baleines

This village is well known for its lighthouses –yes, there are two of them. The original lighthouse, built in 1682, is still standing and is the second-oldest lighthouse in France. The new lighthouse was built in 1854 and is worth visiting firstly for its magnificent views and, secondly to appreciate the beautiful spiral staircase of 257 steps.

Saint-Clement is made up of five hamlets between Ars and Les Portes, and is called 'des Baleines' because whales used to beach themselves on this coastline- quite frequently up to the 16th century. The beaches in this area are characterised by their rugged nature and are ideal for surfers. The beach below the lighthouses is worth a visit at low tide just to appreciate the contrasting colours of the sand, the seaweed and the sea.

Les Portes-en-Ré

This is the furthest village from the mainland and the peaceful quality of this area makes the distance worth covering, especially if you're interested in nature and bird-watching. Don't miss the Maison du Fier; a museum and activity centre concentrating on the environment. It's outside the village, off the main road, down a series of lanes that finish on a bumpy track in the scrubland. A big, black building, it seems imposing at first; but, once inside, the warmth of its wooden interior sets off the exhibitions beautifully. The emphasis is very much on children and a drawing area is provided for them.

Plenty of trips into the surrounding countryside for bird-watching are organised; some take place at dawn and others at dusk as well as the daytime visits. Although not in English, the exhibitions, which centre on the flora and fauna of the area, usually have translated texts. An attractive feature is their 'Récré Nature’, a themed workshop for children during which they make an object such as a model or a mobile, and then visit the park to study the particular theme. This activity lasts half a day and children must sign up either by phone or at the museum itself. There is one workshop for the 5-7 age group and another for the 8-12s. On the 31st July the annual bird festival (fête de l'oiseau) is held: 150 children can take part in ten different workshops. This is followed by an evening dance for the whole family.

On the far side of the village is an area called Trousse-Chemise where an appealing Ré tradition takes place at the turn of low tide. The locals load a picnic into their boat and sail to the Trousse Chemise beach just as the tide is reaching to its lowest point. They deliberately run themselves aground on the sandbank known as the Banc du Buchéron and then enjoy their picnic while waiting for the tide to rise and make them waterborne again. So don't worry if you see marooned boats dolled along the edge of the beach - if you look carefully, you'll see the bottle of wine and the baguettes!

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Discovering the island

Discovering the Île de Ré is one of the most rewarding experiences you can give yourself and your family. Whether it's a day out, a weekend break or a holiday, you'll find that there are always further delights beckoning to be explored. These will have to wait for a while-because once you’ve tasted the Ré air, there is no doubt that you will return.

First published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine

Words: Theresa Hardy

Photos: Roger Moss

Location (Map)

Île de Ré, France