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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...

 

Chips with every train on the Ile d'Oléron

Chips with every train on the Ile d'Oléron

What happens to all that oil your frites are cooked in? If you’re on Ile d’Oléron, finds Rebecca Lawn, it becomes fuel to drive the island’s major tourist attraction...

Ptit train

When told by their grandparents that the train they’re about to take to the beach will run on the oil that cooked their lunchtime frites, the children boarding Le P’tit Train de Saint Trojan on the Ile d’Oléron never fail to gasp in delight. ‘Many of our clients knew Le P’tit Train as a child, later brought their own children to ride it, and now they’re bringing their grandchildren,’ says François Bargain, who runs the train on the island. ‘Needless to say, there have been a few changes since then – one in particular!’

For today the little train that chugs around the island offthe Atlantic coast of Poitou-Charentes runs not on petrol as it once did, but a mix of oil that includes reconstituted vegetable oil. In so doing it is part of a bold environmental experiment, for while recognised as a bona fide fuel in the UK and Germany, cooking oil is yet to be legally recognised in France. It is hoped that if chip oil mix works with the P’tit Train, the government will give the go ahead for its wider use throughout the country.

Le P'tit Train

Le P’tit Train is the perfect vehicle for such an experiment. It is a widely loved attraction that began touring the south of the island in 1963 after it was set up by Pol Gala, the grandfather of François' wife. A military doctor, Pol Gala was also a train enthusiast who wanted to recreate the tourist tramway that had run from Royan to Ronce-les-Bains along the Charente-Maritime coast, but which had been destroyed during the Second World War. 

Ptit train

However, another project was already in place there. Undeterred, Pol Gala searched for an alternative location and settled on Ile d’Oléron. The train was quickly a success, and today some 70,000 tourists and locals climb on 

board each year. The colourful trains – there are now 10 - chug along a six kilometre track which crosses a forest that's home to roe deer and wild boar.
The running of the train was handed down to Pol Gala’s son at the start of the 1990s and then to François in 2008. Today the trains on the tracks are third generation, larger than those that went before them, and a mix of German, English, French and Romanian manufacturers.

François immediately set about adapting the trains to modern times, starting with making them accessible to people with disabilities. And then, just over a year ago, he decided to become part of the new fuel experiment after being approached by a local association that had come up with a novel idea of using reconstituted vegetable oil.

'Roule ma frite 17' is the Ile d’Oléron branch of a nation-wide environmental association, and aims to promote reconstituted vegetable oil as fuel. It was set up in 2007 by Grégory Gendre, who, after years as a journalist covering environmental issues and later as an activist for Greenpeace, wanted to start something himself. ‘While reconstituted vegetable oil is not recognised as a fuel in France, many people use it to get around, they just don’t mention it openly,' he says. 'We wanted to be able to show properly, the difference in impact on the environment between it and petrol.'

 

For a symbolic first use on the island, there was only one candidate. ‘Le P’tit Train is like our Eiffel Tower,' says Grégory. 'It’s an institution on the Ile d’Oléron!’

For his part, François was immediately keen on the idea. ‘With its dunes and forest, the Ile d’Oléron is a sensitive environment which has seen erosion from the sea,' he says. 'It made sense to me to be part of an environmental project. ‘

‘The question of cost didn’t come in to it as the fuel you use for attractions is tax-refunded and as such much cheaper than what you use for cars on the road anyway, so it doesn’t change anything’.

Permissions

To use the oil François and Grégory had to ask permission from the Ministry of the Environment. Given the green light, Grégory and his colleagues set about asking local restaurants and bars for their used cooking oil. ‘At first, people thought we were mad!' laughs Gregory. 'Restaurants would say “you can’t be serious!” But we put it in place bit by bit.The oil is collected by a van that runs on 100 percent cooking oil. They could see that it works!'

Today, some 92 businesses are part of the scheme, and the association also goes door-todoor, collecting a total of 20,000 litres of used vegetable oil each year, from which they produce over 10,000 litres of fuel. Once collected the ‘raw’ oil is taken to a filtration centre where it is left to settle for a few weeks before being pumped to get rid of pollutants.

Keen to get the best quality used oil, Grégory asks restaurants not to use palm oil as it isn’t possible to recover it, and to use potatoes rather than frozen chips as the water in the chips damages the oil. ‘And we ask chefs to source their potatoes locally from farmers, which benefts everyone,’ says Grégory. ‘The better quality the waste, the easier it is to use and the better fuel it makes’.

Using the vegetable oil has meant less pollution and less waste on the island. ‘Poured down the sink, the oil used to end up blocking the pipes and cost a lot to clean up,’ says Grégory. ‘Or it was sent to Germany where it became methyl ester– a substance created by adding chemicals to the cooking oil, actually making it a pollutant. This way, it is re-used without chemicals.’
Since June 2010 the P’tit Train has been running on 70 per cent fuel oil and 30 per cent used cooking oil – the balance agreed with the Ministry of the Environment for the experiment. A recent government report into the running of the P’tit Train found that the oil produced less carbon monoxide and other harmful chemicals than conventional fuels, and the success has spurred the association to think of new plans.

‘We’re looking at a forklift which takes the boats out of the ports, and a nine-seated vehicle which will run on 100 per cent oil and be used as public transport,’ says Grégory. ‘It’s a rural area and getting about is difficult without a car.’ As for the train, François hasn’t noticed any changes in how well it runs - well, except for one. ‘You can smell the difference - it’s like a BBQ!’ he laughs. ‘It’s much more pleasant, and actually we’ve noticed it gives people an appetite, and as there are restaurants at both stops...’

Ptit train

TAKING LE P’TIT TRAIN

The train departs from Saint Trojan les Bains station and arrives at Plage de Maumusson on the island’s southern tip. The track crosses the south of the island, going along the Baie de Gatseau and opening out onto the bright yellow dunes of the Côte Sauvage before reaching the beach. ‘The most interesting part of the journey is between Gatseau and Maumusson, says François. ‘The train goes by the sea and gets to the wildest - and most beautiful - beach on Oléron. Plage de Maumusson is five kilometres of fi ne sand with no houses on the horizon and uninterrupted sea views.’

The train runs from April to October and is open from 11am-5.30pm (depending on the time of year).There is a train every 45 minutes. It is best to buy your ticket 10 to 15 minutes beforehand. In busier periods, extra trains are added.

For more information see:www.le-ptit-train.com

 

Originally published in The Journal, August 2011