There’s something about islands anywhere. We love the finiteness and inclusion of a place that requires at minimum a bridge to come and go. Our adventures in Hawaii are made more interesting because we’re at a place in the middle of the sea, a safe distance from the daily life that we escape every time we go.
In France, islands have a very distinct flavor. Most were truly separate communities until the age of ferries and then bridges. As we learned at the Ile de Noirmoutier last summer, they developed their own character, their own style and even their own salt and potatoes. In a country of haute cuisine, knowing what island your potatoes or salt come from matters. We like that.
We were invited to spend a few days at the Ile de Ré on our way back from our trip to Perigord, and we weren’t about to pass up the opportunity.
Full of history
The Ile de Ré is just off the coast from the city of La Rochelle, one of the more important ports on the Atlantic Coast of France. It is the largest city between Bordeaux and Nantes and as such, was an important place of occupation for the Germans in World War II. In fact, it was one of several ‘fortress cities’ passed over by the Allies during the liberation of France. The Allies simply blockaded well-defended cities, known as Les Poches (The Pockets) until it was convenient to accept the surrender of those cities, long after Paris was free.
île de Ré’s position at the sea entrance to La Rochelle has been a source of power and misery over the centuries, including during the Wars of Religion, when it was a Catholic stronghold keeping an eye on nearby Protestant La Rochelle.
We were just here to spend time by the sea on a quiet island.
We stayed in La Flotte, one of a few villages on the island and a popular vacation destination for the French. Smaller than nearby Saint-Martin, La Flotte is a village of small houses, narrow streets and seaside restaurants. We had our first culinary experience with moules frites (steamed mussels and french fries) at an outdoor café on the waterfront.
After checking out the village, we had a diner of magret de canard and fried local potatoes with a great bottle of Saint-Emilion. Not only do we enjoy this type of wine, we drove through the area that gives it that name just a few days before.
Just before evening, we rented a tandem bicycle for a ride to nearby Saint-Martin the next day. Saint-Martin-de-Ré is one of the most famous ‘star-forts’, defenses built to withstand the sieges that were a tactic before modern times.
Up early and after our typical breakfast of coffee and toast with jam (even when we’re home in California), we followed the bike path to the nearby sailing port of Saint-Martin. Saint-Martin-de-Ré was once a fortress city and the harbor still reflects the strategic design of a Bourbon-era garrison town, one of the many famous designs by Vauban. After time strolling the twin marinas and the shops, we headed back to La Flotte for dinner.
That evening was takeout pizza, much different from (and better than) Dominos or Pizza Hut in the US. We started with a salad an aperitif of Pineau de Charente. It is tough to explain sometimes how the wine can make the meal so much better without sounding like an alcoholic. It isn’t unusual during a French dinner to have three or more types of wine.
We had a wonderful time in île de Ré and were inspired to plan a trip further south, to the border with Spain, for next Summer.