28th June. As we leave the busyness of Paris from the southern station of Montparnasse we wonder what is ahead. We are on a TGV, the pride of the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (or french railways). At 300km per hour, the ride is smooth and quiet. So quiet that snatches of other peoples conversation drift around the carriage. Seats are comfortable in their smart orange and purple covers and we settle in for the two hour trip to La Rochelle on the mid atlantic coast of France.
As London is not England, so Paris is not France and we are looking forward to seeing another side of France. It’s raining as we arrive at La Rochelle station and inevitably we are at the far end of the platform. After a quick struggle to get out raincoats and umbrellas, we trudge out of the station and down the grandly named Avenue du General de Gaulle to our hotel, Les Gens du Mer (People of the sea).
The tourist office sells us a ticket for the Ferry across to the Island leaving at eight the next morning. Pocketing our ticket we wander round to the small harbour and through the narrow cobbled walkways of the old town before choosing a small cafe where we can watch the life of the town go by. It rains some more and then suddenly comes a storm and a real downpour … even those with umbrellas take shelter as the streets become rivers and the large gratings in the street show why they are there. Except for the noise of the rain, everything pauses, conversations stop. Then the storm passes as quickly as it arrived and as if someone has pressed the play button, everything starts up once more.
The Island is named the Ile D’Oleron and is 30km long and 6km wide and is the second largest island in France after Corsica. On the map it looks a bit like a mirror image of Fraser Island just up the coast from our home in Noosa in the way that it sticks out like a thumb into the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike Fraser Island it is not made entirely of sand, has a substantial population, a bridge to the mainland at it’s southern end and faces the Atlantic rather than the Pacific ocean … almost the same though!
We sit alone at the jetty from which we are told the ferry will depart. It is a fine morning and everything is quiet; the water, mirror smooth, reflects the twin castle towers protecting the harbour entrance. We are wondering whether we will be the only passengers when others begin to arrive in dribs and drabs which soon coalesce into a group of thirty or forty which is soon chattering away while taking pictures of itself. Our suitcases are lost in the crowd. The ferry arrives, the crowd parts and looks at us expectantly and waits politely for us to wheel our suitcases down the ramp and onto the ferry. Soon we are off towards the open sea and the Island.
We are headed for Boyardville. We soon spot our hosts waiting for us at the small jetty and they drive us the 18km or so to St Denis. We are completing our part of a non-simultaneous house swap arranged some months before. Our hosts stayed in our house in early January and now here we are to stay in one of their holiday houses. A dutch couple, they first came to the Island some time ago and bought a block of land in the middle of St Denis. On the block were some delapidated old houses, dating from the 1700’s, which they have since restored and modernised. Ours is the one with the tower and they are staying in another small house at the bottom of the garden where they spend several months of every summer.
We are right in the middle of the small town of St Denis. One hundred metres away is the boulangerie and two hundred metres away, around the corner, is the daily produce market. Soon a ritual is set up. We have already fallen into french ways for breakfast … a warm baguette, sometimes accompanied by fresh croissants, spread with cherry or apricot jam, followed by soft brie or camembert washed down with strong coffee. After breakfast we walk to the market, basket in hand and buy fresh fruit and sometimes fish. It is an amazing spread; tomatoes like you haven’t tasted for years; fresh vegetables of every shape and description. All the stone fruits are in season; black cherries, apricots, peaches, plumbs, green gauges, strawberries. There is such a variety of cheeses and every fresh fish you can think of … and the market is there every day! Such luxury just a short walk away.
The house is two story, very quiet and with large rooms. The tower is three and a half stories high and reminds Jacqui of her childhood home in Scotland. We spend our first few days very simply … reading, walking to the market and back, catching up with the inevitable email and taking the odd siesta. Sitting in the garden the swifts begin to play. Starting by flying high above catching their breakfast they soon form into mobs of twenty, thirty or more and screech their way back and forth over the roof of the house. They are amazing flyers and really live up to their name. Apparently they nested in the roof of the tower earlier in the year.
Jacqui’s brother Tim has arrived to stay with us for a few days and chooses to stay in the top of the tower. This room gives views in every direction and by opening and closing various windows can be kept well airconditioned. It keeps him exercised using the narrow winding staircase.
Wednesday afternoon. “There is a night market tonight” says our host. “It’s a very french thing, you should go and see!”. Normally, the small market square is very quiet when the produce market closes in the middle of the day, but as we walk around the corner in the early evening it is obvious that something different is happening. There is a large stage set up at the church end of the square (well more of a rectangle really) and food stalls of various sorts around the other three sides. Down the middle of the square three long tables have been set up and it feels like the whole town is gathered there. The place is packed and everybody is busily eating and chatting, chatting and eating; the food and drink stalls are doing a roaring business … quite a scene to behold. After the eating comes the dancing and as the night comes on the party really gets going. We decide to depart and wend our way slowly back to the house through deserted streets.
We decide it is time to look around the island with the view of finding Tim somewhere to swim.
The Island is flat. Very flat. Not a hill in sight save for the odd sand dune near the coast. The eastern side of the island encloses a huge bay which is makes for calm waters and when the tide is out extensive mud flats. It is here that one of the main products of the area is grown. Oysters. When the tide is low, oyster beds stretch a far as the eye can see across these mud flats, with small boats plying between the rows of racks. This is one of the most extensive oyster growing areas in France and produces the most sought after oysters. After growing on the racks for a few years they are moved into the complex canal system dug from the original marshland where they are “cleaned” and finish developing.
In some places, these canals and ponds are also used as evaporating ponds for the production of sea salt.
We drive down the east coast from one small community to another, each with it’s own marina, then through the marshes to the town of Le Chateau where the walls of an old fortification guard the southern end of the Island and the small fishing harbour.
Across to the west coast and the popular beaches. Parking is hard to find and a long walk brings us to a very crowded and exposed beach with waves crashing over the multitude of bathers. “Not this one” says Tim and on we go further north and the same verdict is given on the next two beaches, also very crowded.
In between, the fishing port of La Cotiniere … after a walk around the crowded seafront it’s definitely time for an ice cream. The french take their ice cream very seriously here; it would seem second only to their daily baguettes and strong coffee. In the harbour many fishing boats are out of the water while their hulls are re-painted and fishing gear repaired.
Finally a beach that looks promising, or at least will be at high tide. The difference between high and low tides is huge; high tide is for swimming, low tide for walking out to the rock shelves to look for wriggly things in the pools.
It so happens to be the nearest beach to St Denis, so we resolve to cycle here tomorrow when the tide is high to that Tim can finally swim. On the way back, we visit the small town of St Georges, walk around the town centre, visit the church. The church echoes with the sound of a practising organist and we sit for a while, listening.
Then the patisserie, full of irresistible delights. We took our irresistible delights and ate them sitting on a bench in the park making occasional and appropriate yum sounds.
The days go by and time drifts on in a very lazy way. We cycle to the Plage les Huttes for and Tim finally gets his swim. We walk to the harbour down streets full of small neat houses surrounded by hollyhocks and eat seafood in one of the small cafes. We sit in the garden and read the time away.
Now it is time to move on; this time to Saintes and onto the train south to the Cote d’Azure and the Mediterranean.
Enjoy … Alan
PS Check out Jacqui’s latest HERE