ile de rÉ
department: charente-maritime (17)

Just beyond La Rochelle, the Ile de Ré points a long finger towards the Atlantic. It is a unspoilt island and a summertime retreat for French and foreign visitors alike. A toll bridge now links the island to mainland France, but it still maintains its insular charm.

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Today, Ré is one island, but at the end of the last Ice Age there were four here – Ré, Loix, Les Portes and Ars. Only in the Middle Ages did they finally unite. The island has seen a great deal of warfare, initially as part of the dynastic quarrels between France and England, and it changed hands many time, and was repeatedly pillaged and burnt. In the 17th century, when the Duke of Buckingham landed here with 8,000 men in support of the Huguenot defence of La Rochelle against the army of Cardinal Richelieu.

© ATOUT FRANCE/Catherine Bibollet

The island is also known as Ré la Blanche, the White Island, so named for its salt marshes. The export of salt and wine to all parts of Europe has long been the mainstay of the island’s economy.

These days, the vineyards occupy only a fifth of the area they once did, but still produce their traditional cognac, table wines and Pineau des Charentes; the farmers here have even produced a type of early potato which has gained its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. Traders rather than fishermen, the people of Ré nevertheless do fish the surrounding waters, taking their catches to the market in La Rochelle. Oyster farming appeared around 150 years ago. Until then, people had simply gathered the oysters for their own consumption, but then they learned to cultivate them, and, as at Marennes-Oléron, used the salt marshes, the marais, to mature and refine the oysters. For a while it looked like salt production would cease, but in recent times this industry has been revived at the hands of a new generation of Rétais, as the people of Ré are known.

© CMT17 E

The capital of the island is St Martin-de-Ré on the north coast, formerly an active port and military stronghold, but today a charming tourist centre of narrow, cobbled streets that still cling to the shadows of the Grand Siècle, the 17th century. From earlier times, the ruins of the Abbaye des Châteliers, a Cistercian abbey founded in the 12th century, and destroyed in 1623, stand beside the road as you drive onto the island.

Further west, the small port of Ars-en-Ré is remarkable for its narrow streets and alleyways, so narrow in fact that the corners of many of the houses had to be shaped so that carriages could manoeuvre safely. This tiny port was frequented by Dutch and Scandinavian vessels used in the salt trade. At the extreme western end of the island, stands the lighthouse at Baleines, built in 1854, and having 257 steps that have to be surmounted to take advantage of the splendid panorama over the Breton Straits and the Vendée coastline to the north. When the tide is out, it is still possible to see the remains of fish locks – the Écluses de l’Île de Ré – around the cape, which date from the Middle Ages. There are now only half a dozen or so left on the island, from more than 140 at the start of the 20th century.

© ATOUT FRANCE/Catherine Bibollet


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