Île de Ré: A Beautiful Island with Plenty of History

During the summer holidays, lots of French people head south, away from the gloomy and rainy Parisian skies and down to the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. But not everyone heads south. Many also head west to the Atlantic Ocean. Although the water isn’t as warm, there are areas that get just as much sunshine as the south of France. One of the most popular places to visit is the Île de Ré, famous for its beaches, salt marshes and excellent seafood. So when we went to visit Île d’Oléron, we knew that we had to visit its smaller, flashier cousin, the Île de Ré as well.

Just like Île d’Oléron, Île de Ré is also connected to the mainland by a relatively short bridge (1.8 miles long). But unlike Île d’Oléron, this bridge isn’t free. It costs €16 in high season (June 20-September 11) and €8 in low season (all other dates), thereby making it the most expensive bridge I’ve ever crossed! Therefore we limited our time on Île de Ré to a short day trip. (If you’d like to splurge, you can also stay on the island as well though hotel prices are not cheap.)

Abbaye des Châteliers

Our first stop was to see the oldest religious building on Île de Ré. Abbaye Notre-Dame-de-Ré or Abbaye des Châteliers was initially built in the mid-12th century by monks who settled on this island, establishing the cultivation of vines and salt. It was destroyed a couple of times before the current structure was built in the 14th century, after which it subsequently fell into disrepair. There is something surreal about being able to walk around such ancient ruins which stand out in stark contrast to the flat ground around it.

The Pont de Ré, the bridge from the mainland to the Île de Ré, can be seen in the background

La Flotte

Our next stop was to La Flotte, officially one of The Most Beautiful Villages of France. In this town, quaint narrow streets lead to the main port. We initially wanted to eat at one of these port-side restaurants, but they were too expensive and too crowded for our noon arrival. But thanks to TripAdvisor, we found a little restaurant tucked into a corner of a small marketplace square. With reasonable prices (for Île de Ré), a shaded terrace area and yummy pizzas, our meal at Le Pas Sage du Marché hit the spot!

Low Tide at the Port of La Flotte

Saint Martin de Ré

Our next stop was to the town of Saint Martin de Ré. This town was heavily fortified due to its strategic importance in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, there isn’t much to defend the town against, unless you count the hoards of tourists.

The town of Saint Martin de Ré, with Saint Martin’s church in the background

We didn’t see real donkeys with these pants, but in the past, donkeys on the Ile de Ré were dressed like this stuffed donkey above. Why? Poitou donkeys were used in the past for agricultural work, and these pants helped to protect the donkeys from the plethora of flies and mosquitoes in the salt marshes where they were working. The pants used to be made from recycled curtains, which accounts for its unique look. Although donkeys don’t do a lot of the work in the salt marshes anymore, these donkeys in pants have become a symbol of Île de Ré.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a successful summertime without a stop for ice cream! For this necessary ice cream stop, we went to La Martinière, a local ice cream maker based on the Île de Ré. They even have ice cream macarons!


Ars-en-Ré

Ars-en-Ré is also officially one of The Most Beautiful Villages of France. Personally, I wasn’t too impressed by this village, but it was nice for a quick stop.

An easily distinguishable landmark in Ars-en-Ré is this church with a unique black and white spire

One shop that we enjoyed visiting in Ars-en-Ré was Les Sauniers d’île de Ré. This is the storefront of a cooperative of 70 salt makers on Île de Ré and you can find anything and everything salt-related here. Speaking of salt…


The Salt Marshes of Île de Ré

Beside its beautiful beaches and bottom-dressed donkeys, there is something else that Île de Ré is well-known for. Salt. Salt is something that we take for granted, but here, on the Île de Ré and nearby Île d’Oléron, sauniers (or salt makers) are using most of the same techniques that they’ve used for centuries (since the Middle Ages!) to harvest salt by hand. In general, seawater collects in these basins. In the summer, some water evaporates, leaving behind salt which crystallizes and can be harvested.

Salt marshes with some salt harvested at the sides

Phare des Baleines

After a long day of driving (and stopping), we made it to the northern tip of the island and the Phare des Baleines (or Lighthouse of the Whales), one of the tallest lighthouses in France.

Beautiful but turbulent waters right off the northern tip of Île de Ré
We took a little break from our driving to enjoy the beach with the lighthouse in the background

Dinner on the Île de Ré

After our long drive around the island, we found ourselves in an isolated area on the island with spotty cell phone reception and minimal restaurants. Getting hungry and not feeling like driving back to a main town just to be told that there were no tables available, we were thankful to find La Cabane de la Patache in the area. Although it wasn’t my favorite meal of the trip, it was still quite good with fresh seafood. And man, you can’t beat the view…

By the way, the seafood at the top was something I discovered in France and instantly fell in love with eating. Called bulots, or whelks in English, these are sea snails (trust me, it looks better than it sounds) that are popular in France and other coastal European countries. They have a slightly chewy texture kind of reminiscent of calamari and can be eaten either on their own, or with mayonnaise or aioli.

After dinner, we took a beautiful sunset walk. Until the mosquitoes came out, that is…

I can easily see why Île de Ré is a popular French vacation destination. It’s beautiful, with great seafood and sunny weather. And as with much of France, there’s a lot of history to go along with the beautiful scenery.

Until next time,

S


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5 responses to “Île de Ré: A Beautiful Island with Plenty of History

  1. Wow! One of your best photo journals! Spectacular pictures, interesting historical facts, practical tips, honest assessments! You could sell this piece & be a frequent contributor to a travel mag or website!

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