Thursday, 26 November 2009

One down, nine hundred and ninety nine to go (II/VI)

Written 21st November 2009

For those who don't know of it - which I suspect will be most of you - Ile de Re is an island off the west coast of france, connected to the mainland by a 3km bridge to La Rochelle.  It is only 30km long and and a maximum of 5km and at one point less than 80m wide.  It is the holiday spot of choice for Parisiens who don't want to go all the way to the campsites and beaches of the south of france and other than tourism and hundreds of artisans, its principal reason for being is the production of salt (dubbed white gold since the 1600's when such riches and it's location made it a key player in the previously mentioned tug of war between Louis XIII, Richlieu and the accursed english), wine and oysters.

It is also the first place we have so far come across in our book of "1000 places to see before you die" - which was given to us by someone with whom Will worked at Arm when he was in Austin four years ago- which promises a "genteel, old-fashioned, slow-paced and surprisingly friendly corner of france... characterised by blissful, low key do-nothing-ness" - despite the €9 toll for crossing the brige (as with wales, it costs money to get there but is free to leave!) it sounded good to us!

The land area of the island is split in approximately equal measure between:
* urban areas, there are 10 towns in total of various sizes, where camping-cars are not allowed to park between 11pm-7am,
* wild life areas, which are protected, where camping-cars are not allowed to park between 11pm-7am,
* vineyards, where camping-cars can't park at any time,
* salt farms (is that what you call them?  big man made puddles where they evaporate the salt out of the water) where, for obvious reasons!, camping-cars can't park at anytime and
* campsites where camping-cars can park but only if they arrive when the campsite reception is open - there is no friendly notice saying 'if you are late and reception is closed, please call us and we will be more than happy to help you" - and there are only three campsites open out of season anyway. 
Oh and four little tiny corners of places where camping-cars are allowed, but only if you can find them. And to be fair, I can understand why they don't want the place filling up with motorhomes parking here, there and everywhere in busy season.

Arriving much later than originally anticipated due to our roadside "rest", the first campsite we tried was definately shut for the night (and had shut at 5pm so we would have been too late even if we hadn't broken down.  So we decided to try and find one of these four little corners of motorhome heaven.  The first we found eventually in St Martin de Re where there were conflicting signs in french and english, which said 3 days maximum stay and three days minimum stay respectively and both of which said it was €10 per night,payable in advance at the automated machine.  Not willing to risk my bank card in the machine when I didn't know if it was going to charge me €10 or €30 and anyway, objecting to paying that much to park without any sign of any facilities, we carried on. 

Rising to only 19m above sea level, and presumably wishing not to be completely gridlocked for 6 months of the year, the island prides itself of being a haven for cyclists with a network of well maintained cycle paths criss crossing the island and linking the towns.  Unfortunately, such is the strength of their conviction that everyone should cycle everywhere, the tourist maps are worse than useless if you are trying to find anywhere by car in the dark as the cycle routes are marked in nice dark blue whilst the actual roads are in very very pale grey, virtually indistinguishable from the map background by interior van light.  At one point, I really thought this was going to be another Sables d'Olonne experience but with a waste of €9 toll as well as the petrol!  Fortunately, on an island this small, no where is really very far from anywhere else, and if you just keep going, you will eventually find what you are looking by chance if not by actual navigational ability and we found the camping-car spot at St-Clement-des-Baleins.  It was still €7 Euros per night with no facilites but it was within earshot of the beach rather than in the town - have you ever noticed how the endless crashing of waves on a beach actually sounds like motorway noise?? we also found this in a campsite on the west coast of ireland, it has made me listen to actual motorway noise in a completely different way now - try it sometime... - but we were so relieved to have found anywhere where we were allowed to stop so we just went with it.  Fortunately we did find some open public toilets a mere 5 minute walk away 5mins is further than you think when you are actually walking it and yes, this is the furthest we have ever camped from a toilet - it just takes a bit more forward thinking...) through the deserted, sodium light bathed streets of the village - there are supposedly 716 permanent inhabitents of St Clements but we saw no-one and it was only 8:30pm.  Satisified that there were at least facilities of sorts, we returned home for our delicious steak dinner and settled in for the night, feeling much more well-disposed towards the island.

The next morning the sun shone brightly and all was well with the world.

After a quick walk into town to find the tourist office, some breakfast/lunch bread, and an (enforced) stop at the cheese stall in the market - cow cheese, goat cheese (well I had to have both just to do a compare and contrast!) and some soft brie like cheese - we returned back to the van and as the weather was so good, and having got dreadfully behind on the daisy painting project due to the damp weather so far, I decided to set about some paint work whilst Will did a bit more of his programming and thus engaged, a happy couple of sunny hours was passed by both of us, accompanied by background music from the radio.

A side note about french radio, I had been a little bit worried abou leaving behind my comfort blanket of Chris Moyles, Fearne and Greg in the mornings and PM, news, comedy and the Archers in the evenings - to the point where I was considering trying to find the BBC world service as soon as we left the ferry and we have packed our entire music collection on mp3 cd - but french radio is actually a pretty good accompaniment to our trip so far.  We are tuned to RFM for "the best of the music" and if your idea of the best of the music is a mix of Robbie Williams, Dido, James Blunt, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins and Sting, interspersed with the legally required amount of fench music which is by turn melancholy, angsty or plinkety plonk goodwill to the world and isn't love wonderful (oh and one song which inexplicably seems to be about Mrs Thatcher WTF???) and some odd, and above all law abiding, musical collaborations which start off as say, Lily Allen, 22 and halfway through, some french guy picks up the tune and sings half of it in french.  We have also heard Angels and Love Supreme completely in french with no trace of Mr Williams.  They also have significantly different ideas about censorship - has the new Lily Allen song come out in the UK, you know the one about the racist bigot where the chorus is "F*ck you, f*ck you very, very much" - what is it censored to on Radio 1????, someone please tell me!

By the end, one whole side of Jules was a beautiful blue and we were up to date with daisies as far as La Rochelle - for those who haven't worked it out or haven't been told, the plan is for there to be a daisy for every place we stop - the varying sizes indicating in some measure either how long we stayed somewhere and/or how much we enjoyed it - the exact proportional relationship to these factors is a fluid thing and Aire de Service daisies will, over time, become smaller as space becomes more constrained :).  The whole journey is mapped out along the daisy chain with significant places we visit being marked by leaves - there is method in the madness :)  From a distance, the blue looks great, from closer up, the finish is decidedly patchy and brushmarky and although I could spend hours smoothing it down with the 1500 wet/dry paper brought along for the purpose I have decided that that way madness lies, so patchy it will stay - it is, by any measure, infinitely better than what we started with and most of all, mine and I love it flaws and all.   (and by painting it in this way, I hope to make the van unsaleable so no one can make me sell it - not that I think Will would try, he has his baby midgey after all)

Crisis - we have also unexpectely run out of English tea bags!  I had thought we had another box somewhere but it seems that this was the other box.  After a one final cuppa with the last lonely bag which we had to share (and in doing so, realised that actually, we should have been doing this all along) there was no more :(  so we are now down to our chinese green tea.

This is actual chinese green leaf tea bought in actual china when Will was out in Shanghai for three months, 4 years ago. I went to visit for a week near the end of his stay and, discovering that I quite liked chinese tea, we bought some from a little man in a shop in some market district.  This particular variety comes as small balls about 3mm in diametre which, when covered in hot water open out in to strands, pond weed like, in your mug - as an indication, in Shanghai, you see traffic cops in the middle of junctions with a maxwell house coffee jar full of leaves (although much bigger leaves, like those you clear out of your gutters) which apparently they just keep topping up with new water all day.  You need about three balls per mug and even then, once you have inished the first cup, you just fill it up again with hot water.  It is very nice.  Again, as a warning to the unwary, there is a lot, a lot a lot, of tea in 500g - the little man must have thought all his christmases had come at once when we naively pitched up in his shop!  We also bought some of the more expensive stuff which opens out as a little flower which floats on the surface of your glass.  We had drunk it a bit when we came home but then got distracted by going to America and like the chocolate, it had languished in the back of the cupboard until it was chucked in the van "just in case".  The small 10x10x10cm tupperware pot of it we have will probably last us to John O'Groats!

Not wanting to be caught out like the previous night and by this time, seriously in need of a shower, we set off to find a campsite and found there was one much closer than we thought and, properly french, very nice it was too for only €10, if a little regimented into roads of pitches and chalets in the pine forest.

The only slight oddity, apart from the sign declining any responsibility for falling pinecones!, was the facilities, where there was an entire room full of just wash basins which were spearated in to male and female areas (with some basins even being in their own cubical within the female area), whereas the showers were just cubicals in a different room for all to use.  There was another room with washing up sinks and two sinks outside which were firmly marked as "for washing shellfish only, no dish washing".  The toilets were in a completely separate building some yards away and had an al fresco peeing area for the boys - I presume this is a liberating experience...   This was our first experience with proper french squat toilets (rather than, as Will pointed out, toilets you felt you really ought to squat over!)  I personally don't mind squat toilets - I mean, you're never going to settle in and read the paper but maybe that's the point! - and they were at least clean.

Lodging sorted, we turned our thoughts to dinner and set off on our bikes to Ars-en-Re (it's pronounced Arz, stop being so childish!).  It is a pretty town, nestling in the curve of the island near where it is at it's narrowest and stretches from the sheltered harbour on the east coast to the wild, beach lined, west coast.  It was once the main port for the salt trade being the closest to the salt fields which strech east towards Loix.  After a cycle round and a look up at the famous (apparently) back and white bell tower, we headed for the supermarket. 

It is clearly a supermarket aimed at tourists as well as locals as there is a whole shelf of things which various foreigners from various places might be in desperate, homesick need of.  The british were represented by Quaker Oats-so-Simple, Bisto instant gravy, Birds custard powder, mint sauce, wholeberry cranberry sauce and a solitary jar of coleman's mustard - I'm not sure quite what that says about us as a nation....  There were also some spanish and portuguese looking things.  There was also a small tea section next to the acres of coffee but as there was none of the expxected Lipton yellow lable (although you could buy lipton caramel flavoured tea - caramel??  I ask you???)  or very poshly packaged Tetly English Breakfast for €1.80 for 20 teabags (more expensive than the equivalent quantity of twinings but not by much!) I am going to stick to my free chinese leaves for the time being.

Dinner brought - no bbq's on Ile de Re because of the fire risk posed by careless tourists so smoked yellow haddock and some veg - we set off in search of the sea, not actually having seen it yet although being on a vey small island.

As the sun was setting, we headed to the western beach to see the sun suspended like a golden disc of fire in a pink/purple sky.

We pushed our bikes along the beach for a bit, playing chicken with the incoming waves (just about successfully) before heading inland again in search of home where, after a shower, we settled in for an experimental dinner of steamed, smoked haddock flakes in rice with onions, leeks, sweetcorn mixed with egg - sort of kedgeree cross egg fried rice.  Again, in no way photogenic but delicious and enough for two days! 

The next morning, we got our €3's worth of facilities with another shower - 2 showers in 18h, so clean now we won't need to wash again for at least a week... ;) and set of to explore.  The weather wasn't so good as we headed northwards to Portes-en-Re at the far tip of the island.  It was as describd, a peaceful, mainly residential village with a nice bakery and at the far end, we even found the final camping car spot in a carpark clearly used by tourists and oyster fishermen alike.  This one was free and even had toilets, such luxury!  (although they were definately ones to squat over and not look to closely at...).

After some delicious cheese and bread, we went for a walk on the flat, windswept expanse of beach out towards the oyster farm, and saw one lonely man furtively peche a pied (fishing on foot ie digging up shell fish) I think it wasn't strictly allowed this close to the oyster farm so he kept looking over at us worriedly.   it is clearly the thing to do on Ile de Re with whole beaches given over to it and helpful signs showing what to might find and which ones you should throw back.  The suggested limit is 5kg per person, which would seem to more than justify the €9 toll to come over, but as we wouldn't really know what were were looking for or what to do with it if we found it, we decided not on this occasion.  After nearly losing our shoes in the sinking sand, we decided to head inland again and go to the light house at St Clement.  We had seen it in operation on our first night - the beam is unmissable - and it was the only tourist attraction open as far as we could see, on the whole island.

There are three light houses dubbed Les Phares des Baleines (incidentally, the word for light house is the same as the one for headlights - I know this!).  The original one was built in 1600 something, as part of a grand plan by Vauban (the Cardinal who succeeded evil Richelieu) to put lighthouse warning markers for sailors all along the french coast and thus make it less treacherous.  It is the most complete light house of its type and age in france and was classed a national monument at the same time as the palace of versailles.  The second, much taller light house was built to replace it in 1800 something (1854 from memory) and at 59m, is the second tallest light house in France, the tallest being a few miles further down the coast.  A further smaller one was built out in the sea off the point at the same time.  We decided to skip the museum in the old lighthouse keepers school at the bottom of the old tower (where Jamy the cartoon sailor will, through the miracle of video, convince children that "La Phare - c'est pas le sorcerie!" "Lighthouse - it's not rocket science!" which we already know!) The lighthouse is today automated and uses two 650W light bulbs in a clear glass lantern (in comparison, the ones we saw in Southwold light house - where red mac'ed lighthouse bear came from - are about 50W and use lots of fancy optics) which can be seen from 70 miles away on a clear night.  Fortunately, just as we started our ascent, the coach load of american school kids who had been up at the top came down and left - including the girl who we had seen in the gift shop proudly boasting to her friend that she had no intention of climbing the tower but had bought a ticket before she realised what it was for so ran up and down a few steps just for some exercise.  

The light house apparently has 257 steps to the top, I didn't count them, I was too busy trying to remember how to breathe whilst Will bounded up like some kind of spritely mountain goat - it is safe to say that the inevitable-ness of my eventual increase in fitness is probably being hampered by delicious baguette et fromage...

It is well worth the climb though, even on a fairly cloudy day, so the american girl - whom we later saw in the gift shop talking and singing to her toy seal....  I can say no more - missed out. 

You can also see the big fish-lock which is an area of the coast encircled by a low stone wall - apparently built originally without concrete so pretty impressive to withstand the tides - from which people pick off the fishies who are left stranded in the pools when the sea retreats back over the wall - seems a bit cheating to me!  Apparently there used to be 100s of them all round the island but there are only about 40 left now, mainly in the south.  On the way out at the bottom, there is also a great collection of old postcards from the 19th and early 20th century showing the light house (Dear Marie, today we have been fishing but we dodn't catch anything so we are going to try again tomorrow after high tide...) and some plaques with the history of the island - fought over a lot by the french and english and thus heavily fortified in 1600-something - and some more recent history concerning the plans to link the island to the mainland.  There have apparently been plans to do this since the 1930s, which ranged from the hairbrained; cables cars (well, the proponant argued, if they can build a cable car up chamonix...) to the relatively easy if probably of limited use;  submersible road like that at Mont-St-Michel, to the more obvious; tunnels (well if they can put the metro under the Seine) and the new fangled; (in 1970's anyway) hovercraft.  Controversy reigned and the final bridge plan was proposed and accepted in the 70's and not finally completed and opened until the 80's at which point there were still un-quashed objections from locals....

Having done all there was to do at the Lighthouse, but having definately got our €5's worth of education and entertainment, we headed off again and passed a couple of hours pottering around other shuttered up villages.  It was all fairly pleasant but I suspect that the villages are indeed best visited by bike as the mere triumph of having arrived somewhere will probably make them more exciting.  With no better plan, no where else to visit even if we wanted to (the only other place which would have been interesting really anyway would have been the salt museum, sadly closed until february) and no need to shop as we had delicious fishy left overs in the fridge (this has been our cheapest day yet at only €6!) and we headed back to the free carpark in Portes-en-Re and settled in to watch Little Miss Sunshine on DVD - only the second time we have resorted to TV since we left Cambridge and the only campervan movie in our collection.  It was brilliantly, cringemakingly funny - if you haven't seen it yet, you should.  We still have about 400h of tv and films to watch so plently to keep us going!

In the morning, deciding that we had had enough of doing nothing on an out of season island, we paid a quick visit to St-Martin-de-Re, the island's capital, which was fortified by Richelieu with the intention of, if necessary, being able to defend the island's entire population within the massive walls

and a quick visit to La Flotte, apparently considered to be one of the prettiest towns in france, and where we bought a delicious sticky brioche - mmmm almond bready-cakey yumminess - and then set off back over the bridge to the mainland.

Although mostly closed, Ile de Re was very pleasant for a potter and I suspect that it is only truly lovely for about four days a year, right at the beginning of the season when the sun is shining, everything is open but no one has arrived yet, and right at the end of the season when the sun is shining, everything is open and everyone has left.  I am glad we went though and maybe another time and another trip....

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