The purge

There is one other thing for which Île de Ré is well known: their thalassos. If you don’t know, a thalasso is a spa that is near the sea and uses the benefits of sea water in their treatments. In fact, the root word (thalassa) is Greek for “sea.” They say the composition of ocean water is very close to the composition of plasma in our body. We are, in other words, made mostly of sea water. How perfect is that?

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

So I have arranged to spend my last few days on the island at a thalasso in Sainte-Marie-de-Ré. My therapist, Claire, issues me a red robe, a red towel, and—yes—red slippers. She instructs me to prepare myself for my first treatment, a hydrotherapy soak in warm saltwater. After I’ve changed, she leads me into a small room with a large tub facing a window looking out on the Atlantic. She checks the temperature of the water and says, “You should soak for at least an hour. To enrich yourself. We are sea animals—we need the minerals and elements that the sea provides.” Then she closes the door and leaves me to myself.

I feel as vulnerable as an exposed oyster, enveloped up to my chin in warm, green sea water. Outside, the ocean shimmers like shards of broken glass. Seabirds fly low over the waves. I close my eyes as hydrojets—like gentle hands—push and pull my limbs.

I can’t possibly be sleeping, yet I am in some sort of strange dream-like state. Like when you’re on a plane and you’re both dreaming and aware of sound and movement around you. The images in my head swirl and blend—the ocean, fish, swimming, children laughing, the voices of old lovers. It is like I’m being purged of something. Or reborn.

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Dinner at the fish ponds

When I finally find Les Viviers, after driving around in circles in Loix for half an hour, I’m certain this is going to be a mistake. After all, there’s an old fishing boat crumbling in the open field across the street and overgrown hedges hide any evidence of the restaurant itself. Still, Eric assured me that this place has the best seafood on the island, so I decide to give it a go.

The other side of the hedge is a different world. The first thing you see is this enormous jade-colored pond (les viviers means the fish ponds) lined with bamboo and spiky succulents. This place is tres hip from the house music to the rosewood and zinc tables and chairs. It definitely feels more L.A. than Île de Ré. A young woman in a gypsy blouse escorts me to a couch on the deck overlooking the pond and explains how the menu works.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Relax, have something to drink, some olives and almonds, she says, and when I’m ready, she’ll escort me back to the kitchen where I can see all the fresh seafood and personally pick out my dinner.

So I order a glass of La Couple rose champagne and just hang out, watching the blue sky fade to black. In the kitchen, the seafood is arrayed in tubs and tanks—all kinds of local fish, crabs, lobsters, and, of course, oysters. I go for the plancha langoustines, carpaccio of bar, and the hommard de Vivier plancha.

 The carpaccio is sweet and firm, tartly drenched in lemon juice, olive oil, and fennel (they insist on calling it anise). And on the table is a little glass cruet of fleur de sel, which comes not just from this island or even this village, but from the salt ponds just down the road.

The way the lobster is prepared couldn’t be simpler. It is halved, grilled shell-side down for only a minute or two, flipped and quickly heated on the flesh side and finished with a brush of butter and a kiss of fleur de sel and pepper. That’s it. It is so wonderful that never have I been sadder to have a meal end.

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Another French lesson

Eric Nicolai is from Corsica. His wife, Frederique, is from Paris. They own Le Vieux Gréement in La Couarde Sur Mer. Frederique runs the front desk and Eric runs the bar. A lovely arrangement, I think. Sometimes in the afternoon I’ll sit reading a book in the hotel’s courtyard garden, shaded by linden trees, and if Eric doesn’t have anything better to do, he’ll share a glass of wine with me.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Yesterday we were sitting in the garden when Eric’s youngest son, who is 8, came up to show his father a drawing of England he’d done. He asked his father if the drawing was beautiful. Eric said no. “It is perfectly fine, but it is not beautiful. Beauty is something else all together,” he told him.

“Like my mother?” asked the little boy.

Eric smiled. “Exactly,” he said. “Like your mother.”

Why donkeys wear pants

Yesterday I was lolling about the harbor of St-Martin, sitting on the thick limestone walls near the little lighthouse, just hanging out. It’s a great people-watching spot.

Anyway, at some point I noticed that in the park there was a guy who had a bunch of donkeys and kids were getting on the donkeys and riding them in a little loop around the park. Okay, no big deal. Lots of parks have horse rides for kids, right? Here in France they do donkeys. Same-same.

Except there was something odd about these donkeys. They were all wearing gingham pantaloons. Which, I’m sorry, is just not a natural look for donkeys (or anyone for that matter). So I went over and talked to the donkey guy, whose name was Régis Léau, and we had a very difficult conversation, half in broken English, half in broken French, and I think this is what he told me:

These are a special type of donkey called Baudets du Poitou, a type of purebred (is that even possible with donkeys?) island beast of burden used in the fields of Île de Ré a hundred years ago. And the reason they wear pants is because of the salt marshes, where nasty flies and mosquitoes were so abundant. The gingham pants were designed to protect the donkeys from insect bites.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

Okay, so that all makes sense. But they don’t use the donkeys in the fields anymore so I don’t know why they need to put pants on these guys. Except the kids seem to like it. “Hey, dad, can we ride the donkeys with pants?”

I wonder how long it takes a donkey to get dressed in the morning? And do donkeys put on their pants one leg at a time? My French is not good enough to ask Régis these  questions. But one does wonder. 

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The moon over my bed

Having decided late in the afternoon that dinner was out of the question, that I needed to purge my body of its salt-infused diet, that it would be good for me to take a break from all things liquid related, including wine, I find myself inexplicably hungry at 7. So I compromise with myself by riding my bike to Ars near sunset and ordering a snack at Bistrot de Bernard—a dozen oysters, a risotto of langostinos, and a half bottle of wine.

Well, what did you expect? There are no villages on Île de Ré named St.-David, in my honor, nor will there be after my visit.

Ars is quieter than St.-Martin. In the cafes and bistros, voices are as subdued as the rust-colored light at dusk.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

 

The oysters are marvelous but I’m not happy with the wine, some cloying rose from Aix-en-Provence. I am forced to order another demi-bottle of the island rose, chiding myself for not knowing better.

Local food, local wine.

To keep the wine company, I order an assorted plate of cheese. Suddenly it’s dark out. My bike ride home is, shall we say, interesting (can you get arrested in France for being intoxicated on a bike?). But the bike path glows from the reflection of a full moon guiding me like a lighthouse beacon to safe harbor.

Eventually I find my way home and lie in bed, iPod stuck in my ears, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Paprika Plains” (I’m floating into dreams/I’m floating off/I’m floating into my dreams). Over my bed is a moonroof that automatically opens to the night sky and right in the middle of it sits a dazzling full moon, like a luminescent pearl.

I’m floating off/I’m floating into my dreams.

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