Ile de Re

You are currently browsing articles tagged Ile de Re.

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. 

Tags: , , ,

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.

Tags: , , ,

I’m at the car-rental counter inside the Bordeaux airport, pondering a map of France. Feeling a bit groggy, I nonetheless notice that my destination—a small island somewhere off the western coast of mainland France called Île de Ré—doesn’t exist. At least, not on this map. There’s the obvious brown thing, France, and the blue thing to the left, which must be the Atlantic Ocean, but nothing in between. No little obvious speck to suggest an isle. Is Île de Ré some sort of oceanic Oz?

Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît,” I say to the perky car-rental gal whose name tag, I swear to God, says Glenda. “How do I get to Île de Ré ?”

The petite French people behind the counter giggle at this question, but Glenda only smiles and says, “Why that’s simple. Just follow the road to Paris.”

“Follow the road to Paris?”

“Yes, follow the road to Paris.”

Shall we all chime in now?

So off I go to…the road to Paris. There are no lions and tigers and bears, but there are swaying fields of gigantic sunflowers, a frightening thunderstorm and a forest of confusing road signs pointing thither and yon that only leads me in circles. Five hours into a journey that Glenda assured me would take no more than three, I finally find the yellow brick road: a swooping, nearly two-mile-long bridge connecting the port city of La Rochelle, on the west coast of the mainland, to Île de Ré .

The sun is just beginning to set and the bridge sparkles, disappearing into a haze at the other end, appearing to drop precipitously down into the sea. Is there really land on the other side? As I cross the bridge in my cool little Citroën, hurtling through puffy, dark clouds, I feel as if I am falling through the sky. A swirling American plummeting toward a magical French isle.

Listen, I don’t like little yappy dogs, and I’m not from Kansas. I’ve always lived near the ocean, but I seldom swim in it. The sea both mesmerizes and terrifies me. When I am in it, I am always aware of the enormity of the unknown beneath me and the downward pull. Being in the ocean reminds me all too well that I am little more than a stressed, frantic sardine who spends most of his time darting in circles with no clear destination in mind. I worry that, sooner or later, I will grow tired of all this movement and slip beneath a wave. In short, I sometimes feel like a drowning man.

I am never completely satisfied when I travel and my friends say, What is it you want? Here’s what I want: I want to be somewhere like Île de Ré long enough that I not only know how to properly say huîtres without embarrassing myself but know precisely who, on the island, sells the best. I want to know when market day is in every village and be on good enough terms with the fish monger that she holds the best hommard back, knowing I will ask for it. I want the waiter at my favorite café to greet me warmly when I show up on a busy mid-August evening and to pull a table in off the street and have it set, even though he has been telling everyone else for an hour that the restaurant is complet.

I want to know the difference between saucisson noix and saucisson noisettes. In short, I don’t want to go to the aquarium and lean against the glass, staring at the fascinating fish that are so close but so inaccessible. I want to immerse myself in the tank. I want to dive in and joint them. Despite my fear of water.

Is that too much to ask?

Tags: , ,

Almondine the salt farmer

There is not much to see at the salt museum, housed in an old farmhouse on the edge of Loix. Actually, it looks more like a small classroom where students have set up their science exhibits. A few old photos, rusty tools, and modest displays showing the process for farming salt. All in all it takes no more than 10 minutes to go through the whole thing.

But there is a salt pond behind the museum where I sat on the bank, watching a young woman named Almondine pull a wooden rake through the shallow water, bringing the gray salt from the floor of the pond to the berm where she carefully piled it into two-foot-high pyramids to dry.

photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing


Almondine is from Paris and has a degree in psychology so I asked her why she did this work on this little island. “I like being out here in the marshes,” she said. “It is very beautiful and quiet.”

And it was. Just the cries of gulls overhead and the soft sound of the wind rustling the dead stalks of wild mustard along the banks. Because the salt ponds are all in protected habitats, there is a lot of wildlife out here if you take the time to notice. More than 300 species of birds in fact, like the egret standing stoically just yards away from where Almondine worked.

We walked to the lowest pond where a thin crust of very fine salt had formed on the surface. This was the fleur de sel—flower of salt—which you can only get when the weather is hot and windy and the salt doesn’t sink but floats on top of the pond, giving it a naturally white color and a delicate taste. So delicate you can, as I did, taste it straight from the marsh.

“What does it taste like?” Almondine asked me.

“Like life,” I said.

She smiled. ”Oui, comme la vie. Très bon.”

Tags: , , ,

Bernard Adam wants to know if I’m going to be on Île de Ré on the 27th of this month and I tell him, No, I’m leaving at the end of the week.

Ah, too bad, too bad, he says, pouring me a glass of the local white wine, called Le Royal. He says that on the 27th, the islanders celebrate the Fête des Vendanges which begins with a procession carrying a statue of St. Vincent from the church in Le Bois Plage and ends with lots of eating and drinking of the new wine.

“On this island, we love St. Vincent,” he says. “He saved us.” Bernard explains how, for hundreds of years, they have been making wine on the island. And then the phylloxera came and just about wiped out the vino business.

“So we prayed to St. Vincent, the patron saint of vintners and wine growers, and the phyloxera was gone the next year. Now we thank him with a fête on his feast day.”


photo by David Lansing

photo by David Lansing

  I think this is a wonderful story. But it’s also a crock. First of all, the phylloxera did indeed wipe out the vines on Île de Ré  as well as most of France between 1860 and 1900, but St. Vincent wasn’t the savior of island wine growers. That would be J.E. Planchon who figured out that if you grafted French vines onto disease-resistant U.S. root stock, you could control the problem. Unfortunately, they didn’t make Professor Planchon a saint (though he did get a statue which stands just outside the Montpellier train station).

But here’s the really interesting thing: There are two (at least) St. Vincents. One was born in Huesca, Sapin in the third century and he is, indeed, the patron saint of vintners and wine growers. However, his feast day is Jan. 22. The more familiar saint is St. Vincent de Paul, who was born in France, died in Paris and whose feast day is, indeed, Sept. 27. Except he has nothing to do with grapes or wine (though he is the patron saint of charitable societies). So somewhere along the line, the wine growers of Île de Ré blended a 3rd century Spanish saint with a 17th century French one and came up with the Fête des Vendanges—sort of a Catholic meritage. Which makes perfect sense when you realize that Le Royal, after all, is a blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and colombard. It seems that everything on this islands, including saints, is a blend of things. 

Tags: , , ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »