From La Rochelle you can drive over a long bridge to the island of Île de Ré in a few minutes. The high toll (8 euros in low season, 16 euros in high season) is in fact an ecotax and is used to finance a team of 10 full-time eco watchers. There are strict rules on the island regarding environment and protection of the unique ecosystem.
The building inspectorate is also strict: no high buildings, a colour palette of 12 colours in which woodwork may be painted. In any case, 80% of the island may not be built on. And all this strictness pays off: as soon as you cross the bridge, you are immediately in a holiday mood! Cute villages with winding streets to wander through, white houses with pastel shutters, the sea never far away, nature in abundance and of course plenty of restaurants.
The main town on the northern part is Ars en Ré. Ars is nominated to be added to the list of most beautiful villages in France and consists of a succession of narrow, winding streets and in the center there is only a small square where you can park. Before you enter Ars, you will see a parking lot. Tip: use that area and walk the short distance to the village square. Characteristic of Ars is the high pointed church tower with protruding windows. A true landmark, you can see it from miles away. Please note that, as on the rest of the island, shops and businesses are closed between 12 and 3 pm. The restaurants are of course open then, they just close at 3 pm and open again at 7 pm for dinner. Around the church square you will find several bars and restaurants, but just outside the village centre you will find Le Grenier á Sel (Rue de la baie 20) with a beautiful courtyard garden. At the Chemin des Palissiats 1 you’ll find jam factory Les Confitures de Clocher, I guarantee you that your mouth will drop open at the sight of all those jars with the most ingenious flavour combinations. What they also produce: jellies of fruit and herbs that turn into herbal tea when submerged in hot water!
A little history. Yeah, that is necessary.
The oldest building on the island is a ruin of an abbey from the 12thcentury. The monks who were the first to cross over from the mainland discovered, when planting vineyards, that the soil of the island consisted of clay. Clay absorbs almost no water and is therefore ideal for extracting salt from seawater.
Salt as salt is meant to be
And so it has been done here for centuries. There are more than 90 salt producers on the island, I visited Rivesaline. The sympathetic owner Cédric showed me around a small part of his 35.000 m2 domain. The extraction of salt is highly dependent on weather conditions and takes place in the period from June to October. Because of the extremely dry summer I am lucky: there is still a lot to see. I’m about to explain the process of salt production. If you are not interested: in short, for salt production you need drought, tide and clay soil. Now you can hop on to the paragraph below. : -)) Rivesalines extracts salt the traditional way; everything is done by hand with an ingenious system of ponds and pipes. There are three types of basin: pools to collect seawater every two weeks at high tide, basins with dikes through which the seawater moves in a regulated manner (first in, first out) to the salt banks where salt is extracted by evaporation of the seawater. All dug in clay soil, the salt water is absorbed minimally by clay. A manual circuit of pipes and valves transports the seawater from one basin to the next. In the salt banks, the water is allowed to evaporate so that salt can be extracted: grey salt and fleur de sel.
One salt is not the same as another
The difference between grey salt and fleur de sel is the structure: the crystals of fleur de sel are so fragile that you can only use this salt ‘dry’. Cooking is done with gray salt, fleur de sel boils to pieces. The ordinary white salt that we know from the supermarket is machine-washed and chemically processed. White salt is slightly cheaper than artisan grey salt, but the environmental benefit and the knowledge that I’m supporting artisans are reason enough for me to disregard white salt from now on…
And there’s more
Fortunately, Rivesalines has a web shop and they ship abroad. Export to the UK, Germany and the Benelux will also start this winter. And that’s good news, because in addition to salt, Rivesalines also grows sea lettuce. And they make delicious (salt) products with it. I’m a fan!
For the nature lover
The northern part of the island is the place to be for nature lovers. With the nature reserve Lilleau des Niges for birdwatchers, with the extensive salt fields, with the forests of Combe á l’Eau and Lizay flowing into the beach. The main means of transport on this island is the bicycle. You’ll find well laid out cycle paths and plenty of cycle hire shops everywhere. As it is difficult to park in the small streets of the villages, the bicycle is the best alternative.
Middle of the road?
Roughly halfway the island is the lovely Bois du Plage. Also here white houses, pastel shutters and narrow streets and small shops, a boulanger/patissier/glacier. But here also hotel L’Ocean, a little paradise within paradise. At first glance, the cute facade seems to house a cozy hotel. But if you walk down the corridor past the dining room, you come to a nice terrace with behind it the real surprise: an inner garden surrounded by the rooms and a swimming pool surrounded by even more rooms. A place to recover from all the impressions.
At l’Aile de Ré restaurant, they’re the only ones on the island to serve mussels and the local shellfish vanets ‘on eclade’: the seafood is placed in a cast iron pan filled with pine needles, the needles are lit and, with the lid on, the pan is left on the open fire for 15 minutes. This gives the seafood a delicious smoky flavour!
In Bois du Plage you will also find La Ferme des Producteurs, where a number of small producers offer their regional products. This shop also serves as a meeting place; recipes are exchanged and the producers take turns to be on duty to tell you all about their product. Check their Facebook page for opening hours before you go.