French Perfection
Practical Caravan|May 2017

Nigel Donnelly and Jenny Owen take an off-season tour of the place the French flock to for their holidays.

The word ‘authentic’ is one whose meaning has been somewhat hijacked. Its simple meaning was that something is real, rather than fake. Increasingly, however, authenticity is now considered a measure of quality or good taste.

Today, it is not enough simply to eat pasta to get a flavour of Italian life, for example. You need fresh pasta, but even that is a bit half-hearted. Ideally, you need to make pasta using special flour and posh olive oil. After all, you wouldn’t catch an Italian eating pasta that wasn’t authentic, so why would you?

Authenticity in travel follows a similar pattern. The holiday equivalent of posh pasta is going where the locals go. If a destination delights the locals enough for them to hang their annual two-week hiatus on, there is no higher accolade. It’s a good indicator that it is where you should be going, too.

For many French tourists, the destination de jour is a sandy, low-lying island anchored off the mid-Atlantic coast. The Île de Ré has a population of around 20,000, but in holiday season that swells to 200,000. Reasoning that 180,000 French holiday makers could not be wrong, we set course.

Tour de Ré

A few things about the island strike you at first glance. As you drive over the magnificent bridge from the mainland, the lack of elevation is obvious. The island is pancake-flat. You’ll also notice that there are bikes everywhere, their proliferation no doubt helped by the aforementioned lack of hills. As well as bikes, there are lots of places to park them, plus paths and places to rent them from, too.

It didn’t take us long to take to bikes, too. The main motivation was a day of driving a Range Rover through the tiny towns that litter the island. The big Brit is at roof level to some of the smaller properties lining the lanes, and a day of dodging Renault 4s – and shrieking as trailers of oysters kissed the door mirrors – urged us to give the car time off.

Our chosen site, Camping Les Grenettes, is centrally located, which made it a good base for exploring on two wheels. Neither Jen nor I are natural athletes but, once we’d adjusted the saddle heights of our hire bikes (around €10 per day from reception), we wobbled off towards nearby Sainte-Mariede-Ré, starting on local roads, before picking up the cycle paths toward Rivedoux Plage.

Our initial enthusiasm for cycling was quickly replaced by slight breathlessness and the need for some refreshment. We pedalled slowly up to the handsome Le Platin café in the town, where the owner hurried out to show us the cycle parking to the rear, and to offer us a table in the sunshine of the sheltered garden where we could recharge our batteries. We both settled on a galette complète – a ham and cheese pancake topped with a fried egg – and washed it down with glasses of very cold, dry white wine and a beer, because we knew how important it was to take on fluids during exercise.

Rivedoux Plage is a great place to do a little shopping, but some sprucing up of the little high street over the past few years has ensured that the beachside town is short on old-world charm. Clean and handsome as it is, any traces of island history are all but buried beneath fresh whitewash, new tarmac and pristine shop fronts. Even the traditional market is a sea of glass and painted metal.

That order all changes within a few hundred yards as you head west toward La Flotte. A grubbier collection of shops and cafés overlooks the sand, with a great view of the bridge back to the mainland, and things immediately felt more relaxed. A handful of old gents were out on the sand, harvesting the oysters that are available across the island. We grabbed a few snaps of a scene that, aside from the tractor and the bridge, has changed little over the past 50 years.

La Flotte is one place where arriving by bike is better than arriving by car, because it allows you to use the seaside pathways rather than the main road, which is blinkered by whitewashed walls. The little harbour is picture-perfect, but we had only recently stopped so we kept moving, walking the bikes between the shops, peering in the odd window before carrying on to the island’s main urban attraction.

Capitale de Ré

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