Travel France: A plaster for Parisians

The summer retreat that soothes the agitated souls of the French capital's bourgeoisie is ringed by vast beaches and pretty villages.
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The Independent Culture
LOVERS OF France will tell you that no matter how many times you go, you will always discover something new. Yet we British seem to return to the same places year after year - and are then faintly put out when our neighbours also turn up in Brittany, Provence or the Dordogne - usually in front of us at the Intermarche cheese counter.

I found myself wondering where the French head to when their mass exodus takes place in July and August. My family and I found out last year, when we spent a week on the le de Re.

This 20-mile strip of sand, salt marsh and pine wood that juts out into the Atlantic has long since been recognised by the French for its Utopian qualities while remaining little-known to most British visitors. Not that we felt like impostors - the French are too gloriously indifferent to the presence of outsiders for that. But there was a sense in which we had happened upon somewhere completely wonderful that none the less seems to exist mainly for the pleasure of the urban bourgeoisie.

The le de Re is just off the resort of La Rochelle, to which it is linked by an immense, curving viaduct that is possibly the most beautiful structure of its kind in the world. On high summer days, the traffic coming over from the mainland is constant yet, once on the island, the cars seem magically to evaporate, and are largely replaced by bicycles.

This is somewhere to explore gently. A network of cycle paths criss- crosses the island, starting in the east at Rivedoux-Plage and extending out across the heathland interior to the pretty fishing villages that dot the coast, continuing as far as the furthest western tip where the ocean rolls in to meet the vast expanses of sand.

One of the most charming of the fishing villages is St Martin, on the north coast, where shuttered 18th-century houses, each painted in a delicate shade, look out across the Breton Straits. St Martin has some splendid 17th-century fortifications, a reminder of a time when sea battles raged between the English and the French. You can walk along the top of the protective wall that overlooks the sea. But don't do so at night. The drops are alarming, and no one has thought to put up a barrier. Back in the village, the narrow streets have something of the appearance and feel of St Ives.

Although the pace of life on the island is slow, there is also an agreeable buzz about the place. It may be an idyll, but not a dreamy one; you might clamber about the oyster beds, swim out to the diving platforms, or join the early-evening throng on a harbour front as restaurants and cafes come to life.

A measure of the le de Re's appeal is the scarcity of property available to buy. This is real maison secondaire country, where a small, St Martin artist's cottage costs upwards of a million francs (pounds 100,000). People don't sell their houses on the le de Re because they know they're always going to want to go back.

What's true for the French could also be true for the British. For in some ways the le de Re is very similar to Brittany - the terrain may be less rugged but the beaches are just as lovely.

It's also unmistakably French, whereas Brittany could sometimes almost be Cornwall. And it has all those things that lovers of coastal holidays revel in: rock pools, sandy beaches, big skies, and tides. Especially tides.

The le is surprisingly quick to get to. We took the overnight boat from Portsmouth to St Malo, and reached our hotel in Rivedoux-Plage by early afternoon after a stop for a picnic lunch in the Maris Poitevin area, sitting alongside one of its poplar-lined waterways in unwitting homage to French Impressionism.

Gites on the le are not easy to come by, and few operators offer accommodation there. But if you do make the effort, it pays off. We stayed at the Hotel de la Maree in Rivedoux-Plage - a classic, family-run establishment with a pool, comfortable rooms and huge plates of fruits de mer for dinner. Was that Monsieur Hulot himself I spotted in the corner of the restaurant? We're going back again this year to check.

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