At the antipode of summer, the Ile de Ré begins a new life in winter . Vacationers are gone, the beaches and cycle paths are deserted, the traffic jams on the bridge are only a distant memory. The Ile de Ré seems to be asleep, populated by its 18,000 year-round inhabitants versus its 150,000 summer visitors. Seduced by the charm of this island , this weekend is a homecoming: we stroll through the small streets, discover the history and local culture, taste oysters and local products.
Le Clos Saint Martin, a haven of peace in lush greenery
The time of this weekend, no question of taking the car. We will cross Saint-Martin-de-Ré on foot to explore its smallest corners. On the island, there are few hotels open year-round, we select a benchmark in terms of accommodation. A few steps from the port of Saint-Martin de Ré, the spa hotel Le Clos Saint-Martin **** offers us a perfect pied-à-terre, benefiting from an ideal location inside the ramparts. This establishment decorated with elegant minimalism combines modernity and 100% Rhetan lifestyle. We are conquered by the spa and organic herbal tea for real moments of relaxation in perspective.
The fortifications are within walking distance
We attack the fortifications of Saint-Martin-de-Ré , classified as World Heritage of Humanity (UNESCO) to retrace the history of the citadel. Built in the 17th century by Vauban, the military engineer of King Louis XIV, the ramparts are intended to protect the Île de Ré, La Rochelle and Rochefort from English invasions. The citadel could, from 1681, accommodate a thousand soldiers. This marvelous military building can be visited on foot and offers superb panoramic views of the ocean.
The Baudets du Poitou, the oldest donkey breed in France
At the bend of the Campani gate, we come face to face with the local fauna which has taken up residence around the fortifications. Recognizable by their long hairs tangled in dreadlocks and their characteristic nonchalance, a dozen donkeys from Poitou come to meet us. Blow of heart guaranteed for these emblematic animals of the island!
The architectural heritage of Saint-Martin
To improve our knowledge of the citadel, we head to the Musée Ernest Cognacq near the port. We cross the city by crisscrossing the narrow alleys and full of charms, admiring the facades of beautiful bourgeois residences , modest half-timbered houses or even mansions. Among the range of traditional colors of the shutters of dwellings oscillating between green, blue and gray, a house acts as an exception with its red shutters . The sumptuous Maison de la Vinaterie attracts our attention with its remarkable aesthetics. This early 16th century mansion was built of ashlar and wood. Formerly a wine trade opening onto the street, he had a display to sell his products. The cantilevering of the two upper floors made it possible to increase the living area and pay less taxes.
How pleasant it is to stroll through the peaceful streets of Saint-Martin in winter. Few tourists, it is difficult to imagine the excitement and excitement that reigns there in the summer. It is a real pleasure to linger there and capture the changing lights on the white facades typical of the architecture of Ré. Photography lovers, this decor will undoubtedly seduce you!
An inspiring setting for photographers
On the way, we stop in front of the Saint-Martin church and set out to climb the good hundred steps to contemplate the exceptional panoramic view from the terrace of the observatory bell tower. Taking height, Saint-Martin then reveals all its heritage riches : its ransacked church and its Gothic ruins populated by gargoyles which dominate the city, its marina, its ramparts, its maze of alleys and its dwellings. On the horizon, the turquoise ocean, Vendée in the distance and a 360 ° view of the entire Ile de Ré , from the island's bridge to the Lighthouse of the Whales. A word of advice, don't forget your camera because the view is splendid!
The breathtaking view from the bell tower
We descend to the port to reach the Ernest Cognacq Museum located in the old hotel of Clerjotte to discover the different facets of this island territory. The tour is organized around the main themes of the fascinating history of the island: the first settlements , trade , the Vauban fortifications and its defensive role, the Second World War and the development of tourism . The part of the museum which deals with the penal colony touches us particularly. Sadly famous, the citadel of Saint-Martin served from 1873 on as a deposit for convicts, or “convicts”, who set off for the penal colonies of New Caledonia and Guyana. Poignant testimonies of the great departure of the convicts and life in the galleys rub shoulders with objects and images of the time.
Today this historic military building is still a penitentiary. This imposing central house, still in operation, represents the main employer on the Ile de Ré, with more than 450 prisoners serving long sentences.
To stay on the prison theme, we dine at the Ô Parloir restaurant opposite the prison, open all year round. An excellent address in a trendy and relaxed setting, which combines mismatched furniture with a Japanese Zen atmosphere . The menu evolves with the seasons and the chef's desires with fusion cuisine that tantalizes the taste buds.
The port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré
In a vagabond mood , we take the time to appreciate the charm of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, to stroll on the quays of the marina and in the Barbette park, well sheltered behind the ramparts. Thanks to the influence of the Atlantic and the Gulf Stream , the oceanic climate offers us a sunny and temperate weekend in the middle of winter. This is often the case on the Ile de Ré, which enjoys a pleasant climate all year round and an exceptional sunshine rate of 2,600 hours per year . A score that closely follows the 2,700 hours of sunshine per year in Corsica.
A real change of scenery for a memorable getaway for girls!
Article and photos by Lesley Williamson, for the Charente Maritime Guide