Summer Gone-by

Reillanne, our village
Reillanne, our village

It’s time to start thinking summer 2017…but first, a look back at summer 2016. I should have posted this long ago… better late than never.  After eight summers of renting our guest apartment to tourists, we officially closed last August – no more paying guests, but time and room for friends and relatives.

It was a rewarding experience. We met interesting folks from many countries.  Some have become friends.  We learned about their lands.

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Klaus and Eva

Austrians Klaus and Eva were our first renters of the season, as they have been every summer for the past six years.  We have become friends and are delighted they will come back this year, not as renters, but house sitters when we travel to Germany.

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Jean Christophe and Isabelle

They always arrive with bounteous gifts of Austrian delicacies. A roof rack on their car holds Klaus’ ample supplies for their stay, including Austrian beer and wine.  Of course they appreciate Provence wine too, especially summer rose.

Isabelle, who works in a bank, and Jean Christophe, who is in the insurance business, arrived from the Paris region in a spiffy Mercedes convertible.  They had been to our region many times and were happy to be back.  After a day’s outing, they often played boule in our driveway, although it is definitely not the best terrain for this Provence favorite.sblog-23

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Jeroen, Anika and Stans

We enjoyed Belgians Jeroen and Anika, both teachers, and daughter Stans.  They came  loaded down with two bicycles, plus baby supplies:  baby stroller, baby bed, a plastic pool, pool toys.  They had fun introducing Stans to the big pool. They biked, too.

Jeroen is one of those super cyclists who have conquered Mt. Ventoux many times.  “Any serious Belgian cyclist must climb Mt. Ventoux,” he said.  He did, as well as the Mountain of Lure which he says is beautiful.  “It’s only 100 meters less than Ventoux, but no one knows about it.”

Anika’s passion is markets. They visited six in the region. Her favorite:  Apt.

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Steve and Yoshie at Pont du Gard

Friends and family also visited in summer 2016. With my brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie we enjoyed a mini-trip to visit the fascinating Chauvet- Pont d’Arc Cavern with replicas of prehistoric cave art dating back 36,000 years.  The original art was discovered in a nearby cave, but it is closed to visitors to protect the treasures.  The replica cave and art are mind boggling.

A non-birthday party with grandsons Lang, and Sam.
An un-birthday party with grandsons Lang and Sam.

Step-children Kellie and Rob with grandsons Lang and Sam joined us in June. Good times in the pool were enjoyed by all.   Bob even joined in – a mini miracle.  He is not a water person, and almost never goes in the pool.  I make up for him.

Kellie and Bob who prefers bicycles to the pool.
Kellie and Bob who prefers bicycles to the pool.

Summer ended with a visit from Colorado friends Kathy and Bob, whom we know from our days n Germany long ago.

Karthy and Bob, with another Bob in the background.
Kathy and Bob, with another Bob in the background.

Now that I have finally put summer 2016 to bed, time to move on to new adventure and travel.  Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka and the Maldives – here we come!  Watch this blog.

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Rob, Sam and Lang
At Table de Bonheur , our favorite, with super chef Hans
At Table de Bonheur, our favorite, with super chef Hans
Kellie relaxing
Kellie relaxing
It was a good summer for geraniums.
It was a good summer for geraniums.

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Prisoners in an Airbnb Apartment

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We were locked in. No way to get out. The stubborn lock would not budge. We were on floor 4 1/2 by US standards.   Jumping out of the window was out of the question. Scream for help – would anyone hear? Despite many phone calls and promises, no one came to our assistance.

One hour. Two hours. Three hours. Frustration turned to panic.  During our incarceration, Bob tried numerous times to unlock the door. He was angry. I was a nervous wreck…

I had booked an Airbnb apartment in Paris for two nights between our trips to the US and China.   On the Airbnb site this “lovely flat in the Marais” looked gorgeous: bright, roomy, gleaming. At 319 euro for two nights, it was more than we usually spend. But, we would be tired after the all-night flight from the US. We wanted to see more of the Marais. And, although this was a new listing with only two reviews, they were basically positive.

When Angela, our greeter, met us at the door to the building and led us up a narrow, shabby, dirty staircase, I was crestfallen. Could that beautiful apartment be in this rundown building?

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Section of wall in the “lovely flat”

There was no elevator. We were loaded down with clothing for five weeks and different climates. Bob made several trips up and down the 4 ½ flights, struggling to get the suitcases up the narrow passages while Angela struggled with the lock. Perhaps I have the wrong apartment; she lamented, and then went up and down to try other doors. No luck. She made several phone calls – I assume to an agent who managed the apartment. Owner Franck had told me he would not be in Paris when we arrived.

This must be it, she said at the first door she had tried, and asked Bob to try. He wiggled the key back and forth many times. He pushed and pulled, but the lock would not give. More phone calls. More tries.  Forty-five minutes had gone by, and we were still standing in this dismal hallway. We were exhausted and had longed to relax, take a short nap and then a fun walk. Bob tried the uncooperative lock one more time. Success. We were in.

Angela was elated.   We were not. We surveyed the surroundings.   Photoshop obviously works wonders. Instead of a bright and spacious apartment, the “lovely flat” was dark, crammed, depressing. The furniture was the same as in the photos, but not much else.

Before Angela left, Bob went outside to test the door. It opened. However, we insisted that someone, preferably a locksmith, come to verify that the lock was in working order. We needed to be sure that when we went out, we could get back in and not end up stranded on that dreadful staircase. She made a call and assured us that someone would show up in 20 minutes to check the lock.

We felt it best to wait before settling in and taking that nap. “We better make sure we can get out,” Bob announced at one point. OMG! Sacre Bleu! The door would not open. We were imprisoned. This can’t be true.  But, it was.  (Keep reading.  It gets worse before better.)thief-jail-illustration-theif-white-background-32201960

I called Airbnb. There were many options: press 1,.2, 3. I tried all, but  always got a recorded message and was put on hold. The relaxing Paris afternoon we had anticipated had become a frantic nightmare.

Since I had no luck with the regular channels, I tried the  English language assistance option.  Someone answered: A man in Ireland. Hope at last. I told the sorry story. He said he could help and asked various questions about our reservation: address, birth dates…and then the last four digits of the credit card used to make the booking. We have several credit cards. I gave him the numbers of the cards we had with us. No match. I must have used the French card to book. I explained that we did not have that card with us. He was adamant. Without those numbers, he could do nothing for us.

I was incredulous. This was too much. No more hope. Would we ever escape?  I blew up. I cried. I used nasty language. He hung up.

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These wires made me nervous. Fire hazard? We had no means of escape.

Now what? Call the police? The fire department? I went to the window, hoping to find a fire escape, although I doubt I would have had the skill to navigate it.  Nothing there.  So, back to the French Airbnb number and alas, after a wait, I reached Emeline, a real person who was sympathetic, patient, understanding. She said she would arrange for someone to help us get out, that we did not have to stay in the apartment, that she would email me listings of other Airbnb apartments that had availability, and that we would be reimbursed for the sum we had paid for the apartment, as well as the taxi fare to our new accommodation.

We were making progress. Surely someone would come to break the lock and rescue us soon. I was getting claustrophobic.  I needed to escape –soon.

While I looked over the listings, Bob continued trying to open the door. He is usually very patient (not like me), but he was losing it. He was infuriated. Our nerves were frazzled. I looked around, hoping to find a bottle of something potent and alcoholic  left behind by a previous guest.  We needed it desperately, but not even a tea bag to be found.

It was close to 5 p.m. We had arrived at the apartment at 1:15 pm, and we were still prisoners in this “lovely flat,” still waiting for a savior to come and free us.

Bob tried the door yet again. Eureka!  He had the magic touch.   It moved.  It opened.  We were free. We fled.

I had booked an apartment in Montmarte chez Sacha and Sydney which appeared beautiful, and cost just 233 euro for two nights, 86 euro less than Franck’s place. Although we had already given Airbnb 319 euro, we had to pay for the new booking. With too much luggage, we trekked to the corner café, got a taxi and set off to the new flat which was even better than the photos: huge, light, inviting. This time I had picked a winner.

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Chez Sacha and Sydney — truly “lovely.”

A few days later I checked our credit card details online. We had been given a refund of 3 euro. I was furious, but by this time we were in Hong Kong. I sent an email to Airbnb and learned that to obtain a refund, I needed to proceed with the resolution process and was entitled to a maximum of 275 euro, not the 319 we had paid.  Why the 3 euro?  A mini reward for all our suffering and a lost afternoon?  That remains a mystery

First step for a refund is to fill out an on-line form stating your grievance which is sent to the owner. I did, confident that he would surely grant the refund in these circumstances. Wrong. He refused.

’You insulted me and Angela instead of letting us one hour to manage this issue with the door – which is not a big issue…. It just happened to be a bit difficult to open and needed a bit of oil, nothing I could expect and nothing to be that aggressive… People are not your servants. A host is not your slave Leah, and I will refuse any refund as you were aggressive and made a scandal when there was no real reason to act as you did. You didn’t have to cancel this booking, especially not the way you did …”

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“Not a big issue” if the door won’t open???

One hour? We waited three hours. One should carry a can of oil if booking an Airbnb apartment? No real reason to be upset? It’s acceptable to be locked out — and then locked in– a rental  apartment? Cancel the booking? Emeline had done that for us.

I sent Airbnb a response, stating that I did not accept Frank’s decision and explained that I would follow up upon our return, asking them not to close the case.

After returning from China, I filled out yet another form requesting that Airbnb review both sides of the story and make the final decision. I kept receiving computer generated responses which indicated no one had ever read my response. I was getting more than fed up with Airbnb. Back to the phone. (I want a decent hourly wage for all the time I spent on hold listening to Airbnb background music.)

I was patient, and fortunately, eventually, I reached  Ellie, an Airbnb case manager. She was understanding, sympathetic – and did not demand the last four digits of the credit card. She checked into the case. Despite my instructions to wait for my rebuttal, Airbnb had closed the case.  I had to go back to square one and begin the lengthy process all over.

The entire story would not fit in the space allotted on the Airbnb online form.  Ellie said to send her an email with the details and she would forward it. But, it had to go back to Franck first. Again he refused and asked me to stop harassing him.  What planet was he on? Did he realize how much harassment his defective lock had caused us?

When you speak to an Airbnb rep/case manager, the person is not permitted to give his or her last name, nor a direct number to reach him/her, not even a personal email address. You have to reply to the general Airbnb email address. I did, but added: “Attention Ellie” to the subject line. My messages did reach her. She responded, but said she could offer no further help and sent our case on to someone else.

That someone was Danny in Dublin. Like Ellie and Emeline, a decent human who was understanding — and extremely apologetic.  He called our tragedy an episode of “miscommunication that had gotten out of hand.”  Is there such a thing as Irish understatement?   Whatever, he assured me that we would get a full refund, 319 euro, plus the taxi fare. Thank you, Danny. We did.

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Instead of an enjoyable afternoon ambling through the Marais, we were imprisoned in a non-too lovely apartment.

Meanwhile I had gone back to the Airbnb site and noted that the price for “the lovely flat in the Marais” had been slashed, from about 159 euro per night to 60 euro per night. I asked Danny about this. He explained that Airbnb does not inspect properties listed and hosts can set rental prices as they desire. Why did Franck drastically drop the price? Perhaps because he was not getting bookings, he surmised. Hmm..I suspect there is more to it.

Airbnb lesson learned: Be wary of booking a new listing. Look for listings with lots of positive reviews. Just in case, take a can of oil.

This was our second Airbnb experience. Two years ago we booked an apartment in Paris’ 16th district. It was exactly as described and ideal for us. Hostess Nathalie met us, greeted us, had a welcome gift for us, and provided all sorts of helpful information on the area – shops, restaurants, public transportation.

We expected much the same with the booking in the Marais. Franck, it appears, has more than one apartment listed with Airbnb.   The same with Sacha and Sydney, hosts at the second apartment whom we never met.

According to an article in The Guardian, the number of Airbnb hosts “has doubled in the last year with revenue up 60%.” Investors, perhaps like Franck and Sacha and Sydney, are buying up properties to rent through Airbnb. “ With that growth has come an ecosystem of support companies, typically property management firms that submit the advert for the property onto the website and then may manage guests arriving and leaving, dropping off and collecting keys, for example,” states the article.

So, don’t always expect personal contact with the owner which was originally one of the drawing cards of Airbnb.

We have not given up on Airbnb. I just booked an apartment in Ventimiglia, Italy, which has numerous glowing reviews, plus lots of kudos for the owners who are on the scene.  Nonetheless, Bob insists we not forget to take a can of oil.

Isolated oil can on white

China followed Paris, where, sadly more misadventure awaited.  Yet another crash, but far worse than the one in India I wrote about in a previous post,  “Adventure — and a CRASH –in Kashmir.”

Details on China in a coming post.  Don’t miss it. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.

I am on the mend, but slightly handicapped (broken collar bone). No new recipes until I can get back in the kitchen and cook with two hands —soon I hope.

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Les Rosiers: Summer 2015

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In a word, it was HOT. Week after week of temperatures in the upper 90s (Fahrenheit), even reaching 100 and above a few times. My roses, geraniums and petunias had to be watered continually. The grass (what little we have) turned brown. The pool water has never been so warm – too warm for me, but finally warm enough for delicate BB/VR* who was brave enough to jump in. This was only the fifth time he has been in the pool in the 10 years we have lived here. (Thanks to my dear mother who insisted my brothers and I all learn to swim at an early age, I am  a swimmer and love the water.  BB was not so lucky.)blog.pool2

Fall arrived too soon and too abruptly – for me… One will never be content.

Despite the heat, we enjoyed some fun activities and the wonderful folks who rented our guest apartment at Les Rosiers.

Klaus and Eva
Klaus and Eva

The season kicked off with the arrival of Klaus from Austria, his car loaded with Austrian delicacies and beer. He always brings us a generous gift of goodies, too. This was the fifth season that Klaus and his wife Eva have spent a month in our rental studio. She is still working as a legal secretary in Graz, arrives a week later by plane and only spends two weeks here. Klaus likes to cook and grill – lamb is his favorite. They know the area well, take long walks, swim, and visit friends and flea markets.  They have become friends, and it’s always a delight to have them here.

Patrick, Chantal and their bikes
Patrick, Chantal and their bikes

Then came the Belgians, Patrick and Chantal, with two motorcycles and two bicycles towed behind their car. We were amazed. Due to the heat, they spent most of their time on the motorcycles. One of the bicycles was electric, but since the terrain here is anything but flat, they preferred their motorcycles. They took long excursions, almost every day during their two-week sojourn.

Chantal said they have been vacationing in southern France every summer, but always camping. They especially enjoyed the tranquility at Les Rosiers. Camp sites can be very noisy, she said. And, they loved our town, Reillanne.

Sunday market in Reillanne
Sunday market in Reillanne

“It’s an authentic village, not a Disney village like so many in the Luberon,” said Patrick. “There are not that many tourists, not that much traffic.” They like to visit the village cafes and talk to the locals. And, they especially liked the Bar restaurant de la Place where they dined many times.

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Czech cyclists: Lara, Katarina, Luka and Jakub

More bicycles next – a Czech family of four with five bikes. Jakub and Katarina and children Lara, 9, and Luka, 5, were back for the second time. We were overwhelmed with their bicycle prowess two years ago when they set out day after day, all day on bikes, albeit Katarina towing Luka in a carriage and Lara’s bike sometimes attached to her father’s bike. Lara now rides on her own, and Luka rides the bike that can be attached to Jakub’s . We rode with them one day – lots of fun.

Jakub and Luka
 Luka behind Daddy Jakub

They arrived a day late after participating in an orientation competition in the Jura where Jakub took first place in one category. Here he conquered Mont Ventoux for the fifth time. That was the reason for five bikes – a super bike for the challenging climb.

“We always like to come back to Provence, the terrain, the living historic villages that are not just for tourists,” said Jakub.   We were happy to have them back.

The hardy cyclists enjoyed the pool after those rides in the blazing Provence sun.
The hardy cyclists enjoyed the pool after those rides in the blazing Provence sun.

Wine was the focus for Patricia and Serge, visitors who come from Brittany. They traveled far and wide to buy Provence wine, driving 1,700 kilometers in the region, visiting six wineries and ending up with 14 cases of wine to take home.

Serge and Patricia
Serge and Patricia

Each evening when they returned from a buying trek they shared their adventures and raved about places they visited – some we had not known about.   Serge says they always buy the wine of the regions they visit. They live in an area of vineyards near the Loire where he helps harvest the grapes.

Serge's bounty
Serge’s Provence souvenirs

They presented us with a bottle of Grand Reserve Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie which we tasted when they invited us to a super fish dinner Patricia prepared. She served the fish with beurre blanc, a well known sauce for fish in Brittany. She shared her recipe which I have tried to master. Mine could not hold a candle to hers, but I will keep trying. When I am successful, we will open the precious bottle of Muscadet.

Niki from Athens
Niki came to visit from Athens.  We met on a student ship 50 years ago!.

We visited the US this summer (see previous post, “USA: Summer 2015,” July14) and the Mediterranean coast (previous post: “Cannes: Far from the Madding crowd,” Aug. 20).

We recently went back to the coast for a gala evening at the Hotel Belles Rives in Juan les Pins/Antibes. Our Finnish friends, Terttu and Mikko, have a rental apartment which they generously offered us. In addition to dining and dancing, I swam in the Med which sure beats a pool, and we took a short but scenic hike around Cap d’Antibes.

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La Dolce vita.
The Med at Juan les Pins
The Med at Juan les Pins

We are not sorry the heat has subsided, but sorry that summer is over.  The days are getting too short.  Some restaurants will soon close for the season.  No more concerts and village festivals.  Winter can be bleak here, and it’s  a long wait for spring.

Photos of other summer activities follow.

BB/VR and Filippo chill out poolside.
BB/VR* and Filippo chill out poolside.

*Bicycle Bob/Vino Roberto

Lake Vannades near Manosque where I enjoyed a real swim
Lake Vanades near Manosque where I enjoyed a real swim
 A Bastille Day Mechoui-- lamb grilled on an open fire.

A Bastille Day Mechoui– lamb grilled on an open fire.

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The Med at Cap d'Antibes
The Med at Cap d’Antibes

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The lavender must like the heat. The color was especially vibrant this summer.
The lavender must like the heat. The color was especially vibrant this summer.

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Champion swimmers, Koa and Nai'a, friend Lynne's Irish water spaniels. We swim together at Lake Ste. Croix
Champion swimmers, Koa and Nai’a, friend Lynne’s Irish water spaniels. We swim together at Lake Ste. Croix

Cannes: Far from the Madding crowd

The crowds are fierce in this Riviera hot spot in August. And, of course during its famous film festival when the world focuses on all the stars who pose on the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals.

View from the ferry
Cannes viewed  from the ferry

But, you can escape the masses and find tranquility amidst Mediterranean splendor just a short boat ride (20 minutes) away. We visited Cannes again this year to watch outstanding fireworks which are part of an international competition held every summer in Cannes. Fireworks are shot from numerous boats in the harbor and synchronized to music. Worth a trip!

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So too is a visit to the off shore islands (Îsles de Lérins): Île Sainte Marquerite and Île Saint Honorat. Last summer we hiked around Ste. Marquerite, the larger island, and savored an excellent lunch on the shore. This time, Saint Honorat, the monks’ island.cannes,14

Splendid. The tiny island has no cars, no hotels, just one restaurant, two shops –and monks. In 410 AD, Honoratus, a Roman noble who became saintly and sought isolation, is said to have chosen the island, then full of snakes and scorpions and thought to be haunted, as an ideal retreat. Visitors followed. A monastic order was established.

11th century fortress was connected to the original abbey by a tunnel.
11th century fortress was connected to the original abbey by a tunnel.

The monastery grew to become one of the most powerful in Christendom. Alas, peace and quiet did not last. Raids by Saracens and pirates in the 8th century took their toll, then later attacks by Spaniards. The monastery was closed in 1788, but reborn in 1859 when Cistercians took it over.

Today 20 monks live on Saint Honorat. In addition to praying, they cultivate grapes, eight hectares of vineyards, five for red wine, and three for white.

The monks' grapes were looking good.,
Monastery grapes are looking good.

We followed the mostly shaded trail along the island’s craggy coastline, past rocky coves, ancient chapel ruins, an 11th century fortress and cannonball ovens. These curious structures were used in the 18th century to heat cannonballs so they would wreck further destruction on the ships they hit.

VR inspects a cannonball oven.
VR inspects a cannonball oven.

Signs along the way remind you to keep quiet and to respect the religious ambience – no bare chests. Mediterranean vegetation – pines, herbs, eucalyptus – borders the trail and makes for interesting photos. Other paths lead through the island interior, past the vineyards.

Monks have been living here for 16th centuries. REspect
Respect the monks and their silence.  Be decently attired.  T-shirts and shorts obligatory.

It is truly another world: beautiful, peaceful and quiet. It was hard to fathom that those noisy masses on La Croisette, Cannes renowned boulevard, were not far away.cannes.5

We stopped to visit the current abbey church and the shop which sold mainly wine. According to a brochure on the island wine, it is “full of spirituality.” All the vintages are named after saints, but you will pay dearly for spiritual wine.   The cheapest we found was 26 euro, but most were far more expensive.

No wine bargains here.
No wine bargains here.

At La Tonnelle , the island restaurant, we each ordered a glass of the monk’s brew to accompany our lunch. A glass of Sainte Cesaire (Chardonnay) for me at 8 euro; a glass of Saint Honorat (Syrah) for VR at 11.80 euro. I found my wine too oaky and too Chardonnay. Vino Roberto’s was good, very robust. To take a bottle home: 33 euro. VR reasoned he could buy several good bottles back in the Luberon for that amount.canes.15

The lunch (we each ordered fish) was delicious.   People watching at this seaside eatery also gets high marks. Pleasure boats cast anchor off shore. A tender ferries passengers to the restaurant, a constant parade of the yachting crowd.cannes.8

Travel Tips:

Trip Advisor led me to the Hotel l’Olivier in Cannes, a small, family-run (22 rooms) hotel on a hillside overlooking the Med.   Our room was tiny, but our terrace with a superb view was perfect. The hotel personnel were all very warm, welcoming and helpful. It was a bit of a walk to the town center, but good exercise. The hotel has a small pool, flowered terrace for al fresco breakfast, and it’s quiet – a great escape from the chaos of La Croisette. A beach is also nearby. http://www.hotelolivier.com

Beach near the hotel
Beach near the hotel

Another Trip Advisor find, the Bistrot Saint-Sauveur in Le Cannet, a town above Cannes, where we had an excellent lunch. www.bistrotsaintsauveur.fr

La Tonnelle, restaurant on the island, www.tonnelle-abbayedelerins.com

A leisurely saunter around the island takes about 1 ½ hours. Boats to both islands run about every hour during summer months. Round-trip ticket to Saint Honorat, 14 euro (price for seniors). More information www.cannes-ilesdelerins.com

Island olive tree
Island olive tree

Don’t miss Today’s Taste in column at right: DILLY POTATO SALAD, my favorite potato salad.

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Tiny Aix – a French Island Paradise

This was my favorite of the recent visit to France’s mid-Atlantic coast. See previous post, “Discovering more of France,” June 2015. aix.blog7

Islands are intriguing. These chunks of land surrounded by water are a curiosity, and much more. They inspire and captivate our imagination, offering a unique way of life, a different state of mind.aix.blog11

The miniscule French island of Aix off the country’s mid-Atlantic coast is indeed an island pearl. Step off the ferry from the mainland and enter an enchanted world – no cars, little commerce, just one hotel. Aix has not been gussied up for tourists. It’s authentic with many buildings in need of a coat of paint. Its few shops seem to have changed little in decades. There are no fancy restaurants, no classy cafes – just a small number of simple eateries.aix.blog8

About 240 residents live on the island which is 1.8 miles long and .4 miles wide.   Of the permanent inhabitants, only 100 remain on the island in winter. In summer, between 4,000 and 5,000 tourists arrive each day to bike, walk, swim, fish and soak in the beguiling island ambience. Most leave in the evening. The nights are silent, magic.

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“I come here every chance I get. It’s a little paradise,” said Christine Lacaud who lives in Rochefort, a city in the Poitou-Charentes region adjacent to the ferry departure point in Fouras.

Island resident and historian Pierre Antoine Berniard sums it up: “When you take the boat and arrive here, there’s something different… Kids can play everywhere. There are no cars to hurt them. It’s really a privilege.”aix.blog4

I spent a night at Aix’s Hotel Napoleon, a charming abode with just 18 rooms and an excellent restaurant, Chez Josephine. Our group had come to admire the replica of the frigate Hermione anchored off shore before its April departure for an amazing journey to the U.S., duplicating a voyage of 235 years ago. During that epic voyage, the ship ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence. (See previous post, “Hail Hermione,” May 2015)

Aix harbor decorated for the departure of the frigate Hermione to the US.
Aix harbor decorated for the departure of the frigate Hermione to the US.

The magnificent ship was just one attraction. We also biked. You can walk around the island in two to three hours, or take a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride, but discovering Aix by bike seems to be the most popular. There are several bike rental depots. Ride through lush forests, marshlands, along a rocky coast, past pristine beaches and hidden coves. It’s tranquil, peaceful — and flat. Pedaling is fun and easy.

Plenty of bikes for rent on Aix
Plenty of bikes for rent on Aix

Stop for an oyster break. Aix’s one weather-beaten oyster shack should be on a movie set – the perfect oyster shack stereotype. Oysters are shucked on the spot. Order a bottle of white wine; sit outside surrounded by stacks of oyster-growing paraphernalia, bikes and the sea. Oysters have never tasted better.

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Aix’s deputy mayor, Jean Claude Poisson, told me the island doctor, who lives there year round, does big business in summer thanks to oysters. Tourists comb the shore looking for the mollusks and cut their feet on the razor sharp rocks. The doctor is kept busy stitching wounded feet.

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A wealthy American, Eva Gebhard Gourgaud, gets credit for Aix’s revival in the 1920s. The island, initially settled by monks in the Middle Ages, played an important role in France’s military history throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. During the Napoleonic period, several thousand troops were lodged in forts and barracks on the island. Napoleon even requested reinforcements of Aix’s fortifications after an island visit in 1808.

Carriage rides are popular
Carriage rides are popular

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the military presence was on the decline. The island was dying. A French journalist wrote a report on the island’s imminent demise. Eva, wife of Baron Napoleon Gourgaud who was a descendant of Napoleon’s aide, read the article, visited, and fell in love with Aix. ”She decided to buy everything.” Berniard said. She opened the island to culture and aix.blog6tourism.

A tourist favorite is the house where Napoleon surrendered to the English in 1815, and where he spent his last three days on French soil before being exiled to St. Helena in the South Atlantic. This year marks 200 years since Napoleon returned to France after nine months of exile on the island of Elba.

The house, which has displays on the Napoleonic era, is open to visitors, as is Aix’s Mother of Pearl House where proprietor Herve Gallet will tell you the fascinating story about the island and mother of pearl.aix.blog9

His parents moved to Aix in 1948, hoping to grow grape vines and sell wine. That failed, so they started making objects of shells collected on the beach to sell to tourists. That enterprise took off, and they expanded to make products of mother of pearl. “There are 148,000 varieties of sea shells,” Gallet said, “but only 16 can be used for mother of pearl.” Mother of pearl was imported from India, Mexico, Polynesia and other countries, since shells from Aix are not suitable.

Mother of pearl in the making
Mother of pearl in the making

Between 1720 and 1980, mother of pearl was a major industry in France, Gallet explained, with some 30,000 workers in the country producing buttons. On Aix, however, mother of pearl was used to make souvenirs and decorative items, not buttons. These are still made by Gallet. In his workshop he demonstrates the process of extracting and polishing mother of pearl from shells. His Mother of Pearl house is a type of museum where an audio guide and videos explain the biology and chemistry of sea shells. His shop offers an extensive range of mother of pearl products, from reasonably priced jewelry items to a mirror with a price tag of 1,750 euros.   I bought two pairs of earrings — a pearl souvenir from a pearl of an island.

Hotel Napoleon, http://www.hotel-ile-aix.com

Les Paillotes, island restaurant, http://www.restaurantlespaillotes.fr

In addition to the Hotel Napoleon, Aix offers numerous bed and breakfast accommodations. www.Iledaix.fr

More on Aix: www.iledaix.fr/?lang=en

The Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oléron are two other, much larger French islands off the country’s west coast. Both also offer beaches, biking, hiking, boating, fishing – plus more hotels. http://www.holidays-iledere.co.uk/and oleron-island.com

Try my aioli — the recipe featured in Today’s Taste in column at right.

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