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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Discovering more of France

Poitou-Charentes? I live in France, but had never been to this region on the country’s mid-Atlantic coast.   When invited to join a press trip there last April, I quickly said yes.

Fireworks fete the Hermione.
Fireworks fete the Hermione.

The pièce de résistance of the trip was the frigate Hermione, the replica of a French warship that ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic in 1780 to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence. Our group joined festivities celebrating the ship’s April departure for the US, duplicating that voyage of 235 years ago. (See previous post, “Hail Hermione”).

That was exciting, but so too was discovering this part of France which is not on most visitors’ travel agenda.   Islands, beaches, canals, pleasant cities, incredible seafood – and Cognac. Poitou-Charentes offers all, and the price is right – less than in those tourist havens such as the Riviera. Following are highlights of my trip.

Savoring oysters on the island of Aix.
Savoring oysters on the island of Aix.

The miniscule island of Aix was the trip favorite. It is so special it deserves its own blog post. I’ll be writing all about this petite paradise in the future, so be sure you are a Tales and Travel subscriber so you don’t miss it. (Sign up – upper right hand corner)blog.16

Marais Poitevin. It was like being lost on a jungle river, even though the trees on shore are poplars and ash, not tropical varieties. We were on a flat bottomed boat gliding through this marshland known as Green Venice. “People do get lost. Even boat drivers get lost,” said our boat pilot as he maneuvered our craft through the confusing maze of canals. There are 40 kilometers of navigable waters in the Marais, and there are signs along the canals, nonetheless it is blog.17daunting. In April, it was a green haven of tranquility with the only sounds those of birds or the splash of a frog jumping into the water. The canals were built by monks in the 12th century to drain the marshes for agriculture. Today they are popular for tourist excursions. You can row your own boat and test your navigation skills. Or, try to punt. The boats can be propelled by a long wooden pole – not easy. Boats with guides who do the work are also available.

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La Rochelle harbor

La Rochelle. I could not stop taking photos of this seaside city whose Vieux Port or Old Port is perfect subject matter with two ancient towers guarding the entrance.   The Saint Nicolas Tower and the Chain Tower were built in the 14th century and served as key defensive bastions to the city for centuries. A third blog.6tower, the Lantern Tower, is the oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. There are splendid photo opps from the rooftops of the towers which can be visited, as well as along the broad walkway around the harbor where everyone likes to stroll and where outdoor tables at restaurants and cafes are popular.blog.9

La Rochelle was known as a rebel city. It was Protestant in the 16th century when the rest of the country was mainly Catholic. The historic old town’s medieval houses, private mansions from the 17th and 18th century and vaulted stone arcades are also worthy of photos. And, all those fish in the city’s Aquarium, rated France’s best aquarium by Trip Advisor.blog.13

Jarnac and Cognac. We sank into oversized soft leather chairs in the dimly lit room whose décor spoke of ancient wealth. We were given blindfolds, told to cover our eyes, relax and concentrate on the scent being sprayed around us.

Eric takes a selfie at blind cognac tasting.
Eric takes a selfie at blind cognac tasting.

Then, take a sip of cognac and identify the flavor that matched the aroma. Three sprays. Three aromas: vanilla, candied orange and Iris flower. They were all pleasant, but my taste buds failed. However, I loved the cognac, Courvoisier XO which sells for 135 euro per bottle.

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The sensory tasting experience at the Courvoisier Chateau in Jarnac, home of the eponymous cognac, was a treat. We learned all about cognac production, from the grapes and soil, to barrels and aging to the double distillation process that results in this potent elixir. We toured the cellars whose treasures include a bottle from 1789, and one valued at 6,900 euro.

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Three major cognac houses (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin) are located in the nearby town of Cognac. Courvoisier, a smaller company whose major market is the United States, is known as the brand of Napoleon. The emperor visited a wine and spirit company in Paris owned by Emmanuel Courvoisier and an blog.30associate in 1811 and is said to have taken several barrels of cognac with him to exile on the island of St. Helena. The English officers on board the ship transporting him to the island enjoyed imbibing the brew and named it “the cognac of Napoleon.” Much later, in 1869, Napoleon III granted Courvoisier the title “Official supplier to the Imperial Court.”

The Napoleon museum at the chateau has a hat of Napoleon’s, as well as a strand of his hair in a frame.

Rochefort is a pleasant city on the Charente river 20 miles from the Atlantic whose 17th century shipyard is where the ship Hermione was reconstructed and where she will reside when she returns from the US voyage in August. Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, wanted supremacy on both land and sea. His adviser and prime minister, Colbert, chose Rochefort as the site of a shipyard. Through the years, some 550 ships were built there. bldg.blog.We visited the Corderie Royale, the royal rope factory, an astonishing structure, 374 meters in length, where we learned how rope was made. The super long building was purpose built to manufacture the vast quantities of rope needed for the rigging of sailing vessels.   Its length enabled it to produce rigging for the length of the frigate’s anchor cable. Because it was constructed during the same time as the Palace of Versailles, it is called “Versailles of the Sea.”

In addition to the Corderie and naval dockyards, Rochefort has a bizarre bridge, the Transporter. The aerial structure, a metallic platform on pillars high above blog.4the river, was built in 1900 and designed to be raised so ships could pass underneath. Only two dozen transporter bridges were ever made, with eight remaining. This is the only one in France still functioning.

Poitiers. Our visit to the regional capital of Poitou-Charentes was brief, but we did get a look at its outstanding church, Notre Dame la Grande and its elaborately sculpted façade. And, the Baptistery of Saint Jean which dates back to the beginning of Christianity and is one of 80 town buildings classified as historical monuments. The wall paintings from the 12th an 13th centuries are remarkable.blog.20

Travel Tipsblog.18

Poitou-Charentes has miles of golden sand beaches as well as miles of bike routes. More on the region at www.visit-poitou-charentes.com

Many excellent hotels in the region, with some  offering  double rooms for less than 100 euro per night. Hotels I can recommend:

Hotel Le Ligaro in Jarnac whose owner is Irish: http://www.hotel-ligaro.com/

Hotel des bains, Fouras (adjacent to Rochefort):  http://www.grandhotel-desbains.fr

Hotel Champlain, La Rochelle, (lots of old world flavor, beautiful gardens): http://www.hotelchamplain.com

Hotel gardens
Hotel gardens

Hotel Mercure Poitiers Centre (church converted into ultra modern, trendy hotel): See web site for Accor hotels, http://www.accorhotels.com

Poitou-Charentes seafood is sensational —especially the oysters.

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Courvoisier offers a variety of tours and tastings, www.courvoisier.com

Happy Travelers in Poitou-Charentes.
Happy Travelers in Poitou-Charentes.

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

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