What could be better than a pot of coffee and crossaints (with lots of jam and butter) overlooking Saint-Martin's citadel and the sea? At the charming hotel La Galion, our windows opened out onto the seaside park and lighthouse, encircled by Vauban's ramparts. The mist was heavy that Monday morning, so I was so glad we had soaked up so much sun the day before.
After breakfast we walked along the water's edge, following the fortifications. From the sky, this fortress at Saint-Martin appears to be star-shaped. Vauban was the military engineer for Louis XIV, the Sun King, who constructed a string of forts along the Atlantic coast in the 17th century. France was impenetrable. Now the town of Saint-Martin, along with 13 other sites representing Vauban's work, is a candidate for admission to the UNESCO World Heritage list. (These forts run along the Charente-Maritime coast, and into Bretagne.)
Circling the island by car, we really got a sense of the lay of the land. There are some 30 kilometers of sandy beaches, the best on the southern part of the island. The northern coast is marked by mudflats, oyster farms, and salt evaporation pools. (The day before, we had biked around Loix and discovered the salt marshes and bird sanctuaries there.)
At the westernmost edge, we stopped in Ars-en-Ré
, listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France
, and picked up a picnic of quiche, baby pizza, and desserts galore at the boulangerie, where the line out the door was slowed by the baker's gossipy exchanges with each customer. The town is known for its bizarre church steeple (check out the photo on the official site)-- a black and white conical thing jutting into the sky. It's some 40 meters high and serves as a beacon for sailors. The smattering of whitewashed houses and tangled web of alleyways, fragrant with flowers, are utterly charming.
Dating from the 11th century, the village is surrounded by salt marshes from where workers harvested the coarse sea salt (fleur de sel). Folks still gather the salt from the Fier d'Ars marshes. It was fascinating to see the salt evaporation pools; the mountains of salt near the cooperative of small producers. The piles of salt actually look like dark pebbles.
Stomachs growling, we veered north and headed towards the island's most famous monument, the Phare des Baleines, for our picnic. The first tower built by Vauban, the Grand Phare was in operation from 1682 to 1854. The adjacent lighthouse is one of the tallest in France at 57 meters. I expected to find the crashing Atlantic surf, waves pounding against the beach, but no such luck. Saint-Martin is obviously protected-- not only by the stone fortifications but also by the natural geography of the island, which curves to the north and thus shields the coastal harbor towns from Atlantic surges. But even at the western tip, everything was still and quiet, cushioned by the mud and tidal pools. (It must have been low tide.)
Instead of heading to the top to check out the views, we hopped the high wall to get down to the beach and eat! (So maybe those famed fortifications weren't as foolproof as I thought...) The beach was deserted, except for some fishermen out on the flats. There is a specific method of fishing, native to the region, and those who pêche are adamant about protecting it. Centuries ago, jetties were painstakingly constructed, fitted with rock and nothing but rock to hold them in place. From there, the fishermen can venture out over the sea to fish. Or at low tide-- as we witnessed-- use the jetties as a way to reach the distant tidal pools.
We chatted with a fisherman about the strange sea life we observed from our perch on the jetty. The weirdest mollusk I've ever seen, with wings flapping like a sting ray, inching along the bottom, but sometimes flailing out of the water...
Pictured: The view from our hotel window; a boat tied up in the fortified maze leading from sea to the harbor at Saint-Martin; view of the wind-swept beach on the southern side of the island from the ramparts; shots of the village of Ars; the Phare des Baleines; the fishing jetty; looking back at the lighthouse; no fishing-- except for members of the local association...