Rolling in the Isles

P1000419In D. H. Lawrence’s short story “The Man Who Loved Islands”, the protagonist has an obsessive desire to live on his own island and moves from one to another, becoming increasingly isolated from his fellow man. My own discovery of three of the islands off the French Atlantic coast has worked in the reverse direction sequentially if not existentially, from the most isolated to the most populated. The Ile D’Yeu first, only accessible by boat. Then Ile de Ré, a relatively small but picture-perfect place, with blue-shuttered, white former fishermen’s cottages and streets lined with hollyhocks, accessible by bridge and very much Paris-sur-Mer in terms of human fauna. And now, the Ile d’Oléron, the largest of the three, also connected to the mainland since 1965 by bridge. The latter is the least prettified of the three, but makes up for it with amazing natural beauty and a certain breathtaking wildness whereas the Ile de Ré, for example, seems entirely crafted by the hand of man.

We stayed in a small hotel directly on the shore near Saint Trojan les Bains, with marshland (Le Marais des Bris) and a magnificent forest of maritime pines on the southern tip of the island. The seascapes are huge, with mussels growing on wooden structures on the mudflats, people digging for cockles and giant jellyfish stranded by the tide. When the water turns, the sea reportedly rises as fast as a galloping steed, though we thought better of acquiring a galloping steed to test this theory which seemed entirely tenable. The coastal bird life is spectacular, with many herons and egrets. 

The coastline of the ile d’Oléron is dotted with brightly painted fishermen’s cabins, often turned into artisan’s workshops these days, and, apart from the salterns, one of the main attractions here is oysters and oyster farming. Go to Fort Royer if you want to see this operation on a larger scale. 

We went off-season, in October, and the locals all seemed to be staggering after the summer invasion of tourists, who on whole they appear to hate with a vengeance.

Driving through the oyster farming region on the east coast, we passed one hut that had a seafood shop and café, advertising in big coloured lettering “Huitres – Dégustation sur Place”, with tables and chairs on a little covered terrace overlooking the waterways. We parked and perused the seafood menu and lists of oyster platters. A man working on a tractor pointedly ignored us so went to the shop to order. “Oh no,” said the teenage girl behind the counter, “You can’t eat oysters here. It’s winter. It’s far too cold.” I pointed out that it was not winter, but autumn, that it was a lovely sunny day, and that we wanted to eat oysters – it was, indeed, the reason why we had stopped the car. “We’re far too busy to serve only two people,” she said, “and anyway, you’re the first customers of the day.” Clearly being the first customers of the day, even though it was three o’clock in the afternoon, was not perceived as an advantage and she would have preferred none whatsoever. I thought of mentioning the pointlessness of having giant signs luring oyster-lovers off the road when serving oysters appeared to be the last thing on earth that she wanted to do, but pointlessness seemed to be the order of her day so we retired, accepting defeat with a heavy heart. After all, there were other places. The world was our oyster…

We drove to La Cotinière, a modest little fishing village on the west coast of the island and found an eatery that advertised oyster platters. “Sorry,” said the waitress, “our man who opens the oysters and prepares the platters has gone home.”

This was getting serious…

“O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter, 
You’ve had a pleasant run! 
Shall we be trotting home again?’ 
But answer came there none – 
And this was scarcely odd, because 
They’d eaten every one.”

Seeing our crests fall, as they were now getting into the habit of doing, she added cheerfully, “But there’s an oyster seller just next door. Get your oysters there and you can eat them here.”

The small deep-sea oysters were 7.40€ for 26, about half the cost of what we’d have paid in a mainland supermarket, and the oyster seller gave us plates and knives, telling us to bring them back when we’d finished. The contrast with the roadside venue in terms of customer service and simple humanity was complete. So grateful were we, indeed, that we returned to the same establishment for dinner, but the accommodating waitress had been replaced by a shabby waiter so utterly lacking in class and savoir faire that he was almost worth the detour in himself – no water on the table, no salt and pepper, a seafood platter (albeit cheap and cheerful) with no implements to extract winkles from their shells and only one thin slice of lemon for the two of us, no shallot vinegar for the oysters. When he opened the white wine, after sloshing half a glass on the table and not wiping it up, he tossed the cork and metallic cover into the ice in the ice bucket. Shortly thereafter, we overheard him boasting about his years of experience in the catering trade to some nearby locals. Once again, we sensed that here was someone who was reeling, punch drunk from the blows of the tourist season and whose world-weary incompetence was just that – “nothing personal”.

Our hotel manager was no exception. We’d read the highly favourable TripAdvisor reviews before coming and the owner had responded with withering irony to the very few mildly critical ones, so much so that we built up a perfect photofit of her before meeting her. We were not to be disappointed. On arrival, I asked if there was a WC I could use and she said “Oh yes, we’re very modern here.” Her subsequent ripostes were in the same cavalier, nonchalantly sardonic vein. Being October, we’d negotiated a good deal on the room, but after the first evening dining in the expensive hotel restaurant, we did not return, purely for budgetary reasons. Each time she saw us leave or return, her stony glare confirmed that our failure to continue patronising her restaurant was a calamitous blot on our escutcheon.  I sensed a sting coming, and come it did. Our little dog, Alec, whom she’d accepted without demur when booking, now had to pay for his stay – “supplément chien” as it said on the bill, a fact that she’d neglected to mention, or more probably had invented post hoc ergo propter hoc. It was no mean sum. Alec was naturally unable to cough up, so I came to his rescue – noblesse oblige… and frankly the least I could do for a Maltese terrier.

There’s something highly practical, but poetically tragic, about connecting islands to the mainland by bridges and tunnels, like delivering a slow lethal injection through an intravenous drip. What happened to that precious stone set in silver seas, which serve it in the office of a wall or as a moat defensive to a house against the envy of less happier lands? One senses that if it were a little bit more difficult for tourists to get here, and if they could leave their diabolical gas guzzlers on the mainland, the Ile d’Oléron locals would be a happier tribe. Be that as it may, this island is a place of exceptional natural beauty, the air is intoxicatingly pure and outside the evident abominations of July and August it comes quietly into its own. Here “off” is definitely the new “on” and “low” the new “high” – an opinion that the gentleman in the photo below would, I feel sure, endorse, if he could stir himself to do so.

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© 2020 Adrian Mathews