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Travel to the historic city of Saint-Martin-de-Ré

  • Saint-Martin-de-Ré is the largest town on the Ile de Ré, an island just off the coast of La Rochelle in the department of Charente-Maritime in the région of Poitou-Charentes in the west of France. The historic town was given UNESCO Word Heritage status several years ago thanks to its citadel which was built to strengthen its fortifications following an attack by the British in the 17th century. Still ...
    © Chantal Barber / 123RF
Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination France

Saint-Martin-de-Ré is the largest town on the Ile de Ré, an island just off the coast of La Rochelle in the department of Charente-Maritime in the région of Poitou-Charentes in the west of France. The historic town was given UNESCO Word Heritage status several years ago thanks to its citadel which was built to strengthen its fortifications following an attack by the British in the 17th century. Still standing today, these were built by Louis XIV's engineer, Vauban. Today Sif you travel to Saint-Martin-de-Ré you will find it remains a small town with a population of several thousand whose days of fishing are largely over but which continues to attract a great number of tourists from home and abroad all year round.

St-Martin-de-Ré: what to do?

The main museum in the town is housed in the Hôtel de Clerjotte and is named after the gentleman who founded the former Parisian department store La Samaritaine, Ernest Cognacq. Housed in the museum is a collection once belonging to a local scholar, Théodore Phelipott. There is also a history of the island as well as decorative objects and some temporary exhibitions all year round. Just by the church is the birthplace of Cognacq which can also be visited. There are several markets that take place daily in Saint-Martin-de-Ré and various festivals, exhibitions and antique fairs throughout the year. But one must not forget the real asset of the town, its beach, where, during the summer holidays kids can enjoy donkey rides along the sand.

By far the most interesting part of the town to visit is the citadel and its ramparts which you can do guided tours of an even walk on. The fortifications are now a World Heritage site and are unique in France. For a great view of the town and the rest of the island, there are two viewpoints you should visit. The first is from the bell tower of the Eglise Saint-Martin and the other is from the top of the Phare des Baleines (literally 'Lighthouse of Whales'). The latter houses a small museum about the edifice which was constructed in the mid-19th century. The port, which was once a busy fishing facility, is now more of a marina used for pleasure boats although there are still some fishermen who sell their catch on the quays every morning.

  • Lots of history
  • Easy access
  • Good climate
  • The donkeys in breeches, a small folkloric touch
  • Crowded in school holidays

Reminders

Getting to Saint-Martin-de-Ré is possible by both car and ferry. There is a bridge which starts just outside La Rochelle on the mainland and which ends at the south the Ile de Ré from where you will have to drive north to Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Alternatively there are ferry services starting from both La Rochelle and La-Tranche-sur-Mer right at the north of the Bay of Biscay which serve the town (although these are passenger only ferries. There are several other trips that can be taken on ferry from the island including to the neighbouring Ile d'Aix and Ile d'Oléron as well as the famous Fort Boyard.

To avoid

The town is a very popular tourist destination for both the French and foreign tourists to the region. If you are able to visit outside of the school holidays this would be ideal as it can get fairly busy when the kids are around. Just with any highly touristic destination, some restaurants will try and take advantage of unsuspecting visitors so try and get recommendations from people in the know before you head over.

St-Martin-de-Ré: what to eat?

While there are various specialities from the region, such as cognac, Marenne oysters and mojhette (a type of bean grown in the marshes) the town and island itself does not have any particular culinary star. Perhaps the most famous product is the 'Fleur de sel de l'Ile de Ré', a slightly pink, crunchy salt which is used mainly as a topping rather than a cooking ingredient. Of course, being an island, the sea food is fresh and of good quality and the many restaurants in the town and around the island reflects this.

St-Martin-de-Ré: what to buy?

As with the cuisine, the island and town are not particularly well-known for a specific product or export. The best souvenir you can bring back is some fleur de sel which can be used to improve your dished back home. Aside from this you'll surely find some local produce that you may like to buy as a souvenir, but it is unlikely to be something you couldn't find elsewhere in France.

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