I’m standing at what feels like the end of the Earth. It’s a desolate place and the Atlantic winds here are so strong that the pine trees are bent double as if cowering from an evil force. A black and white, candy-striped lighthouse surveys the seas and warns sailors to keep their distance. It is surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens which are patrolled by feral cats.
I’m visiting the most westerly point of the Ile d’Oleron which attracts thousands of tourists each year. Not so many in November though, when the weather deteriorates and the locals batten down the hatches for the winter months.
I began my tour of the island in Le Chateau, a walled town which lacks a chateau but does have a 17th century maritime fortification called La Citadelle. More interesting is the tiny port dotted with colourful shacks, once used for fishing and now taken over as art and crafts shops. The tide is out but flat bottomed boats, reminiscent of World War II Normandy beach landing craft, cruise up a narrow dredged channel into the port, returning from the oyster beds to unload their catch. The oysters are then transported to ‘claires’ (special, less saline oyster beds) surrounding the town, in order to mature until they are ready to be eaten. The whole process can take at least 2 years. Much as I love seafood, I’m not very fond of oysters. So, when I take lunch in a local restaurant overlooking the port, I choose the mussels and grilled sea bream.
After lunch I decide to take a scenic drive around the 175 sq km island, the second largest in France, after Corsica. On the east coast I stop briefly at Boyardville where I was hoping to get a view of the offshore Fort Boyard. A 19th century ‘stone ship’ built to protect the harbours of Aix Island and Rochefort after the end of the 7 Years’ War, it is probably more well known as the location for the 80’s game show starring Dirty Den from Eastenders and the page 3 pinup Melinda Messenger. Unfortunately the mists obscure it from view.
In the evening I end up in St Pierre, the most central town and capital of the island. At the Caves d’Oleron I sample the local wines and also the pineau, an aperitif made from grape juice and cognac. Later I stop by the Eldorado Cinema to see the newly released film ‘Gravity’, an action/drama set in outer space. It is then that I realise, I may have stood at the end of the earth but at least I’m still attached to it.