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Ile de Ré, France: Bicycles and Hollyhocks

Ile de Ré, France: Bicycles and Hollyhocks

Ile de Ré, France: Bicycles and Hollyhocks

Ile de Ré, France

Bicycles and Hollyhocks

Arriving on Ile de Ré, off the West coast of France, the first things you notice are the wild hollyhocks and the bicycles. They’re both ever-present.

Hollyhocks in all colors are everywhere, growing in pots, out of cracks in the pavement, along village roads – anywhere they can gain a foothold. And even thought it’s drizzling a bit, everyone is riding bicycles: old men in straw fedoras carrying baguettes (really!), women with straw baskets strapped to the back, children with their friends, tourists and locals alike. Bike riders in skirts, coats, shorts, boots, flip-flops – every combination of dress and footwear you can think of.

I want to be one of them. I want to ride through the little markets, pick up sweets and treats, and feel like one of the villagers. It’s clear, bicycles are the first choice of transportation on Ile de Ré.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think I can ride a bike. I haven’t ridden since I was injured many years ago, an accident that rendered one arm “not dependable.”  My plan is for Jim and Yao Yao to ride bikes while I stay behind, reading or taking photographs. I don’t want them to miss out. Yao Yao loves to ride her bike, and this island caters to bike riders with trails all over the island.

We’re staying in Le Bois Plage, a small village on the southern part of the island, a popular seaside resort with a daily open-air market that halts all traffic from morning to early afternoon. Locals hawking straw baskets, pots and pans, linen dresses, jewelry, and the ubiquitous French striped sailor-style blouses line the streets. At the permanent covered market next door – Les Halles – every type of fresh produce, bread, cheese, meat, and fish are spread out like an immovable feast. Our little town is dotted with cafes and eateries, and it boasts a wonderful beach and sand dunes that rival the Hamptons.

We rent a car and drive around quite a bit of the French island. For such a small place, it’s incredibly varied in its terrain: One minute I feel as if I’m in Monterey, California, the next I’m in Provence, and the next I’m in Nantucket. Medieval towns give way to tidy vineyards, then to marshes dotted with salt-pans and oyster farms.

Suddenly, I spot a woman riding a three-wheel bike, and I think: Could I? Why not?  

The next morning we head to the bike shop, and I ask in my impeccable French (not!) about the three-wheeler. The shop owner tries to steer me toward a standard six-speed two-wheeler, but he doesn’t understand my physical challenge. (I hide it well.) I take him up on his offer to take the three-wheeler out for a spin, and he’s right – it’s horrible. It’s hard to steer and very slow, and there’s no way I can keep up with Jim and Yao Yao. He pushes me to try the two-wheeler, and he takes the bike to a courtyard where I can try it without risk of hurting (and humiliating) myself. I try the bike and it’s fine. It’s better than fine, it’s easy.

The bike is a hybrid, neither a sleek racer nor a chunky mountain bike. The handlebars are curved much farther back than the bikes I typically see at home. Within 20 minutes we’re all fitted with bikes and a map of the island’s bike trails, and we’re on our way.

It was a slow start as we headed out of Le Bois Plage to Saint Martin-en-Ré by way of La Courade. The big surprise was how open and easy to navigate the bike trails were. Yao Yao loves to ride her bike at home, but it’s often a harrowing experience due to narrow country roads and SUVs barreling down on you.  Within five minutes we could see Yao Yao’s confidence swell. We ride through the cobblestone streets with a minor amount of vibration, past homes with shutters in various shades of green and blue and hollyhocks lining the way. Then suddenly we’re on bike trails through vineyards and oyster farms and salt flats.

There’s something magical – and liberating – about being on a bike and feeling no fear of traffic, potholes, storm grates, or other riders. It’s quite a feeling. My biggest concern was Jim’s need to show off his bike-riding expertise, racing in front of us, then slowing down with no warning, causing Yao Yao to panic periodically. It was actually very funny. She became the bike dictator, telling us when we were riding too slowly, or too fast, how many times we had to ring our bells if we wanted to pass. It was a real joy.  At the end of the first day, Jim proclaimed it “one of the best days I’ve ever had.” (Hyperbole, anyone? But it was wonderful, I must concede.)

Admittedly, our frequent stops for “nourishment” – sometimes fresh-shucked oysters, or shrimp, or tapenade and cheese and warm bread, or (best of all for Yao Yao) ice cream – added immense enjoyment. That, combined with sunny days, cool breezes, and the fact that daylight lasts until 10:00 p.m., made this a very special adventure.

It’s hard to describe the sense of freedom and abject pleasure I had doing something so simple. I would never have agreed to try this at home. I was told I would never ride a bike again. Was it the gentle encouragement of the shopkeeper at Tout a Velo, the bike shop in Le Bois Plage? The island’s network of bike paths and the sheer spectacular beauty of the landscape?  Or was it was being surrounded by bicycle riders of every age, shape, and expertise? Yes, it was all the above. But I think wanting to be part of this particular island experience – and to be able to share it with my husband and daughter – was the most important reason of all.

The big lesson: Whether your family includes babies, toddlers, or teens, and no matter how old you are or what kind of shape you’re in, everyone can ride bikes. (We saw bikes dragging two-wheeled “tents” carrying dogs, babies, and groceries!)

It’s a great way to slow down – and enjoy the hollyhocks.

Bike Shop: Tout A Vélo

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Biking Highlights

Yao Yao

  • I loved the freedom of riding a bike without worrying about cars.
  • It was great entering into the different towns from a bike path.
  • Riding a bike is an easy and fun way to get exercise.
  • The trails were surrounded by flowers and farms, so it was really pretty.

Samantha

  • I love the beauty everywhere we rode, with no freeways or huge intersections, only cobblestone streets, medieval villages, sand dunes, and vineyards.
  • Riding into the little villages was such a pleasure. The feeling is so much more intimate than when you arrive by car.
  • Riding with my family was so much fun. We laughed all day. (Well, almost all day: Yao Yao was pretty irritated with Mr. Bike Show-off!)
Biking Lowlights

Yao Yao

  • My mom and dad didn’t listen to my rules. My dad kept passing me without ringing his bell.
    The most irritating thing was my dad would slow down without telling us, so I didn’t know if he was stopping or turning! He weaved back and forth with his bike, so he didn’t have to stop. It was so annoying.
  • If we rode a long way to the beach or a village and had lunch, we had to ride all the way back to our hotel!
  • I didn’t want to give my bike up.It’s much better than the one I have at home!

Samantha

  • Jim’s need to slow down in front of Yao Yao, causing her to yelp! (It was actually kind of cute.)
  • The fact that this kind of bike riding doesn’t exist close to our home. I think I would live on the bike!
  • I lost my stunning toquilla straw hat! I had it strapped to the bike and it blew away – unfortunately, I was pulling up the rear, so nobody noticed it was gone!

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