Sea of dreams: Living in La Rochelle by the Île de Ré
PUBLISHED: 10:06 24 June 2020
Mick and Carole Williams live in the coastal city of La Rochelle, just across the water from their holiday let in Sainte-Marie-de-Ré, one of the oldest villages on the idyllic Île de Ré
What were you doing before you moved to France?
We were living in Brighton with our four-year-old twin girls, Anya and Lucie. Carole, my wife, was working as a pianist at The Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden, where she had been for 17 years. I was working as an advocate for people with learning difficulties.
We had already bought our first French house just before the girls were born, in a little village called Saint-Pierre-d’Amilly, half an hour from the coast and La Rochelle.
It was a huge renovation project, but a real coup de coeur (love at first sight). We hadn’t intended to live there, it was to be our holiday home. After some fantastic holidays there, we thought about making the move permanently. It wasn’t much of a master plan and perhaps not overthinking it helped to make it happen.
We’d had enough of the commutes to work, we wanted to start a new adventure and it was the right time for the girls who were about to start school. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the culture and language, but most importantly spend quality time with Anya and Lucie as they grew up.
What attracted you to Charente-Maritime?
We wanted to be far enough south to benefit from a better climate, but didn’t want too long a journey to and from the UK. The ferry at Saint-Malo is only a three and a half hour drive and our local airport at La Rochelle has regular cheap UK flights.
Charente-Maritime is renowned for its micro-climate and is the second sunniest spot in France.
Did you know the area well already?
Not at all! We came here on a week’s property-hunting holiday and fell in love with La Rochelle and the Île de Ré. It was lovely to slowly discover all the other wonderful places nearby – the Marais Poitevin in particular is a stunningly beautiful area of canals and pretty villages. There’s also the Île d’Oléron with it’s wonderful oysters and Île-d’Aix is special too, accessible only by boat, with no cars on the island.
Was it easy to find a suitable property?
On our week’s holiday back in 2002, we’d booked three days with estate agents and on each day we saw something that we could imagine ourselves in; from town houses to old stone country barns. Our criteria was simply to find somewhere we’d look forward to coming to on holiday, not knowing then that the house would become our home too for seven years.
How long have you lived there?
In all we’ve been in France for nearly 14 years; seven years in the countryside and seven years in La Rochelle.
What do you most enjoy about living in La Rochelle?
You can walk everywhere. We live in a quartier called La Genette, which has everything on its doorstep; from our house, the sea is a five-minute walk and the town centre 10 minutes. We have some amazing local food shops, just a couple of minutes away.
The town centre is beautiful and steeped in history. Walking and biking along the port and through the town is a real pleasure. You can take the electric boat across the harbour to the library and Les Minimes, and if you want to go further afield, you can hop on boats to take you to Île d’Aix, Île de Ré, Fort Boyard, Île d’Oléron – all from the old port.
There is a thriving Irish bar scene (General Humbert, McNulties, Corrigans) and cool summer hang-outs like La Trinquette and l’Endroit near the beach. A new area called Le Gabut, is great fun. Open from April until the end of summer every day until midnight, it’s an open air space for arts, dance and music, serving food and drink and popular with all ages.
We also have La Sirène, which is a great live music venue and the Dragon cinema has films in English with French subtitles. We feel very lucky to be living here.
Do you have a favourite market or shop?
The daily fresh market in the centre of town is wonderful and spills out onto the surrounding streets on Wednesdays and Fridays. At Christmas time it’s really buzzing and through most of the year you can enjoy a plate of oysters from the market at the local cafés.
We love the ice creams at Ernest and the scooter van which sells them around town and by the beach in summer.
Le Piment Blue and the Asian Supermarket, both near the market, are good for herbs and spices.
What is it like throughout the seasons?
It’s fairly quiet in autumn and winter, but we appreciate the lull. The beaches on the Île de Ré are great in winter for long walks when no-one is around. It can get quite hectic in summer, especially August. July is when there is the music festival Les Francofolies de La Rochelle and of course Bastille night and the fireworks.
When did you find La Maison Balnéaire on the Île de Ré?
In 2010, having searched for two years, it was suggested to us by a notaire’s office. The photos were awful, so we weren’t keen to see it, but again it was a real coup de coeur!
What impressed you most about the villa?
The front is stunning, with iron gates and stairs leading to the main door. It has a wooden façade in the balnéaire (seaside) style which is listed. It is unique as it is the last house of this type on the island.
Did you have a lot of work to do to convert it into a stylish gîte?
The previous owner had already renovated the house tastefully and it felt immediately right for our holiday lettings business. We just had to update a few things and put our stamp on it.
What do your guests love most about the Île de Ré?
Bike riding on the 100km of cycle lanes – people often choose to leave the car at home. The beaches are beautiful and numerous, with lots of water sports activities; the very pretty villages, the salt fields, the donkeys, the lighthouse, the markets – there is so much to enjoy!
Can you recommend a good restaurant?
Le Bistrot du Marin at Saint-Martin-de-Ré does consistently good food with a lovely relaxed atmosphere. We also like our local restaurant Chai Pepette just round the corner from the house at Sainte-Marie-de-Ré.
In La Rochelle there are many restaurants in town, some of our favourites are La Fleur de Sel, Prao, Bettini’s and Le Cabanon des Pêcheurs.
Is there any aspect of living in Charente-Maritime that surprised you?
It’s not easy to find work, so it’s best to have a good plan as to how you’re going to make your living.
What advice would you give to expats thinking of moving to France?
Check how you will be covered for health cover, post-Brexit. Don’t close your UK bank accounts when you move, as you won’t be able to open a new one, unless you still have a UK address.
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