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Have you ever built up an expectation of how a place will look, only to find it completely different when you arrive? I’m quite sure that most travellers will have had this experience at one time or another. We had this experience when visiting Ile de Noirmoutier on the west coast of France.
As avid watchers of the Tour de France each year, we like to use their “tour map” as a means of identifying new places in France that we haven’t been to before. Each year, the roads travelled by the cyclists resemble a list of “where we’ve been, and where we’ve yet to go”. We get excited when we recognise a town we’ve been to, and quickly make a note of new ones.
In 2011, the Tour de France commenced its annual campaign here, at Ile de Noirmoutier and the Passage du Gois.
Where is it?
Ile de Noirmoutier is an island just off the mainland of France, west of Nantes. Whilst the island itself is beautiful, it is the access to the island that is a feature in itself. At one end there is a conventional bridge providing easy access out to the island.
Passage du Gois
But it is the centuries-old causeway, the Passage du Gois, that draws all the attention, with thousands of tourists coming here each year to experience the drive to the island. A mix of the older cobblestones that once lined the entire 4km passage meets with newer road surfaces, now used to repair deteriorating cobbles.
Whatever the surface, the road allows vehicular traffic to run the gauntlet against the tide, making their way to and from the island, in between the two high tides that completely submerge it twice a day.
On the mainland, large signs carry all the information that you will need to ensure a safe passage. Ignore this at your peril or else you’ll find yourself in need of one of the safety towers. If you are in a vehicle, you’ll also be in need of some exceptional insurance should your car get stuck.
These signs give clear information relating to the times of the tides.
You can see that the height of the road offers no resistance to an incoming tide.
(click on full screen to enlarge)
At low tide, locals in their gum boots and waders come out in their droves to hunt for shellfish on the exposed mud flats.
They even park their cars on the mud flats too. Increases the need to watch the tide!!
All of this is done with an ever watchful eye on the incoming tide. A tide that comes in from all directions and can quite easily sneak up behind you, blocking your exit back to the road. It’s part relaxation, part adventure.
People do get caught!
At strategic points along the causeway (although not nearly as many as you might hope for if you find you need them) are safety towers. These are built to provide refuge for unsuspecting people who find that the tide has indeed caught them unawares. It’s a long wait for the tide to recede once you are up here too.
As we drove across here in a motorhome, we spent quite some time reading the sign and talking to locals to ensure it was safe enough to cross the causeway.
What’s on the island?
What the island lacks in size (it’s only 20km long and 7km wide), it makes up for it with great beaches, activities and industries that thrive on the sea. Fishing and sea salt production are two of the largest industries here. Some of the best sea salts comes from this region, and further up on the Normandy coast.
Each year, the lure of warmer temperatures, sun and sand turn the island into a haven for holidaying families, particularly those coming from England. It is a a reasonably simple trip across on a ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo. The island is then a three hour drive south.
Are we really in France?
On first sight of the island’s buildings, I felt as though the 4km of causeway had taken us away from France and into the Mediterranean. The whitewashed walls of the houses and the terracotta tiled roofs conjured up images of Portugal and Spain. Clearly, its proximity to these countries has been an influence. It definitely doesn’t look French.
The main city on the island is Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile, where cobbled streets give an air of days gone by, and finally I feel like we are back in France.
There are many wonderful places to eat here, many as you can imagine, specialising in fresh seafood.
The city is also home to the Chateau de Noirmoutier, built in the 12th century. It’s worthy of a visit, even if just for the view from its belltower.
How do you get here?
Visiting Ile de Noirmoutier is straightforward. Visitors to the region can fly or catch the TGV to nearby Nantes and hire a car for the short drive. With a deep-berth marina, the island offers a safe place to moor visiting boats. The west coast of France is also an incredible place to drive, with many interesting towns in the area. This was our preferred approach.
Once on the island, public transport is easily accessible. It is also easy to walk and cycling is a regular method of getting around.
With a number of secluded beaches dotted around the island and quick access to the mainland, it’s no wonder it is a destination for those who crave the sand between their toes on their holidays.
Visiting Ile de Noirmoutier is a great place to put on your French itinerary!
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