We were halfway to Ile d’Aix when I realized we forgot the butter. Aboard the Pierre Loti — a ferry named for the wayfaring 19th-century novelist — I spied dozens of wheeled carts brimming with groceries. The island’s 213 residents and weekenders haul all their supplies from the mainland, the French Atlantic coast in the Poitou-Charentes region. Aix is car-free, with only a smattering of cafes and boutiques in one sun-bleached village. The Pierre Loti sliced through the waves, and the mainland’s houses, and that soon-to-be faraway supermarket, melted into the horizon. A weekend without butter, the most holy of French culinary staples?
I’ve spent a lot of time in La Rochelle and the neighboring Ile de Re, a chic island destination oft equated with the Hamptons, but I’d never before heard of Ile d’Aix. Just 20 minutes by boat from the port of Fouras, this tiny pearl of an island is shaped like a — wait for it! — croissant. Seemingly adrift in the Atlantic, it’s the last bit of certified French ground on which Napoleon Bonaparte stayed before his ultimate exile to the remote island of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Butter turned out to be available at the island’s lone market, and we quickly fell in love with this paradise. Blessed with a gentle microclimate and abundant sunshine, Aix immerses visitors in quietude and nature. A quick spin around (on a bike, bien sûr!) and you’ll spy aloe plants, wild mustard, green oak, parasol pines and a glorious array of wildflowers. The only sounds you’ll hear are birds chirping and waves crashing.
For the past few years, we’ve gathered the extended family — my French husband’s parents and three siblings — for a long spring weekend on a different French island. We book a gîte, or rental cottage, and parcel up the cooking so that Mamie Michelle (grandmother and chef extraordinaire) has a break from menu-planning.
Though less than two miles long and half a mile wide, Aix had something for everyone in our family group. Hiking trails that led to secluded coves of turquoise water; a wide beach for sportif swimmers and another sandy crescent where our young daughters collected shells; cycling paths through vineyards; seafood shacks serving fresh oysters paired with Pineau des Charentes; a lighthouse and centuries-old forts. And then there’s Napoleon.
It was here in 1808 that the emperor, in his Ahablike quest to vanquish his British archenemies, oversaw plans to reinforce the fortifications along the Atlantic coast that had been started under the Sun King, Louis XIV. The monarch’s genius military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, had constructed coastal forts that have together been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. To these, Napoleon added a beltlike wall of defense protecting the naval arsenal at the port of Rochefort.
In addition, he defied engineering odds and built a fortress in the middle of the ocean, between Ile d’Aix and the nearby Ile d’Oleron. Called Fort Boyard, it blocked the chinks in the coastal armor, enabling cannon fire to reach areas unprotected by the defenses on Ile d’Aix and completing an invincible ring around the Charente estuary. Today Fort Boyard is the setting for France’s most famous reality-TV game show, where contestants partake in a number of medieval-themed endurance challenges.
Napoleon returned in 1815 under less auspicious circumstances. After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon fled to Aix while various escape plans were hatched (including his brother Joseph’s plot to transport him to the New World). With an escort of some 70 people, Napoleon occupied the local military commander’s residence, a stately structure that towers over the island’s traditional, low-slung dwellings. After three days, Napoleon chose a dignified exit, rather than risk a daring sea escape like the one he’d made from the island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany.
“I have ended my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to seat myself at the hearth of the British people,” he wrote to George IV, the the prince regent. “I put myself under the protection of its laws, which I claim from your Royal Highness as the most powerful, the most constant and most generous of my enemies.”
With Napoleon in exile was Gen. Gaspard Gourgaud, whose grandson bought the Aix house in 1926 with the help of his American heiress wife, Eva Gebhard. The mansion has morphed into a Napoleon museum, filled with relics, busts and portraits in gilded frames. In fact, it’s thanks to the Gourgauds that much of the island’s cultural heritage — derelict and abandoned after the island’s military forts were closed in 1927 — was saved from destruction. In the museum also hang portraits of the Baroness Gourgaud, a transplanted New York socialite, dressed to the nines in Roaring Twenties garb. Smitten by the island’s soulful beauty, the Gourgauds devoted their lives to protecting this little slice of coastal heaven.
Across the street is the African Museum, a quirky showcase for stuffed giraffes, gorillas, cheetahs, zebras and other hunting trophies from the Baron Gourgaud’s adventures in Kenya. The Gourgauds’ pink-hued home, the Maison Rose, still stands sentinel on the village’s main street, facing the Hotel Napoleon. The Baroness was obsessed with the color, and the interiors used to be the same pink as could be found on her letter-writing paper.
As we cycled down tiny lanes planted with hollyhocks, I wondered what Napoleon, the proud Corsican islander, thought of these idyllic surroundings during the final days of his political reign.
Few historical figures are as widely fascinating as Napoleon. Although he plunged the country into decades of war, he fiercely defended religious freedom and civil liberties. His legacy lives on today with the Napoleonic Civil Code (the basis of modern French law), not to mention the country’s infrastructure and the very look of monument-studded Paris. Far beyond French borders, he’s a charismatic figure: Just look at Iowa’s latest tourism campaign, starring a bike-riding Napoleon who regrets selling the state as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
This year marks the 200th anniversary year of Napoleon’s final campaign, and France is feting Le Petit Caporal with reenactments and commemorative events in every corner of the country. In March 1815, Napoleon made a glorious comeback when, having escaped from Elba, he marched through the Alps all the way to Paris, amassing an army of loyal supporters along the way. Three months later he was defeated at Waterloo, but the French aren’t worrying about that small detail. In fact, there was quite an uproar this year over Belgium’s proposal for a new two-euro coin depicting the defeat; ultimately, the design was rejected.
Crowds turned out in droves this March for the reenactment of Napoleon’s return. Accompanied by soldiers in full period costume, a Napoleon impersonator — Paris lawyer Frank Samson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the emperor — disembarked on the sun-soaked beaches of Golfe-Juan on the French Riviera. Samson will retire after this important bicentennial year, but not before leading his troops to battle at Waterloo in June, a reenactment event that has been sold out for months.
On the Atlantic coast, a reenactment will take place July 12 depicting Napoleon’s “adieu” to the mainland. The next day, the actors will arrive on the Ile d’Aix, where a sound-and-light show will illuminate the tiny village.
On another family trip, we traveled to the neighboring Ile d’Oleron. France’s second-largest island (after Corsica), Oleron dwarfs the tiny Aix, a speck of flotsam in the sea off its starboard side. While Aix feels like it’s floating out to sea, Oleron is connected to the mainland via a nearly two-mile bridge. There are nature reserves, beaches, a 17th-century citadel, and — at the “bout du monde” (“the end of the earth,” as the island’s northernmost tip is called) — the Phare de Chassiron lighthouse, perched atop gardens laid out like a navigational compass. We rode the “p’tit train” through the pine forest to the Cote Sauvage, or wild coast, where the wind blows so hard and the air is so salty that the bent trees appear to be the victims of forest fire. Out on this wide stretch of beach, we saw nothing but a few sand yachts — essentially surfboards with three wheels and a sail — speeding across the sand.
Sea salt is gathered by hand in the marshes of the Ile d’Oleron, and the fish is so fresh you could’ve been swimming with it moments before. One of the greatest pleasures is shopping the local markets for these fruits de mer, and a favorite is wedge sole to be fried up in healthy amounts of butter. In the charming port of La Cotiniere, we arranged a guided tour of the daily fish auction, where large quantities straight off the boat are sold to wholesale buyers. Historically, buyers would cry out their bids, but today it’s all electronic, with batches sold at lightning speed at the touch of a button.
Between these excursions, engrossed in Andrew Roberts’s excellent new biography “Napoleon: A Life,” I learned that besides his military exploits and skilled political maneuvers, Napoleon was a prolific writer, obsessed with history and the ancient world. He carried a portable library into battle, and in his missives, he erred toward passionate hyperbole.
An endlessly fascinating personage, Napoleon can also be polarizing, even among the French. At dinner one night, for instance, my father-in-law — the usually gregarious patriarch who’s prone to bursting into song at the table — eyed my thick tome of a book, and then paused for effect. “He was equally a villain,” he noted. “Think of all the war trophies he hauled off to the Louvre, the loss of life, the animosity he showed to the church.”
I was disappointed to learn that the emperor never set foot on the island, but it was here, in the island town of Boyardville, that the workers lived while building Fort Boyard offshore.
A more recent Herculean venture, in nearby Rochefort, has been the reconstruction of the Hermione, the tall ship that Lafayette sailed to the New World in 1780 to aid the American revolutionaries. Over a 17-year period, the frigate has been rebuilt true to the original with authentic materials and artisanal craftsmanship.
In April, staffed by a mostly volunteer crew, the Hermione embarked on a transatlantic voyage re-creating Lafayette’s. The ship is expected to arrive in Yorktown, Va., in early June, before sailing the Atlantic Seaboard with other stops including Alexandria, Annapolis and, on the Fourth of July, New York.
For our last adventure on the Ile d’Oleron, we followed the island’s Oyster Route, which winds past colorful wooden fishermen’s huts, many now converted to boutiques or artists’ ateliers. The Marennes-Oleron oysters are arguably the best in France, matured in protected marine pools in a process called affinage. A fourth-generation oyster farmer named Bernard Montauzier showed us his oyster ponds. Affinage is a a painstaking hands-on process, but the results are famously delicious. “La Pousse en Claire is the Rolls-Royce of oysters,” he said, pressing his hand to his lips with a smack of a kiss. Intensely flavored, these oysters are best devoured raw with a squeeze of lemon and a glass of white wine.
Legend has it that Napoleon ate a dozen oysters before heading into battle. I can’t think of a more fitting way to spend our last night on Oleron: slurping briny bivalves that had been plucked from the ponds moments before.
Nicklin is a freelance writer based in Paris. Her Web site is www.marywinstonnicklin.com.
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Rue Gourgaud, Ile d’Aix
With just 18 rooms and one suite, the island’s sole hotel oozes charm. Book ahead for the restaurant, Chez Joséphine, which has a lovely outside terrace. Rooms from $165.
Hotel Novotel Thalassa
Plage de Gatseau, St Trojan Les Bains, Ile d’Oleron
With a terrific beachfront setting near the island’s Côte Sauvage, the Novotel has a destination spa focusing on thalassotherapy (which uses healing properties of the sea). From $126.
A selection of gîtes, or rental houses, can be found here: www.gites-de-france.com
Les Jardins d’Alienor
11 Rue du Marechal Foch, Le Chateau d’Oleron, Ile d’Oleron
A small boutique hotel with an excellent gastronomic restaurant, open Tuesday evening to Sunday evening. Mains from $28.
Le Relais des Salines
Port des Salines, Grand Village Plage, Ile d’Oleron
Housed inside an old oyster farmer’s hut, this terroir-driven restaurant has a relaxed vibe and a deck overlooking the salt ponds. Lunch from $25.
Le P’tit Train de St-Trojan
Rue Camille Samson, St-Trojan-les-Bains, Ile d’Oleron
Open seasonally after early April, with trains departing daily at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. $14, discounts for children and groups.
The island’s museum about Napoleon is open seasonally from 9:30 a.m.-12 p.m. and 2 p.m.-6 p.m. $5.
Ile d’Aix: www.iledaix.fr/?lang=en
Ile d’Oleron: www.oleron-island.com