FRANCE 46° 0’ 43”N
By Camille Chatenet
1 June 2017
The absolute tranquility of the soul – this is what Aix harbors when the crowds of tourists from the mainland, returning from their trips, finally leave this haven at peace.
Located in the estuary of the Charente River, and caught between the giant Île d’Oléron and the Atlantic Coast, Île-d’Aix had the ideal geographic predispositions to become a very crucial military platform: the last rampart, the final stronghold before the mainland, the vanguard of the formidable Arsenal de Rochefort, as shown by the many fortifications, designed by Vauban in the 17th century, interspersed throughout the island’s modest length (barely 2 km). They are casemates, now covered by thick grasses and bushy tamarisks.
The small town that houses fewer than 300 inhabitants per year is bounded by imposing ramparts and proud drawbridges spanning deep and broad moats: a small citadel full of history. By gazing upon this island from the Pierre Loti (the boat that travels between Fouras and Aix every day), you understand why Emperor Napoleon wanted to retire there. It is an oasis that inspires confidence and security from the start, far, far away from the din and the shambles. And if the child who was Napoleon, still unknown to the world, took his first steps on Corsica, the largest island in France, it is indeed the illustrious emperor who set foot on this tiny plot surrounded by the tides, thus treading for the last time on French soil before his exile to Saint Helena, where his fate awaited him. Today, there is a museum dedicated to him that constitutes one of the main tourist attractions.
Off the coast of the island, you can just catch sight of the mythical Fort Boyard, a former prison of the French army, hosting the rebels from La Commune on 19th century, abandoned to the water like the wreck of a ghost ship frozen in time. Emptied of its canons and prisoners, the “Fort de l’inutile” (“useless fort” as it was renamed by the Charentais) had only ocks of seagulls for visitors for almost 80 years. Only after its purchase in the early 1990s, thanks to its game show and daring participants, did it become notorious. To the delight of tourists, who are now familiar with its name, the ferries coming from La Rochelle do not hesitate to gravitate toward it for a few moments.
While constituting a masterpiece of the strategic puzzle that represented the Pertuis d’Antioche in the 17th century, Île-d’Aix was mostly a small earthly paradise, a haven of quietude and silence, spared from the continental tumult, so much so that in the 11th century, monks from the monastic order of Cluny established an abbey there. Nowadays, the same calm reigns over the island, this land where no car runs and disturbs the silence of nature. It’s an almost “religious” calm, at least during the low season. The same cannot be said about the summer season.
Indeed, the hot days of July and August attract floods of tourists every day who crowd and pack the several ferries from La Rochelle and Fouras. They enjoy the historical treasures of the island, the Napoleon Museum, the African Museum, Fort Liédot, walks on the ramparts or along the half-Mediterranean, half-Atlantic coastline, reminiscent of Landes and its blond sand dunes bordered by tamarisks and stone pines, sometimes Corsica and its coasts cut out of sharp rocks. However, they miss out on the true charm of the island, namely, the unshakeable silence brought by dusk.
Once the visitors have returned to their homes, only a few vacationers remain, having been accustomed to the island for so long that they feel at home there, as well as the true islanders, the Aixois, recognizable by the serenity they give off as they nonchalantly pedal through the colorful streets, between the mauve and the azure of the homes that the hollyhocks enamel. It’s simple. When Île-d’Aix regains its peace, you feel like children in an amusement park that is open for you and only you. Passing in front of the emperor’s house or under the harbor arch, breathing in the ocean air along the oyster beds and places,
or even stretched out at the foot of the two big lighthouses, searching for their eyes that sink into the night sky, you can only rejoice and shout, “What peace of mind there is here!”
WHERE TO DINE
Le Bar Beau Teint
4 rue Gourgaud, Ile d’Aix, France / Tél. : +33 (0)6 65 15 59 38
WHERE TO STAY
Service maritime de l’île d’Aix
Boulevard de la Fumée, 17450 Fouras, France Tél. :+33 (0)5 46 84 60 50
Office du tourisme : iledaix.fr