Due to its calm and relaxed appearance, it is difficult to believe that the walls of the Ile de Ré have witnessed a tumultuous past in which the English, French and Germans struggled to be the owners of this little paradise. Wars have left their mark on this destination that sports fortifications and lighthouses that have been protagonists of those years in which the calm that currently reigns in this place was not known.
Discover how the Ile de Ré originated, the difficult years lacking stability and everything that this small corner has become, over the years, into a tourist destination with natural spaces that will leave you speechless.
By its name we can think that this destination has always been an island, but it is not like that. At first it was an archipelago consisting of 4 islets: Saint Martin, Ars, Les Portes and Loix. The islets have been united naturally by alluvions that have been getting rid of the space that existed between them, although it has also helped human activity with the creation of marshlands.
There are numerous myths about the islands birth. One of them is that the Ile de Ré appeared after destructive earthquakes and replaced the Roman city of Antioch. Hence the legend that "when Antioquia reappears, the Ile de Ré will disappear". Others, however, think that it is because the ferns (ratis in Latin) covered the land, and this name evolved into Ré.
Already in prehistory the man decided to settle in this place because he knew how to see the strategic point that was involved. The proximity to the sea allowed him to obtain provisions and served as protection to future enemy attacks that, unfortunately, took place later. But it was not until the 12th century that the population began to grow, thanks in part to the construction of the Abbey of Châteliers. The population increased to reach figures similar to those that exist today. However, other factors led to depopulation.
The Hundred Years War between England and France from 1337 to 1453 affected the Ile de Ré, like the rest of the islands of Pertuis Bretón. It was constantly threatened during this period.
The Ile de Ré was the centre where the conflicts that opposed the French and British for the problem of the Catholic religion and the Protestant became evident.
In 1625, Benjamin de Rohan, Duke of Soubise and Protestant, commanded the famous Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré whose objective was to seize the island with the help of the Dutch and English navy. However, the Catholics reacted immediately and he failed in his attempt in which Louis XII emerged victorious and succeeded in freeing it. In the same year the Fort de la Prée was built in La Flotte, a fortress that will serve, years later, for the German forces to install a bunker in it. But in 1627 this fate was again attacked by the English troops of which George Villiers, I Duke of Buckingham, was in command. They disembarked on the Ile de Ré with the aim of continuing to advance to La Rochelle. The commander of the Ile de Ré, Marshal Toiras, resisted this attack with Louis XIII, who sent an army to get the island freed from the English and Dutch siege to which it was subjected. In these moments it happens again at the hands of the French, who believe that they were already exempt from danger. But they were not right, since only a year after the Duke of Buckingham went to Saint-Martin-de-Ré in a desperate attempt to achieve victory, but in this case the strength seemed insurmountable enough. He decided to move his troops to the Northern part of the island to finish, finally, accepting a new defeat in which he lost many of his men.
After continuous attacks, it was decided to create a strong defensive complex on the island so that it would offer a military guarantee and absolute protection to the population. Under the command of Louis XIV, one of the best military engineers of the time, Vauban, was commissioned to carry out this project that was to focus on Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Barely 4 years were enough for walls of 6 kilometres to be extended with the sole purpose of protecting this destination.
It was in 1681 when the fortification of the port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré was carried out that, later, it was used as a prison from which those imprisoned would have to perform forced labour.
The 19th century began with complicated living conditions and intense emigration. In 1853 the Lighthouse of the Whales (57 metres high) was built in Saint-Clément-des-Baleines, which, today, remains one of the most important monuments on the island.
For years the island was connected to the continent only by ferry and, therefore, one of the most important projects was carried out in 1988: the bridge that measures about 3km.
After the outbreak of World War II, in 1940, the German authorities discovered the strategic situation of the Ile de Ré and this is protected from any possible attack with artillery batteries. However, the first German soldiers began to arrive and managed to make Saint-Martin-de-Ré its operating room. The Todt Organisation built bunkers that, to this day, can still be seen. In 1942 the island was already officially occupied by the German navy, which installed its main headquarters in La Couarde.
The intense struggle meant that in 1945 there were few points of German resistance. After several disputes, Admiral Schierlitz and Commander Meyer signed the surrender statement on May 9th, thus releasing the Ile de Ré and La Rochelle.
The economy reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century and then it was in decline. The malarial fever resulted in a high mortality rate and there was a significant stagnation of trade. The wine lost its reputation, the marshes were practically abandoned and everything seemed to go badly on the Ile de Ré. But the tourism sector acquired great importance from 1960 and began to evolve until today in the quiet tourist destination that everyone wants to visit because it has a special charm.
The Ile de Ré preserves many monuments that tell the story of how people lived and you can admire these if you decide to visit this unique destination, such as the fortifications of Vauban, the Lighthouse of the Whales, the Fort of the Prée and other treasures that undoubtedly will surprise you.