“It has always been a marvel to me — that French language; it has always been a puzzle to me. How beautiful that language is! How expressive it seems to be! How full of grace it is! And, oh, I am always deceived – I always think I am going to understand it.”
Mark Twain, a Biography
Our plan was quite simple – to hire bicycles and cycle along the coastal paths for as far as we could, or for at least as far as our bottoms would let us, so we made straight away for a bike hire shop opposite the bus stop in Saint Martin-de-Ré. This was a real challenge because the bicycle-hiring clerk could speak not a word of English and I was a bit stumped as soon as I got beyond ‘Bonjour Monsieur, deux bicyclettes sil vous plait!’ which I had been practising to myself for about half an hour and was practically word perfect.
Unfortunately that was my french bicycle hiring vocabulary completely exhausted and I was then sucked into a linguistic wilderness where we spent another ten minutes or so pointing and gesticulating, shrugging shoulders in an increasingly theatrical way and using silly facial expressions to try and make ourselves understood as people do when they cannot speak each other’s language.
We had nearly completed this complicated and exhausting transaction when he enquired about a ‘cushion’, well the saddles looked a little uncomfortable so we agreed but our response seemed to perplex him still further. ‘Cushion, cushion,’he kept repeating, ‘Qui, qui’ I kept responding until eventually the penny dropped and after all this time struggling to communicate he enquired ‘do you speak English?’ No of course not, we are just doing this to try and be difficult!
He made a phone call to someone with barely more comprehension of the English language than his but at least we managed to establish that ‘cushion’means deposit so we sorted that out, (a completely ludicrous eight hundred and seventy Euros by the way), took possession of our bikes and wobbled off into town.
After a few moments of bumping along on the cobbles and getting accustomed to our new form of transport we set off on a cycle track out of town that took us past the oyster beds and processing sheds, through barren vineyards that were preparing for summer growth and through pastures full of delightful wild flowers.
These were proper cycle tracks too, not like those at home where despite their designation you still have to take a calculated risk before using them and compete with all of the traffic and the car drivers that find them a complete and irrelevant inconvenience. It was hot so when we came across a restaurant adjacent to a beach we parked our bikes and enjoyed a leisurely lunch of mussels and frits and beer. The place had a casual unhurried mood in this pleasant pre-summer atmosphere.
Back on the bikes we cycled leisurely across the island to the village of La Couarde Sur Mer and then returned to Saint Martin-de-Ré via Le Bois Plage-en Ré and the town of La Flotte where we managed to cycle down a one way street in the wrong direction and on the way back had to tackle the only hill on the entire island. We returned the bikes and cancelled the deposit transaction then calculated that we had cycled about twenty-two kilometres, which was a respectable achievement for non-cyclists.
Our legs and bottoms were a bit sore by now and beginning to complain so we thought it best to find a bar and sit in the sunshine and enjoy a beer or two until it was time to wander back to the bus stop and get the ride back home. The ride was uneventful but we hit the rush hour traffic and it took a while longer than the outward journey this morning.
We returned to La Rochelle and got off the bus at the main terminus and then walked through the town and back to the harbour where we sat for a while at another pavement bar and watched the yachts lounging lazily in the harbour, all wrapped in canvas suits and strangely quiet. seemingly abandoned and waiting for skippers to turn up and for the summer season to begin.
Actually although it was only April it felt like summer already and the weather was surprisingly hot as we enjoyed the last of the day’s dazzling sunshine and a gloriously blue sky. Later we walked back to the harbour and the seafood restaurants and selected well and enjoyed a good three course meal and a bottle of wine before we returned to the hotel and retired to bed with a hint of apprehension about how sore some important parts of our bodies might be on the following day.