Sunday, October 20, 2013

On to La Réunion

Louis and Gwen are getting married! In La Réunion! Not many of the Lebelle side are going to be here. In fact, it's just Paul, Anne, and me. Claire just gave birth to Constance, and besides, Aurelia just started school and can't really be taken out outside school holidays. Emma is just getting down to work on her house and taking time for a trip to La Réunion. It's a long way and merits a long stay. (wikipedia article in English, in French)
Today, Sunday, is a day of rest. At least, the morning is supposed to be. The rest of the family, Louis, Gwen, Sacha and the whole Thomas side, arrive later this morning.
It's a night flight. Taking any flight from Orly suggests an exotic destination, much more so than leaving from CDG. There are no lines; there are crowds. We got to the airport a full three hours before the scheduled departure and the crowd in front of our check-in zone was so big that we didn't see there was a sign for a line for people who had their boarding passes already. We just got into the crowd that slowly became a line for check-in and in over an hour, we were checked-in. I wonder what time the first people in the check-in line got there. We went straight through to the security check and came out at the other end in about half an hour. Our flight was already announced with a delay, so we had time to get a little something to eat. It was already 8:30 and who knew when we'd get our flight dinner! Our Corsair flight was on a recently refurbished 747. It looked and felt new, very comfortable, but we didn't really leave the gate until after 10:30 and it was past midnight by the time dinner came, so it was a good thing we had had a bite beforehand. There's a two hour time difference with La Réunion, so it was about 10:00 a.m. when we arrived on Wednesday morning.
For some odd reason, the local travel agency did not have our voucher for the car, but apparently that happens a lot; our car was indeed reserved and waiting for us, but it was almost noon by the time we got it.
Needless to say, we were a bit tired on arriving at l'Ermitage, just south of St. Gilles, on the west coast of the island. We walked over to the beach, had lunch, and then collapsed for a few hours.
We walked over to the shops and got some breakfast things and some pasta for an eventual dinner in. There is a bit of sticker shock when in the supermarket; almost everything is imported from metropolitan France, but even local produce seemed expensive. Back to the beach for the sunset and back to the studio for a light dinner and plan for our first real day.
Thursday morning, we headed to the west coast and inland from St. André to Salazie and on to Hell Bourg on the rim of the Cirque de Salazie. (photo) The cirques here are really the calderas of extinct volcanoes. This volcano is the Piton des Neiges, which has been sleeping several thousand years. The other one, the Piton de la Fournaise is still very active, almost annually! The landscape changes dramatically as you drive up the dry west coast, past St. Denis, and down the lush east coast. The rain comes from the east. All the towns along the coast around the island seem to be Saint something or other. They were founded by the French. Other towns, inland, have more picturesque names. Something that is striking about this island is that it is rather big, but was totally uninhabited when the French arrived in the 17th century. It, along with Mauritius, Rodrigues, and the Seychelles, are far enough west of Madagascar and east of Australia or southeast of India, that no one had ever settled there. So, the French didn't take it from anyone. No previous civilization was extinguished. The French Compagnie des Indes created the first outposts and then planters and slaves from Africa and Madagascar, followed by low-paid workers from India and China, brought in when the slaves ran off into the cirques -- a rather typical colonization for the period. In addition to the runaway slaves, many second sons, who would not get a piece of the plantation, also went up into the cirques. A few generations along and everyone was a beautiful mix of colors and religions and they had their own créole language.
Hell Bourg was developed in the 19th century as a spa, up in the highlands, away from malaria. It is a pretty little village that has maintained the houses (cases) from the 19th to early 20th century. We visited the Case Folio. It's an interesting guided tour. Isabelle "non-stop" (because you pick up the tour as you arrive and she just keeps going) told us the uses for all the local products: bamboo, different trees, plants, etc. Almost every plant can be used entirely from the leaves to the fruit to the roots, and when no longer productive, the wood.
On our drive back, we stopped in Ste. Suzanne, to visit a vanilla plantation. This is a recent plantation and actually it's a sugar plantation with a vanilla production showcase. The vanilla is grown in the forests. What we saw, here, was just for demonstration purposes. Vanilla is an orchid plant. The flowers, though, only last one day. So the flower has to be pollinated during that day, or there's no vanilla pod. Now, October, is the flowering season, so we got to see how they do it. The technique was invented by a 12-year-old slave, Edmond Albius, in the mid-1800s. He got no compensation other than his master, a botanist, did give him the credit for the invention. Since slavery was finally abolished in 1848, I suppose he didn't have to wait long. It's an interesting visit and a long process for good quality vanilla. The vanilla grows in the forest. It has to be detached from the tree trunk and so that the workers can reach the flowers and then the pods. They have to manually pollinate the flowers (The bees that can do this work are Mexican bees that did not adapt to La Réunion. Vanilla is originally from Mexico.) The pods must be hand harvested as they ripen, just at the right time, 9 months later. The crop is put into baskets and plunged into hot water, not boiling water for 3 minutes. Then, the pods are put into wood trunks and covered with blankets to steam. When they come out of steaming, they have turned brown. They are sun-dried for 6 hours a day, 10 days, and then continue drying in the shade. When they are dry enough (and we were shown how to determine this), they are put into wood trunks to age for a year. During that year, they are inspected regularly in order to throw out any pods that show mildew. After the year, they are sorted by size and tied into bundles and stored away again in wood trunks for further ageing. In all, the process is 2 years. We were cautioned against "fresh" vanilla that hasn't been dried. It looks nicer, but won't last. And the vanilla from Madagascar is sun-dried too long and not aged, so it becomes brittle and doesn't last, either. By this time, one is no longer shocked at the price they are selling their vanilla and is prepared to pay.
Yesterday, we headed south, to St. Pierre and beyond. La Réunion is not yet fully tourist-friendly. There are not many signs to the attractions and it's hard to find street names. St. Pierre is a bustling town with a couple of main shopping streets that measure up to any you would find in any sous-préfecture or préfecture in France. The city hall is located in an old warehouse that belonged to the Compagnie des Indes. We tried to find the market and there was an old colonial house to look at, but the house gates were closed, so we couldn't see it, and the market was on a street we didn't find. We left to visit the rum distillery.
Finding the rum distillery was another adventure because the guidebook did not say which exit to get off the highway and as we were in town, we didn't know from which direction they were giving the little instruction they did. It's a good thing we had a real map and managed to find our way to the main road and finally found signs for the distillery. There, too, is an interesting story about the difference between rum agricole, made directly from sugar cane juice and is more common in the Antilles, and rum traditionnel, made from molasses, which is already a by-product after the juice is separated to make sugar. The bagasse, the fiber, is used to fuel the electricity plants, thus supplying the sugar plants with whatever energy they need and a bit extra for the local grid. They also claim that the sugar cane consumes the entire CO2 production from cars on the island. The guide took us through the distillation process, distillation, condensation, ageing... to tasting and, of course, buying. The specialty on La Réunion is rum "arrangé", with fruit. It's really quite good.
From there, we continued along the southern coast to St. Philippe, where we saw our first lava coastline. The village has been here quite some time, so whatever flow created the beautiful hillside and coast, it was a long time ago. We had a very good lunch at La Bicyclette Gourmande. I had a "sauté vanille" -- a mix of lots of vegetables with shrimp (but I could have chosen meat or chicken) in a vanilla sauce, with rice and lentils. Then we had ice cream for dessert, from a local ice cream maker -- a scoop of ginger and honey and another of pralines. Excellent lunch.

After lunch, we continued all the way to the Grande Coulée, the 2007 flow. Plants are just starting to come up. We stopped, on the way, at le Vieux Port, where the forest has grown considerably since the 1986 flow. The floor of the forest is all fern and then there is a variety of trees and other shrubs. It's very tropical, virgin forest -- but young. Anne and I walked all the way down to the ocean. There are some spectacular sights and, a bit further on, a volcanic beach. We didn't go that far.
Finally we got to the Grande Coulée, but we couldn't see the Piton the Fournaise, because, like so many volcanoes, it was shrouded in fog.
On the way back, we stopped at Le Puit des Anglais, a volcanic swimming pool for safe swimming. Looks like fun! And another stop at Le Cap Méchant, more volcanic seaside.
It might sound as if we covered great distances, but really, no, we didn't. We left in the morning at 8:30 and would have been back at 5:30 if we hadn't got caught in a traffic jam at St. Gilles. We quickly turned around and came back to l'Ermitage for our third sunset.

1 comment:

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Oh a wedding and trip combined. You are one lucky lady. Great pictures. It looks a lot like Martinique - another really wonderful place to see. We went long ago and loved it. This post makes me think we should go back. :-) Have a great time, Ellen.