La Réunion: France – but not as you know it

By | Category: Travel destinations
La Réunion  coast

An aerial view of the coastline of La Réunion

I am high in the mountains, peering over the edge of a precipice into a hidden valley. Far below I see small villages and farmsteads but there are no roads in or out of this valley, all necessities come in along tracks on foot or by helicopter. Nor is there any electricity other than that generated by solar panels. Yet, incredibly, I am in France; the very south of France it is true –in La Réunion, France’s overseas department in the Indian Ocean.

The island of La Réunion is in fact a volcano which burst out of the sea three million years ago. The Cirque of Mafate into which I am gazing is just one of three ancient amphitheatre-like craters and sporadic eruptions from the island’s volcano Piton de la Fournaise still occur regularly.  Amid the high peaks waterfalls descend hundreds of feet through ancient forests. The island is in fact a paradise for walkers who are well served by guides, hiking paths and gȋtes de montagne. I have chosen easier options, first an overview of the island by helicopter, the ideal introduction, followed by a car to take me in search of my sort of paradise – plants and gardens.

La Réunion  landscape

the landscape

Here on the hillside, I can see  some of La Réunion’s 160 endemic plants; forests of Acacia hetroyphylla, known as Tamarin des hauts and  Nastus borbonicus, a strange tufty bamboo, plants which are found nowhere else on earth. This however, is but a fraction of the story for almost as soon as the island was colonised it was apparent that almost anything would grow on the fertile volcanic soil. This resulted not only in the in introduction of innumerable exotic flowering plants but also of valuable cash crops such as coffee, sugar cane, spices and essential oils. Now sugar cane is the only economically important crop and I see cane being cut but on the Maido hillside I can also see small fields of the geraniums used for the perfume industry and I am lucky enough to come across one of the few remaining distilleries – a simple wood-fired still in which quantities of scented geranium leaves and twigs are steamed and the steam cooled so that the valuable oil rises and can be run off. Cryptomeria, vetiver and  ylang-ylang are  similarly distilled and apparently M.Guerlain still visits the island in search of its pure essential oils.

harvesting sugar cane

cutting sugar cane

Next I make for the once-fashionable hill station of Hell-Bourg where not only the big houses but also the tiny ‘ti cases’ with their floriferous gardens are pretty enough for the village to have been designated ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France.’

It is here surrounded by luxuriant tropical vegetation; huge tree ferns, orchids in shades of amber, violet, scarlet and white, rare anthuriums and begonias in frothy masses as tall as a man, that I feel I may have stumbled into the quintessential paradise garden. Unfamiliar but delicious scents, musky and voluptuous, drift on the air and beside a fountain I come to a little gazebo decorated with lacey wooden fringes known locally as lambrequins. This serves, the garden’s charming owner M. Folio,   tells me, “for sitting with friends in the evening to enjoy a drink,” and I realise that what makes Maison Folio so heavenly is not simply the glorious plants, nor the old house surrounded by its airy varangue  but the fact that  it  encapsulates a whole way of life – the easy creole life of the colonial bourgeoisie which has all but disappeared.   I have seen many gardens worldwide but I know I shall not forget this one.

M. Folio house

the easy creole life of M. Folio’s house – the colonial bourgeoisie which has all but disappeared

Perhaps the best known of all La Réunion’s spices is vanilla and the following day at the Maison de la Vanille, an old plantation house in St André, I learn the complex techniques which are used to persuade this climbing orchid to produce its valuable seed pods.  A hermaphroditic plant, it was introduced from Mexico where it is pollinated by a certain type of bee. Efforts to introduce the bee to La Réunion were unsuccessful and it wasn’t until a slave boy Edmund Albius, some say in a fit of temper, gave one of the plants a squeeze that he male/female contact essential for fertilisation was initiated and pods were produced. Pollination is still done by hand at a rate of 1000-1500 plants a morning, using a tiny metal rod. The green pods then pass through processes  which takes 22 months before the now black vanilla pods are exported all over the world. I am utterly seduced by the glorious aroma – and the flavour, when later in the day we eat canard à la vanille, an unbelievably delicious creole speciality.

Anthuriums in La Reunion

the anthuriums in his garden

The labour involved in producing vanilla keeps its price high. Tumeric or curcuma, is far more affordable. The plant’s root is ground to produce a bright yellow powder, hence it’s local name safran pei. I called at Mémé Rivière’s  shop on the Plaine des Gregues and learned that curcuma  is the ‘soliel’ which gilds the popular creole dish, ‘cari’, a mild stew of meat or fish which is served with rice and a firey condiment of pimento known as rougail..

In 1642 La Réunion was settled by the French who later brought in slaves from Madagascar and Africa to work the coffee and sugar  plantations. Eventually when slavery was abolished, indentured labour came over from Asia. This rich racial mix has resulted in a unique culture which uses plants not only for food, construction and medicine but also in rituals. To learn more I head for the Jardin d’Eden at Hermitage-les-Bains where some 700 species, including magical and sacred plants, are grown. Here I am lent a pamphlet (in English) which contains fascinating snippets of plant lore. Did you know for example, that the fruit of the Lipstick Tree Bixa orellana, not only provides the body paint used by Amazon tribes to symbolize blood but also features as E160 in the production of cakes, chocolate and the rind of Dutch cheese?  I don’t lean any magic spells but I am introduced to a tree, Ruiza cordata which has featured so largely in local magic that it is now almost extinct.

flowers in La Reunion

his garden when the flowers are in full blooom – which can be most of the year!

These are just some of the plant delights the island has to offer. Others include The Spice and Fragrance Garden in St Phillipe, a tract of the ancient Fôret de Mare-Longue, in which I find myself dwarfed  by giant examples of the plants we grow here on our window sills. Swiss Cheese plants eighty feet tall bearing massive phallic fruits, and whopping Heliconias in zingy colours.

The Conservatoire de Mascarin is the island’s most important botanical garden. Here, in a charming old creole domain, attempts are made to protect Réunion’s fragile endemic plants from the competition of the over-enthusiastic newcomers – even the tree bearing the delicious guava fruit is considered a pernicious weed here.     Children will enjoy Park Exotica which combines a wonderfully colourful plant collection  with Disneyesque grottoes, crocodiles and black swans.

La Reunion's botanic gardens

in the Botanical Gardens

So is there a downside to this island paradise? Well, it does involve a long journey via Paris, a knowledge of French is almost essential,  it is isn’t cheap and  the hotels are not as sophisticated as those on  nearby Mauritius – but that being said this take on France with a creole flavour is unique and you won’t find scenery or plants life  like it anywhere else on earth.

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