The Island of Aix, often called Island Dais or Island of Ay in a distant past, has the shape of a green and sand crescent with a slightly marked relief which stretches on 130 hectares with beaches, creeks and rocks. Three kilometers long and 600 meters wide, its central part is sometimes covered by the spring tides. You can stride around it in two hours at a brisk pace, and in less time on horseback or by bicycle... Near its shores, the Fort Enet and the impressive Fort Boyard, made known up to Quebec through a successful television game show, watch over Aix, the most meridional island of the Ponant.
The village to which you have access through the drawbridge of the harbour is particularly representative of our country’s military architecture. Indeed, we owe to Vauban and Ferry, the first fortifications of the island, and the tracing of the village with its three large arteries radiating from the field of maneuvers. The major construction projects carried out under Louis the XVI, later under the Empire, and thereafter, have not changed its general physiognomy that, henceforth the law protects from time’s effects and the more fatal ones which are human errors and thoughtless decisions. As the first visible testimony to the Island’s history of the eleventh century, the Saint-Martin church and its crypt were remarkably restored in 1970. These were reopened to the faithful and to visitors, just as in the case of the famous Emperor’s House which has been open to the public since 1928.
The old families of Aix are mostly from the neighbouring islands, Ré and Oléron, but also reflect different people’s origins stemming from the hazards of military life and history. For instance, there is an Acadian branch issued from the « Grand Derangement » in Canada in 1758. The inauguration in 1994 of the Quai of Acadie with his Excellency Mr. Benoît Bouchard, Ambassador of Canada to France commemorated the role of the Island within this tragedy.
The number of permanent residents has varied through the centuries according to the religious, then military vocation of the Island from about fifteen Cluny monks in the Middle Ages to more than 600 permanent residents in 1872. In the eighteenth century, which has to be regarded as the zenith of its history, Aix was an essential element of the defence system of our shores and of the Royal Arsenal of Rochefort, but was also a favourite embarking place to the colonies, and above all to the « Nouvelle France ».
During the Napoleonic period, a further crucial time in its development, the several thousand men lodged in barracks on the Island brought notoriety, security and ease. Gradually, as its military role disappeared, the Island became an austere place of detention, where the permanent residents numbered 400 at the beginning of our century. During the War of 1914-18, more than 1500 people lived there, including the garrison and the prisoners of war. Then there was a decline largely due to that of the Arsenal of Rochefort’s which was stopped in 1925 through the initiatives of the santongeais writer, Pierre Chanlaine, and of the Baron Napoléon Gourgaud. Both are founders of the « Friends of the Island of Aix Society » , who through their solemn « Appeal » allowed the historic character of the island to be recognized and opened to tourism. And to make it live again...
With 200 permanent residents at the last census, the Island of Aix is now one of the smallest communes in France (257 electors), it is beyond any doubt one of the most interesting. Its mild climate, the beauty of its landscapes, its great nautical potential, but also the art of living explain the choice of those who, somehow or other, have
take advantage of the enviable situation of one of the most famous pleasure boating areas in Europe. The Island of Aix has all it takes to face with confidence the next century. But, here more than elsewhere, the balance between people and things is very precarious. Without any doubt we need a good deal of vigilance to conciliate the essential contribution of steadily growing tourism and the preservation of a site which, at one and the same time, is exceptional and frail.