A little bit of France in Africa: Saint Pierre, Reunion Island


“I am on a trip around the world studying different types of coffee”,

The backpacker I met in my bijou hostel in Saint Pierre explained, as he measured out the grams of coffee beans he was going to make his coffee from. He had all the apparatus required for it, and apparently all the patience to boot.

 

“I started in Brazil, went through different parts of South America. Then I came to Africa. First to Ethiopia, then Kenya. And then I decided to try some European coffee made in African soil of the Indian Ocean”, and he gave the most mysterious smile.

 

The last sentence he uttered, may have sounded like utter nonsense to anybody who reads this. But it made perfect sense given where we were. We were in a European territory, but in the Indian Ocean, part of the African continent. A territory where French, African and Indian cultures had gotten into a mesmerising ménage-a-trois, and created something very unique.

 

No wonder, this place is named Reunion.

reunion island france

Welcome to Reunion! That’s me playing Uncle Sam, asking you to get over here.



To read: If you are interested in a similar country where Indian, African and French cultures collided, click here to read about my roadtrip through Mauritius.



Visa to Reunion Island for Indians


 

When I was planning my trip to Mauritius, I knew that 2 weeks was quite long for Mauritius. I wanted to take a few days somewhere close by. There were quite a few names in my head, like Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros. But none of them fell through, due to various reasons like cost, not enough time etc.

 

But that is when I came across 2 overseas regions of France in the Indian Ocean, to the east of the African mainland. Reunion and Mayotte. Overseas regions are basically French territories which have not yet been decolonized, and continue to remain a part of France as a part of the French Republic. France had 5 of them around the world (the others being French Guiana in South America, and Guadalupe and Martinique in the Caribbean). After looking at the flights, I settled for Reunion over Mayotte because the cost of flying there was much cheaper from Mauritius. The flight time was just about 45 minutes or so.


But how to get a visa for Reunion? Reunion may be a French territory, but it does not fall under the Schengen area. So, one could not visit Reunion with a Schengen visa. So, was there something like a Reunion visa?



Note: Indians DO NOT need a visa for Reunion, but only if they are travelling with an approved travel agency for a stay not longer than 14 days. But this exemption did not apply to me, since I was backpacking and was not travelling with any travel agency.


Turns out, there was indeed a separate French overseas visa. I had to apply one at the French embassy in Singapore directly (unlike Schengen visas, which are applied through VFS and not the embassy), and specifically state which overseas territory I wanted to visit. The visa itself looked exactly like a Schengen visa, but stated clearly that it was for the overseas territory of Reunion.

reunion island visa

Ignore my stupid face, but that is what a visa for Reunion looks like.



Too many saints in Reunion.

 


 

After roadtripping through Mauritius island, me and my friends took a flight to Saint Denis in Reunion. If one needed any further proof of how French this place is, look no further than the name of the Airport. If you are a fan of the French open, you might find yourself delighted to land at the Roland Garros international airport!

 

The thing about place names in Reunion is that they can be quite confusing. You see, almost all the main cities in Reunion begin with Saint! We landed in Saint Denis, and took a bus to get to our hostel in Saint Pierre, about 80 KM away. On the way, we passed through Saint-Paul, Saint-Giles, Saint-Leu and Saint-Louis. On almost all of those stops, I almost got down from the bus, before checking my hostel address and reassuring myself that I would be getting down at the wrong ‘saint city’ if I did. And mind you, this was all along the west side of the island. On the east side, there was also Saint-Suzanne, Saint-Andre, Saint-Rose, Saint-Philippe and Saint-Joseph. And these are just the big communes!

 

Luckily for me, one of my friends spoke French which made it quite easy to get to our hostel. Although the locals mostly spoke in Reunion Creole, French was still the official language and understood by everyone.

 

Le Toit D’Imany (whatever that means in French), was a laidback and snug place, run by a guy from Martinique – another overseas territory of France – and his wife. We settled in quickly, got cozy with his dogs, and started exploring the neighbourhood.

saint pierre temple

There was no mistaking the Indian influences in the neighbourhood. Especially with small temples around the island.



Getting around Saint-Pierre


Our original plan involved hiring a car in St. Denis and driving around Reunion. Only glitch in the plan was, none of us could drive a manual. The whole world knows that I am much better on a motorbike than a 4-wheeler. And my 2 friends were not comfortable with a manual drive either. So, we had decided to take public transport (bus) from St. Denis airport to St. Pierre. Which was also our plan for the rest of the island: to take public buses.


Note: St. Pierre does have an international airport – the Pierrefonds airport – which has direct flights from Mauritius and were pretty much the same price as flying to St. Denis. However, we did not fly here because transit from the airport to the city was quite difficult. There were no buses, and a taxi would have easily cost us 100 Euros.



But figuring out the bus system WITHIN St. Pierre, turned out to be much more difficult than we thought. Even with our French friend, we had no luck in that department. Eventually, we settled for the most basic way to see the city: We started walking.

walk to port de plaisance

Turns out, the walk wasn’t so bad after all

 

But it was quite a nice walk. Once we got closer to the waterfront, we could see the streets and buildings become more charming and picturesque. There were elements of graffiti on the street, and a generally laid back French vibe. The walk led us to the Town hall, which had a small garden adjacent to it. I don’t know why it was called the Hotel De Ville, but this definitely was the Townhall!

Graffiti along saint pierre

Graffiti along Saint pierre

saint pierre town hall garden

Gardens – or Jardins, as the french say – next to the town hall

Saint Pierre town hall

I know it says ‘hotel’, but this was actually the town hall.

 

A further walk from the town hall, beyond the Rue du Four A Chaux (which was, surprisingly, named Rue Mahatma Gandhi a few blocks down), was the tourism office of St. Pierre. The Office de tourisme is quite hard to miss. It cuts a very visible figure against the Port De Plaisance, being situated just at the tip of it. A helipad-like roof (maybe it really is a helipad!) on the top, gave it a crown that could be viewed from anywhere on the street.

 

We hopped inside. There was not much English-speaking tourism officials around, but they were quite friendly and still nice. They gave us brochures – in English – of what to see around Reunion, and how to get there. The second part was the most important, as we definitely needed help on how to get to different parts of Reunion, using public transport.

More of that in another post, from this exotic Indian ocean island.

Tourism office saint pierre

The tourism office of Saint Pierre

Port de plaisance

And that is the view from the tourism office, of the Port de Plaisance

 


This post is part of my East Africa travel stories. Click here to check out other amazing travel stores from East Africa



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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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