La Rochelle is a coastal city in southwestern France and capital of the Charente-Maritime department. It’s been a center for fishing and trade since the 12th century, a maritime tradition that’s reflected in its old harbour and huge, modern marina. The old town has half-timbered medieval houses and Renaissance architecture, including passageways covered by 17th-century arches. It is situated on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and is connected to the Île de Ré by a 2.9 km long bridge completed in 1988. Since the Middle Ages the harbour has opened onto a protected strait, and is regarded as a gateway to the ocean because of the presence of its three ports dedicated to fishing, trade and yachting. The city has a strong commercial tradition from very early on in its history, and has maintained a standing in modern times because of its deep-water port, the only one on the French Atlantic coast. It is ranked as the sixth most important port of France. The city also boasts a rich historical fabric, including the Saint-Nicholas tower, and an urban heritage. In the early 21st century, it has consistently been ranked among France’s most livable cities.
I first came across La Rochelle in May 2013 when Su and I decided to visit my very good friend Josephine who lived in a chateau at Saint Pierre des Landes in Mayenne department in France, which is about 300km south of Paris and 40km to the train station of a nearest city called Laval. We had decided to stay in Josephine’s chateau for a real and leisurely holiday after some Masonic activities in London. Before we went there, however, Su had her eyes on a two-star Michelin restaurant in La Rochelle which featured fine seafood and molecular cooking. She decided to have dinner there, for which purpose we needed to spend some time in La Rochelle, meaning staying in hotels, which was some 450km from Josephine’s chateau. We did have dinner there and had a great time. We also took a side trip to Île de Ré to visit a newly made friend. Josephine joined us for the entire trip and took us there in her camping van. Those of you who had read my memoire might notice that I had an account of the visit recorded on pages 363 to 367. Now, ten years down the road, Su wanted to recollect and re-live the La Rochelle experience. She also inspired her very longtime and dear friend Mei-Mei to join the French leg of our trip.
I had described how we got to La Rochelle in the last blog, on a small plane run by Ryanair which is billed as an Irish ultra-low-cost carrier founded in 1984. We were actually charged for drinking water during the flight. Su also booked an apartment from 5th to 9th May with two bed rooms and parking so that we could re-visit Île de Ré and do more sightseeing in La Rochelle as necessary. Su also booked a limo which took us to the apartment hassle free. It was a rather warm and sunny day, Indeed, it got warmer and sunnier later when we made our way on foot to the first eatery where we stopped by for our first big meal in France – La Yole de Chris, which was next to a Michelin two-star restaurant. But first, the apartment. The address was 6 Chemin des Remparts, which was among a line of adjourning three-storey buildings with car parks on the west and the east side facing a lantern tower. Parking was free, but unfortunately it was always full. Entrance to the main door on the west was by an electronic code and the three floors or units were connected by wooden staircases. No lifts. We took up the top floor or Flat 3, which in turn featured an internal wooden staircase leading to a cockloft with a bed room and an adjourning bath and toilet and a large sunroof with a glass window. It was very hot when we entered and we had to open all the windows which were all fitted with electric shutters. Mei-Mei took up the cockloft and we took up the bedroom on the main floor, which comprised in addition to the dining and sitting areas, a fully equipped kitchen, complete with fridge, stove, pot and pans, a dishwasher and a washing machine, albeit no drier. There was also a dining table that could sit six to eight people, sofas and a television set with access to internet and YouTube. Of course, we also had an attached bathroom. The place was very clean and looked almost new.
The next morning was warm and sunny too. It was a Saturday and the markets were open. We had breakfast at Pazza Notte by the sea, overlooking hundreds of sail boats and pleasure crafts and two old castles. We then walked the market, beginning with a dozen of oysters and a bottle of white for a mere €20. The ladies spent between them €200 plus on seafood and groceries as I waited at a wine shop with my purchases, before walking back to base for more food while watching the coronation on TV. Later in the afternoon and after some mandatory rest, we walked to the car rental near the Railway Station and got a Renault Arkana instead of a Toyota Crown that I had expected. We were not that far from base, but it took more than an hour because of traffic diversions and other GPS and communication issues. The other issue was that the only entry to the parking lot at our base was through a gated carpark entry and exit to which was by tickets only, and I wasn’t sure how it worked because of the languages, but somehow, I managed, and we never needed to pay for the facility. We were also lucky to find a proper parking lot when I negotiated into base, somewhat tired out already on my first hour on the first day as driver. It began to pour around 8pm, but cleared up an hour later when full rainbows appeared in the east which filled up the sky. It was a great and pleasing sight and we took many pictures as we thank God for everything.
I got up around 8:30am with a sore body, and the left leg still aching. After breakfast, the ladies went to the market for more shopping to allow me some leisurely private time. Flat 2 on the 1st floor was apparently occupied by two couples. They dined at their balcony which we looked over. The ladies returned from the market around 1:20pm and started preparing lunch, mainly vegetables, including white asparagus, salads and spinach. Downstairs, the people were having a great feast. After lunch, we started off for the small island Île de Ré and Su had the GPS marked for St Martin de Re car park. We arrived to find carpark full. We eventually parked on some pavement and Su took us to a bar by the sea, after about 15 minutes walking – Bar Au lever du Soleil at Quai de Bernoville – and sat down for some cold drinks. It was 4:45pm and Su decided to look at the shops across. She returned in less than 30 minutes, and on our way back for the car, they decided to buy some cakes, so that it was past 6pm when I started car, after receiving a notice of traffic violation. We returned to base at 7pm; and it was second time lucky. We found a carport.
Living a quiet and idyllic lifestyle with two chefs waiting on one could be addictive. I certainly enjoyed the serenity and peacefulness, the freedom to do what came to mind, and the extended sleep hours, but driving a car in a foreign country without the full language capabilities and support could easily create stress and conflicts with fellow travelers. The ladies returned shortly after 2pm with plenty of oysters, mussels and pork, and two bottles of white. It didn’t seem that we would operate the car today, so we began to eat and drink. I took an hour nap around 4pm, as the two chefs continued their food preparation. We had oysters and iberico pork, after which we had a walkabout in the neighborhood.
On the last day in La Rochelle, we got up earlier than usual for breakfast and packing. It rained all night and promised more rain all day. The estate rental agency promised to come at 11 to 1130am. We almost gave up waiting when the lady arrived by bicycle just as we were about to pull out.
The car boot looked bigger than it seemed and couldn’t hold too much stuffs other than our two bags, so that Mei-Mei’s bags and other bags got to stay on the passenger seat behind. The good news was that it stopped raining as soon as we started driving. We first made a trip to the gas station, then off loaded the bags at the train station, before returning the car to Eurocar. It was reasonably smooth going. Gare du La Rochelle is quite classic looking and was being renovated. We took a TGV train SNCF to Paris and would leave at St Pierre des Corps. The train would leave at 1347h, but we were seated by 1330h. It’s been a while since I rode on SNCF. So far so good. Next issue: Chateaux hopping.