Europe Travel Log – La Rochelle

La Rochelle

Wednesday 21 September

We take a taxi from the railway staion to our hotel. On the way we see that the markets are set up in Cour des Dames. By the time we get back, all but one artist has packed up. I like one painting but until we have spent some time here I’m reluctant to buy it. There’s always another time.

The hotel is quaint. There is a courtyard and garden outside our room. It’s lovely.

We follow Amy’s guide to walk around the historic centre of La Rochelle. I love it. Our hotel is around the corner from the towers and we can see remnants of the old fortifications. I’m so glad I have seen the chateaux in the Loire Valley and can recognise the walls. The old port is very picturesque.

It’s warm and sunny so we sit by the marina eating gelato. I see fish jumping. There are big fish swimming in schools! The water must be clean, although it looks quite muddy.

St Nicholas tower is the taller of the three, so we walk to it, then sit and watch the water and the boats. It’s relaxing. The towers don’t dominate the town but, St Nicholas in particular, look impressive against the skyline. They’re medieval and amazing! The old clock tower can also be seen easily. La Rochelle has a wonderful ambience, with the water, marina and towers. I suspect it is unique in France … Many towns probably have an historic centre but the old port with the sea wall and towers, the marina and the ocean seems special.

There are lots of bicycles coming and going across the foot bridge. I wonder if they are students …

Amy’s guide takes us easily to the mono prix, and we buy tonight’s dinner … Bread, cheese, tomatoes and grapes. We’re going to miss this simple, inexpensive and tasty meal.

We need more clothes. Peter easily finds a pair of long pants that fit him as well, if not better than his others. I find a cardigan. It’s practical, but a pretty colour, tailored and made of Marino. And it’s half price. The shops are open til 6.30pm so we stop at some boutiques so I can try on pants. Turns out I’m a French 36-38, and American 28. I’m a French 1. I don’t now what any of it means but it makes it easier to shop for clothes!

When I take my night time meds I can’t find a full bottle of Baclofen. Peter rings Southern Cross to let them know. Not many people in La Rochelle seem to speak English so it could be an interesting morning. Amy offers to translate if needed. She assures me that the GPs and pharmacies are very efficient.

Thursday 23 September

First stop is the pharmacy. It opens at 9.15, and I’m hoping the pharmacist can give me the name of a GP so I can get a prescription. I’m a little worried because in NZ Baclofen is a specialist only medicine.

Unbelievably, the pharmacist simply sells me the number of tablets I need! I show her the letter from my GP listing my meeds. It’s intended for customs. She says that it can substitute for a prescription. (I think that’s what she says, she speaks little English.) The most difficult task is to explain how many tablets I need …

We walk through the streets behind the marina. The old arches in front of the shops stretch away up the street. The path is flagstaffs. The ceilings of the arches have been lowered but in an odd way this adds to the authenticity. The original architecture remains and so does the historic flavour. The town hall is wonderful. One tower is being restored but it’s character is unmistakeable. The court was originally the stock exchange built in the late eighteenth century when La Rochelle was a major trading port. It has wonderful solid wooden doors, a courtyard and the town’s motif, a sailing ship.

Four out of five shops seem to be for women’s clothing! I go mad, and buy tops for spring and for summer.

It was forecast to be 22 degrees today. By noon it’s freezing so we go back to our hotel and change into warmer clothes, then head to a restaurant for something warm to eat. Fish broth and salmon … Yum.

We walk to St Nicholas, ready to climb to the top. Peter reads the guide as I climb. La Rochelle has a fascinating history. It has see sawed backward and forward under English and French control. It is the only Protestant town in France. But in a siege orderd by Louis thirteenth (determined to catholicise them) and undertaken by Cardinal de Richelieu, 15,000 of the 20,000 population starves. The tower itself is interesting – the captain’s room, the spaces for canon … And the double spiral staircase! It was built in the fourteenth century, well before the much admired one at Chambord, thought to have been inspired by da Vinci!

I race down the stairwell … It’s easy for me because at 80 degrees and spiraling down I can use one hand on the ceiling and one on the rail. Call me speedy! (I beat the mother and daughter who saw me begin down the steps and turned back in alarm, at either me being in front of them or at the steep decline)

The sun has come out and by 5pm it’s warm, even hot. Before coming down the stairs I spent time looking at the view. From there I could see the old port, the historic town, the tops of masts in the marina at Minimes, and the rest of the wider city. I finally see how 120,000 people can live here! I love looking over the old port, then toward the ocean. It’s beautiful. What a view!

We walk to the main beach. We pass more remnants of the old fortifications, and what was probably a moat. It’s so interesting!

The main beach is beautiful. White sand (rocks at low tide, I wonder if the sand is brought in … ) The sun is low in the sky and the last rays on the beach. It’s still warm. I love it.

Friday 23 September

We wake up to a lovely sunny day. It’s autumn so it’s still chilly, but hopefully it will soon warm up to the day’s predicted high of 24 degrees.

We’re going to go to Minimes, the largest Atlantic leisure port in France. It’s also near where Amy lived while she studied at the university. The towers are a wonderful part of La Rochelle and are the essence of the old port. I never tire of seeing them. I’ve seen a photo that Amy took of them from a different perspective. I’ve seen them from the old port, now I’ll see them from the Atlantic side.I can see from the seaward side much more easily what an effective fortress the tower must have been, and how well protected the port was … But not always enough. La Rochelle was the only Protestant town in France and when Louis the thirteenth decided it should be catholic, he sent Cardinal de Richilieu to sort things out. He effectively formed a sea blockade through which supplies could not pass. Under siege, 15000 of the 20000 population died of starvation before La Rochelle acceded.

I’m sitting writing this at a cafe halfway to Minimes, “La Pause Oceane” near buildings that must be part of a huge marine industry. It’s pleasant because it’s warm and I am next to the edge of the marina, a forest of masts. It’s also sheltered from the wind that’s coming from the north and has quite a bite to it.

By midday it’s warm enough to take off my scarf. We venture towards the township but the roads are busy and i’m reminded that La Rochelle has a population of 120,000. Staying in the old port is pleasantly deceiving because we see only a tiny portion of the city and it feels quite small. We picnic overlooking the boats then make our way to the pier where the bus de Mer leaves from. We wait over an hour for the water taxi, but it is so worth it!

The water taxi passes through the marina, and the masses of boats. As we approach the towers and fortifications they seem to have risen from the rock itself. It’s a heart stopping moment!

By 3pm it’s hot.

Spending the rest of the afternoon on the main beach seems like a great idea. People are swimming and lying on the sand. There’s a wide concrete boulevard with a curved seat. Just the hint of a breeze. Perfect.

At 5pm it’s still hot. We walk toward the water. It would be nice to cool off a little. Just as I am thinking the same thing, Peter says, “We can have our first paddle in the Atlantic!” Fantastic!

We are back sitting against the wall when a woman who has been sitting not far from us comes over and asks, in French, if we know what the time is. We start chatting in a mixture of French and English. She later admits that asking the time was a ploy to see what language we speak. She says that it is very scary to begin a conversation in English, but she wants to practise, because since leaving school she has had few opportunities to speak English and she forgets. I think that English must be taught very well in French schools because she, and others like her, are reasonably fluent. A young girl who served me in a shop said she wanted to practise her english with me when I said, “Je ne parle pas francaise.” The student who works part time at our hotel speaks English fluently yet he has only studied it at school. I am very happy for French people to practise their English on me!

We return to our hotel. We are sunburnt … 🙂

Saturday 24 September

At 10am Peter wanders of to Fitzpatricks, a bar on the waterfront. He’s wearing his All Blacks top. No prizes for guessing what he is doing!

I hope to go to the markets in Cour des Dames, expecting them to be set up at 10 today … But nothing. Oh well, there are always the women’s clothing stores!

When I meet up with Peter again, he is very happy, not just because the All Blacks have won, but because he has thoroughly enjoyed himself. He says:

“I walk into the bar and order a beer. Not sure if the barman said “merde” or “meutre” when he first sees me. It is strange watching the All Blacks to French commentators. It feels good to be surrounded by a crowd that appreciates their rugby. Thank goodness the French do not play well at times, the scores are not close or there are any controversial incidents. The French supporters are gracious in defeat. On the way back, many people smile and nod in my direction on seeing my All Blacks top.”

I know that Peter will remember this experience, and that he will enjoy talking about it.

It’s cold again this morning and I’m wrapped up in scarf and jacket, but by 2pm the sun is out and the jacket and scarf come off.

We’re going to climb the other two towers this afternoon. Everything (except the cafes) close from 1-2.15pm. We wait in the sun, it’s glorious.

The top of La Chaine tower was destroyed in the seventeenth century and it has been modified since then. Now it is a heritage museum. Migrants to the new France, that is Quebec, Montreal and New Orleans, left from La Rochele and their names are recorded here. I enjoy looking out over La Rochelle from the parapet.

We walk along the sea wall between the Chaine tower and the Lanterne tower. I notice that the stones on the path are shiny from centuries of foot traffic. There are iron railings interspersed along the sea wall. Every top bar is worn smooth from centuries of handling. At each end of the bar, and from the lower bars, I can see how rough the iron originally was. It is astonishing that iron can be worn so smooth by human hands.

We begin climbing the Lanterne tower. It has been used as a prison and as a lighthouse. The prisoners have carved graffiti (names, dates, pictures) into the soft stone, and some of it is remarkably artistic, especially considering that they had only scraps of metal to use as tools. Some stone has been set up so visitors can try carving in it using a tool that is similar to a small key. It’s not easy! And although it is a “soft” stone, this is relative.

The view over La Rochelle from the terrace is great, but even better when I reach the very top, thirty eight metres above the ground. Here is the signal room and the lantern turret. The acoustics in the signal room are amazing. The turret soars above the room and even the smallest sound echoes. The acoustics make my voice sound rich and full. I love it. This is fun – singing, trilling … I could stay here for a long time listening to the sound. It’s awesome. Peter takes a photo of the turret by placing the camera on the ground, facing up. He does the same inside the lantern turret. The photo of the stained glass windows rising up into the turret looks sensational.

I am reminded how extraordinarily lucky I am to be able to climb to these places.

Below the tower a busker is playing the guitar and singing. His voice is husky. I like the sound even if i cannot understand the words.

I have been walking all day, so Peter returns to the hotel to get my wheelchair. My gloves are not with it so Peter pushes me … I’m so tired I don’t care.

We sit above the main beach and eat gelatos in the sun. Yesterday there were people swimming and sunbathing. Today most people are wearing sweatshirts and long pants. It may be sunny, but there is a slight chill in the air. It is 6pm after all. I comment to Peter that you never see a French child sitting still, or eating junk food. The kids on the beach are playing with balls, chasing each other, rolling in the sand, never still. It’s fun watching them, especially one group of four who seem to be aged between eleven and four. The youngest is tough, but they all seem to have a sense of fairness. It’s nice to watch a family that plays together so well.

Sunday 25 September

We make our way toward the Lantern Tower. It’s a beautiful sunny day, not a cloud in the sky. We hope to find a market that we saw advertised on a piece of A4 paper stapled to a lamp post.

We turn the corner and along the entire length of the wall are artists setting up their work! Fantastic. There is a wide variety of styles and media. It is a group of amateur artists but most are very good. We hope to find a souvenir of La Rochelle. The last artist paints in watercolour and her work is very, very good. Even though there seems to be nothing of La Rochelle we look through her work, simply for the pleasure of seeing good art. I ask if she has painted anything of La Rochelle and she shows us a few beautiful pieces. None of these are really for tourists, but one is of the Lantern Tower and I like it very much. We buy it. We continue looking at her work and two paintings keep calling to me. One is of a nude, and the other a scene that could be anywhere but seems particularly Parisienne. We buy that one too. The artist has been painting for three years but this is her first exhibition. She is very nervous. I tell her that her work is very, very good and wish her “bonne chance”. She is the first to have sold something!

I look over the sea wall so I can take one last look toward the Atlantic ocean. As we walk/wheel to the railway station I feel sad as I see the towers. A fish jumps out of the water, a few minutes later a gannet has it. C’est la vie. And so it is that we leave “belle Rochelle”.

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