Thanks to a newspaper article and Michelin’s Red Guide, we had an idea in advance of where we might stay in La Rochelle.
The drive north-west to the coast was uneventful. When we reached the outskirts of La Rochelle it was a depressing scene that met our eyes. But, as we entered the district of the old port, the signs that La Rochelle was a most civilised place became quite apparent.
One-way narrow streets and lack of street-side parking places made our search for the Hotel Saint Jean d’Acre a difficult one. But we not only found the hotel, but managed to obtain a room with a spectacular view over the two great medieval towers that once guarded the port’s entrance.
The towers were constructed between 1382 and 1390 and, as part of their defensive armoury, a chain was drawn across the narrow strip of water between them.
One tower flew the French flag, the other a white flag on which was a cross, outlined in blue and, in two of its quarters, in red, a man of war in full sail and a pile of cannonballs. Both flags were flying almost horizontally in the strong breeze – as they continued to do throughout our stay, it being the windy Atlantic (Bay of Biscay) coast.
Beneath our window was the Bistro des Pecheurs restaurant, where we ate superb fruits de mer at a modest price. On the spacious pavé between our hotel and the water wandered crowds of people in the sunshine. “Wander” was the operative word, for everyone, all over town, wandered - at a slow and gentle pace.
On the water in the port and between the two towers, boats of every description went busily about their business. There were tour boats that docked nearby and plied their trade between the inner, old, port to just outside the towers, to an enormous marina of large yachts, and to the islands off the coast, including the fashionable Isle de Ré. There were small fishing boats (though no commercial ones), yachts of every size, with some under sail, speedboats, dinghies, rubber boats, gin palaces and all. The skies were blue, the sun hot, and the strong wind balmy. We found that La Rochelle was a very pleasant place to be in.
Around the crenellated battlements of the towers, tourists held their cameras out at arm’s length to photograph those beneath. The background noise was a hum of conversation and the occasional ship’s hooter. Children climbed around an enormous iron anchor on the cobbled paving to which cyclists locked their machines. The young swung on an old chain, strung between low pillars. It could have been the original chain that was once stretched across to repel invaders as, at low tide, there was no sign of one on the seabed between the towers. The scene was one of holiday pleasure.
Well into and on the quayside of the old port stood a lighthouse, striped in reddy brown. Its bright white light flashed every three seconds (except at dusk when it stopped for a period). And inland still, stood a much taller lighthouse, a green one, the light on which flashed every second. These lighthouses looked quite out of place inland – but not from the sea, where they became guide lights for ships navigating the deep channel.
Very near to our hotel was a most excellent restaurant, called L’aunis. Here we ate very well and in pleasant surroundings, drinking the new season’s red Chinon wine from the Loire, red from the Vendée to the north of us, and Chardonnay from the Isle de Ré just nearby. It is a pleasure in France to try wines that seldom reach England.
Street entertainments abounded. There was the large, gaudily-painted, two-storied carousel (small children high on the upper, inner layer) near to the ornate and rather grand Café de la Paix in the Place Verdun. A pavement artist worked on too large a scale and not very well. A Balkan group, dressed in peasant clothes sang tuneful peasant songs (a male passer by danced a jig to their music, much to the disgust of his family who walked on, pretending to disown him). There were performing dogs, animals that looked bored and unhappy with their lot. A hurdy-gurdy man had a gypsy-looking woman singer with him. A juggler/part conjurer kept a selection of transparent balls in the air, but dropped some. A Mexican-looking trio sang to accordion music in front of those eating at tables outside restaurants. A silver-painted, military-looking human statue broke off his pose to talk to and be photographed with children. The act we liked was a potter who spun the wheel with his foot, turning out candlesticks, cups and saucers, jugs and much else, all to great applause from those who had stopped to watch. He then knocked down his creations to form the original lump of clay from which they had been made. From our room we could hear the applause for his skills continue well into the night. As we turned in around 11 o’clock the scene outside was as animated as it had been all day. But when I looked out at three in the morning there was not a soul to be seen. The pavé was spotless, chairs and tables had been stacked away, awnings and sun umbrellas had been furled, and all the empty bottles from restaurants had been put into large green crates for collection – presumably for recycling. By 8 am there was still no activity or anyone about outside, and there was little movement by 10 am. Activity stopped late in the evening and started late in the morning
Although French menus are fairly predictable, there are always parts that surprise. We ate at the fashionable Chez Fred to eat mixed fish that had been cooked dry and on a very hot surface. The result was delicately cooked fish with crisp, almost burnt edges where the fillets had curled and touched the hotplate.
But Nouvelle Cuisine has spread its net far and wide. A simple and excellent item of food might be surrounded by a sea of sweet sauce, or be displayed on the plate with a few slices of colourful raw vegetable. Often there will be a cold ratatouille mix, placed artistically somewhere on the plate. A sauce of a completely different taste might be dragged around for decoration. Then the entire plate might have some coloured powder sprinkled all over it. One item in Margreet’s mixed salad was offered as duck’s liver. It turned out to be gizzards – and was tender and good to eat. With Margreet not particularly liking offal, I told her later about what she had been eating. Snails that we ate in a restaurant had been cooked in the usual way, with butter, garlic and parsley. But these were better than most. A little acidity had been added – either lemon juice or vinegar.
Beyond a medieval lighthouse, that looked more like a cathedral from an ancient illuminated manuscript, we watched children being taught to sail. They were towed out into the harbour in their little single sail boats to learn the art of seamanship. When beaching their craft back at the sailing school’s hard, they were wet and cold, but very happy about it. No wonder the French are so keen on sailing and excel at ocean racing.
La Rochelle had turned out to be a handsome town, with arcaded pavements where shopkeepers plied their, mostly fashionable, trade. It was a town that had the feel of Paris about it, with its fine shopping, excellent market, grand and mature buildings, and fine restaurants. And more than Paris, there was the port with all the activity that went with it. We liked it so much that we extended our stay before leaving to drive north, in a day, to our home-town in France, Dieppe.