We took a mid-week trip to La Rochelle, a seaport on the west coast about 90 kilometres from Poitiers, and our nearest seaside destination. It has a rich history and is probably most famous for the 1627–28 siege, during which the Huguenot city’s population fell from 22,000 to 5,000. The siege ended with complete victory for Louis XIII’s Catholic forces. Not being of the same persuasion, Madame and I tend to see this event from divergent perspectives.
I like La Rochelle more and more with every visit. The quays around the harbour are lined with cheerful bars and cafés, and from here one can enter the town proper by passing through La Grosse-Horloge, a fifteenth-century city gate topped with an impressive clock tower. The main streets are lined with pretty arcades, and in the area around the indoor market, which is filled to bursting every morning, there is another lively cluster of bars and restaurants.
We arrived mid-morning on Wednesday to find roadworks everywhere. The ongoing pedestrianisation of the harbour area is scheduled to last for another year. It’s noisy, but judging from the progress so far, it will look quite impressive when finished. After petit déjeuner at a small cafe on Quai Valin, we took a 45-minute bus ride to Île de Ré, an island just off the coast, now accessible by a 2.9 km bridge built in 1988. This was one of the reasons for our trip, as I’d been looking forward to visiting the island for some time. Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax. Nobody’s fault. The weather had changed. After a couple of days of bright sunshine, it was suddenly overcast, with an annoying blustery wind, the sort that Madame’s mum describes accurately as ‘making your hair sore’.
We took the bus to Saint-Martin, the island’s main town, only to find that the bus terminus is about a kilometre and a half’s walk from the town itself. Given the weather, this was not ideal, and I could feel distinct twinges of Eeyore-like gloom. On a more positive note, we did get to walk past the Saint-Martin Citadel, France’s largest long-sentence prison. Having lived in Wandsworth and worked for many years near Wormwood Scrubs, I regard myself as something of a connoisseur of prison architecture, and the Citadel is certainly worth seeing (overnight accommodation is probably a different matter entirely).
Saint-Martin itself is a pretty little place, a cross between Southwold in Suffolk and Cowes on the Isle of Wight, with a similar clientele. My guidebook says that August here is best avoided, and I can well believe it. Even on a cloudy June day it was very crowded. You can see all there is to see in less than an hour. Some expensive-looking holiday accommodation, a sprinkling of shops selling ‘crafts’ and chic sailing apparel, and that’s about it. I toyed with buying a bright yellow sou’wester but figured that opportunities to wear it in Poitiers would be limited.
There are various restaurants around the small harbour, and all were doing well. We had a very good lunch at La Marine, and by the time we walked back to the bus stop a couple of hours later, I was in a distinctly more expansive frame of mind.
Back in La Rochelle, things continued to improve as we spent the evening cheering France on in their Euro 2021 match against Portugal. This was in Corrigan’s, a bar in Rue des Cloutiers that serves excellent draught Guinness. Chatting to le patron, Barry, who hails originally from Cork, we were told that we’d dodged a bullet by changing from our original plan of staying overnight on Friday. The town’s rugby club, Stade Rochelais, would be playing their old rivals Toulouse in the championship decider, and the town’s bars and restaurants would all be packed, most of them booked out weeks in advance by regulars.
Allez les Corsaires!
This is another thing I like about La Rochelle: how the town gets wholeheartedly behind les Corsaires. Club shirts, hats, and scarves are very popular, and every other Covid mask you see is emblazoned with the club crest. Mind you, it’s debatable whether I’d be quite as enthusiastic about this if we’d arrived on the Friday and found all doors closed to us.
La Rochelle has several interesting museums, and the second reason for our trip was to visit the Musée Maritime, which currently has an exhibition of Robert Doisneau photographs, Allons voir la mer avec Doisneau. We saw this on Thursday and really enjoyed it. Some fine photos, and just enough to stop you getting ‘exhibition fatigue’. It is worth seeing if you are there between now and November 1st.
A poster from the Doisneau exhibition. Note the numbers. The likely obesity of English speakers is obviously a worry.
There is a sad postscript to our trip. Friday’s result: Toulouse 18 – Stade Rochelais 8.
Things I’ve learnt this week:
The first pet cemetery opened in Paris in 1899, after the introduction of a law that banned throwing dead dogs into the Seine.
In 2016, Australian police offered cash prizes to any drivers they found to be sober.
The quinine in tonic water is effective against malaria, as long as you drink 300 gin and tonics every day.