Friday, 27 September 2013

Ah, La Rochelle !

The wind was weak and our 50 mile trek south had to be put on hold.  La Rochelle was only 10 miles north of the mouth of the Charente river, but it was officially closed to visitors in preparation for the Grand Pavois, the largest in-water boat show in Europe.  But we had heard via “dockside radio” (boatyard gossip) that they would grudgingly accept visitors for 1 night if you simply showed up and acted innocent.  As this approach was in complete harmony with Patrick’s life philosophy (e.g., it’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission) off we went.

The entrance to the old port of La Rochelle (at very low tide.)
We had visited La Rochelle by road once before, but it was just for a lunchtime stop on the way somewhere and we only visited the port area, which is, in itself, quite impressive.  This time, we took time to wander through the streets of the large old town area, and we fell head-over- heels in love.  The town is a labyrinth of old stone galleries and arcades, a reminder of its mercantile past where vendors would hawk their wares under the stone archways, protected from the sun and rain.  The vendors have been replaced by chic boutiques to rival Paris (many of the same boutiques, in fact, including the Mecca of high-brow, ready-to-wear clothing stores, The Galeries Lafayette.)   The old stone backdrop is highlighted with palm trees and maritime pines that add a certain Mediterranean ambiance.  

One of the many gates into the old town of La Rochelle.

Miles and miles of arcades and galleries.

Old town seen through the forest of masts in the port area.

Tears welled up when I saw this happy reminder of my parisian past...
Patrick’s eyes were all a-twinkle and his heart rate soared when we stumbled onto the farmer’s market.  When we first started sailing alone together, my biggest fear was getting into a rough situation where we wouldn’t be able to handle the boat.  Patrick’s biggest fear was that we wouldn’t eat well.  After almost 4 months at sea now, he has conquered his fears, and discoveries such as the market at La Rochelle have led him to utter the phrase, unthinkable a few months earlier, “We eat better on the boat than at home!”  

The La Rochelle market.

Cafes and shops around the market area.

The esplanade area of the market.

We settled in for lunch at a little bistro near the market and struck up a conversation with the owner, who happened to be Breton and had lived in Vannes for some time.  Patrick told him we were having fantasies of moving to La Rochelle but that it was probably too expensive.  The owner remarked that the housing prices between the old town of Vannes and La Rochelle were comparable, and the fantasy started taking root, if not in reality, then at least in possibility.  

The new port area (Les Minimes) is one of the largest pleasure-craft ports in France, with 3700 places for yachts of all sizes.  There are literally miles of ship chandlers and other boat-related services all around the port area.  It was so huge that I didn’t take a photo… boats and masts stretch out as far as the eye can see.  They are currently undertaking an expansion to include (I think they said) more than 1000 new places.  The port used to have a 15 year waiting list, but with this new expansion, all those on the waiting list will now be placed, and the new waiting list is only ½ that of Vannes.  We took the plunge and put our names on the waiting list with a 12 meter boat.  It doesn’t cost anything to dream! 

But alas, our one night came and went too fast, and with good winds and warm weather, we headed to Royan at the mouth of the Gironde river.  Royan is a nice, once-chic seaside retreat with a long beach and boardwalk that was accidentally bombed during the war, sparing only a few of the belle-époque houses along the waterfront.  After the war, the town was chosen as one of several to be handed over to a committee of architects and urban planners to build “the city of tomorrow”.  This was apparently a roaring success and the town today positively screams 1950s.  Two of the treasured landmarks from this period are the saddle-back cathedral and the market in the form of an overturned seashell.  After the old stones, palms and pines of La Rochelle, it was hard to get too excited by either.  But we appreciated the many miles of bike paths along the cliff-side drives and even swam in the muddy waters of the Gironde.  Time to start the trek north.

The saddle-back cathedral.
The Royan market of "tomorrow".

Inside the Royan market.

Great bike trails along the shore more than make up for the 1950s plastic chintz of the town.