23/09/2010

By the sea

Thursday 16th September


For a few hours I thought that my residing memory of La Rochelle was going to be the moment when my beloved digital camera slipped in filmic slow motion from my (butter) fingers and straight into a rock pool on the coastal town’s principle beach. Fortunately, there were so many delights to behold here that I soon managed to put the shockingly ill-timed death of my trusty 4 mega pixel Exilim to the back of my mind.

The town, not quite a city, is a curious mix of old and new. The train station, whose grand fa├žade wouldn’t look out of place in Paris, is immediately counterpointed by
its surrounding area, which is populated by modern office blocks and industrial facilities serving the harbour. But less than minutes’ walk from there, a pair of opposing lighthouses and the three famous stone towers that formerly acted as gateways into the town announce the start of historical La Rochelle, and this is where the you would want to spend most of your time as a tourist.

Set back from the harbour, the old town is a network of lanes and passageways, a world away from the bright boulevards of the capital. Occasionally, streets converge at little squares where tourists and locals alike gather for an early morning coffee or lunchtime snack. Our favourite people-watching experience was in the Place de Marche, a market square that teems with life every morning as stallholders and hungry shoppers exchange banter and fresh produce. Vast displays of fruit, vegetables, cured meats, cheese and seafood dominate and we wondered how shoppers could possibly choose between so many counters seemingly offering exactly the same goods. Perhaps it comes down to the vendors and who has the biggest saucisson…

A long stretch of bars, restaurants and cafes wraps itself around the far side of the harbour and when it came to the evening we were overwhelmed by the choice of potential dining establishments. A few were inevitably tourist-y but most provided excellent value with “price fixe” menus, offering three courses for around 15 Euros. After an hour of typical indecision we settled on a quaint little fish and seafood place called Bar Comedie, which served us a delicious meal that included a lovely buttery casserole of white fish and muscles and an enormous seafood platter that required some serious manual labour to de-shell the langoustines, prawns and shrimps.

Sight-seeing wise, there is plenty to occupy the casual tourist and dedicated historian alike. The three stone towers by the harbour each have museums inside and are worth visiting if only to read the graffiti inscribed in the inner walls from ancient mariners captured and held in the prison here. There are also some spectacular views to behold from the top of the Tour La Chaine, revealing a town of terracotta tile rooftops that you would never imagine from the cream stone buildings below. We would also recommend a trip to the Natural History Museum, which contains a vast collection of species both current and extinct displayed beautifully in glass cabinets. Unlike its London equivalent, it wasn’t overrun by hyper-active school children and tourists, and they even had a kiwi…

Jonny

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