Return to La Rochelle, with Dad in tow
We recreated our childhood holidays in this port town steeped in history and on the Atlantic coast. Who could ask for more?
The three towers at the old port of La Rochelle.
The streets of La Rochelle.
The marina, La Rochelle.
We hadn’t all been on holiday together since the 1980s, when our Volkswagen Jetta was a regular fixture on the Irish Ferries boat to France as soon as school finished. And sometimes before then, if there was a particularly good deal going.
It was time to go back to la belle France en bande, although sadly without our mother, who had marshalled the sheets, towels, stove and picnic gear and masterminded the appearance of full meals for six, on ferry decks, roadside laybys, windswept Brittany beaches and gite kitchens.
Back then we picked a place to stay from a green directory with a little yellow house on the front, sent off a bank draft and hoped for the best. This time we clicked on Ryanair and Airbnb, still hoping for the best.
The “bande” was my three sisters and me, and our 88-year-old Dad, who turned out to be the best companion one could have on a long weekend abroad. We picked La Rochelle because it had an airport close to town and flights at civilised hours. It was the perfect choice.
Our house was a small villa about 10 minutes from the sea, with a pretty front garden and another small courtyard, which was ideal for breakfast. When we arrived a little early, there was no one to meet us so we stood in the street with our bags debating what to do. Dad’s fitting response was, “Let’s go for lunch.” This set the tone for the weekend, as we rarely finished one meal without discussing the next.
A neighbourhood bistro produced a three-course meal for €14.90, including a tomato salad from the owner’s garden, entrecote, frites with salad, hake en persillade or a warm salad of smoked duck and poached eggs, and a choice of desserts. We sat in the sun and toasted our adventure. By the time the girls had downed a bottle of rosé, our house was ready, and so were we. For a sieste.
In the evening we walked to the Vieux Port through a park, skirting the sea, passing the town beach at La Concurrence. Starlets pouted as they posed for photographs on the quayside, and champagne bottles popped in marquees celebrating a French television festival taking place in town. The old port was buzzing, and party boats entered the inner harbour through the small gap between the Tour St Nicolas and the Tour de La Chaine at the defensive entrance to the city.
La Rochelle is midway down the Atlantic coast and has a rich history. A Huguenot outpost in Catholic France, it fell foul of Cardinal Richelieu and most of its walls were razed during a great siege, leaving only the towers behind.
After our three-course lunch earlier, we were happy to crack open another bottle or two of rosé in a wine bar off the port, and order charcuterie and fromage platters to share, along with an assiette of grilled prawns with mayonnaise and a delicious aubergine tapenade. This time we managed not to eat all the bread. As a family of four kids, we had often attracted waiters’ sympathy; they would dump the uneaten contents of other people’s breadbaskets into ours.
Back then a restaurant meal was one of the highlights of the holiday and a rare treat. Otherwise our mother had cooked up delights bought in the marché. It was in France that we first tasted aubergines, courgettes and artichokes, and brought back what were then exotic jars of Bonne Maman jam.
Next morning it was time to do some proper sightseeing. As kids, the deal was always sights in the morning, and beaches in the afternoon, and we had been dragged around most of the cathedrals in northern France at some stage or another. We were more fascinated by the D Day beaches and cemeteries of Normandy and the fate of France in the second World War. Now we discovered that La Rochelle was the last city to be liberated from the Nazis, and was freed only after the German surrender in 1945. The street where we were staying was named for a “martyr of the Resistance”, George Emonin, shot summarily in 1944.
“Mind your head and watch the steps.” We were heading underground beneath what used to be the Hotel des Étrangers. We squashed into a tiny corridor still lined with Nazi-era exhortations and instructions. This was the Bunker de La Rochelle, where German admirals directed the activities of the submarine U boats, which plagued Allied Atlantic shipping. For our father, watching the videos was reliving history. “I remember the teachers telling us the Germans were crossing France at the rate of 25 miles a day,” he said. “We thought they would be in Dundalk by Christmas.”
The walls and ceilings were decorated with delicate drawings of fish and mermaids, the work of two female German artists who were brought in to cheer the place up during the war. The bunker even had a bar. Through films, life size models, documents and photos, the museum tells the story of the occupation, resistance and liberation of the city and the story of the German U boat sailors, whose average lifespan once at sea was just three weeks.
La Rochelle has several other sights including a Musee Maritime, which includes visits to several ships, a museum that traces its relationship with the “New World” and a fine aquarium. The city is protected from the rigours of the ocean by three islands, two of them joined to the mainland by bridges. We rented a car and headed out to Ile de Ré, a flat island of saltpans and oyster beds, and superb sandy beaches. Pretty villages and fishing harbours like St Martin and La Flotte are now tasteful retreats for well-off Parisians, who provide ample people-watching opportunities from the seafront cafes and restaurants.
Dinner at La Croisette in La Flotte and lunch at the Beach Club at Le Bois Plage allowed us to dip into this scene, polishing off pots of mussels, millefeuille au crabe and sole meuniere while engaging in conversations that began with, “Do you remember the time that . . .” For an occasional break from the rosé, we tried Orangina, whose bulbous bottles we had brought home as souvenirs in simpler times.
By this point, a dip in the sea could no longer be postponed. Exploratory forays established that the water was “not quite as cold as Ireland, but we are still on the Atlantic”. As kids, once you were brought to the beach there was no discussion about whether or not you were going in. “You are here now and that’s it.” Rain was dismissed as irrelevant in any argument as “you will be wet anyway”. This time it was the same as usual; once the initial shock wore off we loved every minute, and wondered why we didn’t do it more often.
Back at the house we foreswore restaurants for an evening and stocked up on cheese and wine from the local Carrefour City, picking up quiches, prepared salads, and paté at a nearby traiteur. We had made an earlier trip to the neighbourhood boulangerie for proper bread, and by day three were being greeted as regulars as we picked up our croissants and pain au chocolat.
Waking early on our final morning, I decided it was time for a solo expedition. La Rochelle is believed to have been the first city in the world to bring in bike sharing, as far back as 1974. It is still a pioneer in sustainable transport, with electric boats ferrying passengers between the Vieux Port and the marina at Les Minimes, public car sharing, park and ride facilities, and an extensive pedestrian area with cycle paths linking the main public areas of the city. The result is a sense of space and freedom that is as refreshing as the Atlantic air blowing off the Bay of Biscay.
Sense of freedom
Whizzing along the quais or mooching along the city’s linear parks and arcaded passageways on my yellow bike, I felt like a rochelaise owning her city and its streets, unlike in Dublin where I constantly feel at risk. All I needed was a baguette in my basket to complete the effect, and a pair of sky-high heels; French women cycle in their normal clothes and rarely wear a helmet, runners or sports gear.
“I always felt a great sense of freedom in France,” Dad had said the previous day, and I could understand why. He and our mother had first come here in the 1960s, on one occasion blowing the money they had saved for a washing machine on a trip to Paris. Mam had hitchhiked through Belgium and Germany in the late 1950s, and they had packed my sister and I off to France on an exchange on the ferry at the tender ages of 15 and 13. Probably illegal, but wonderfully liberating.
Cycling along the Digue du Nouveau Monde, and looking out to the Atlantic, I thought about how those family trips to France had opened my horizons to the world, persuaded me to study French, and given my sisters and me an early, and privileged, insight into another culture. And for that I am very grateful.
The French came in handy later that day, as we finished our final lunch in the local restaurant we had visited on day one. The taxi we had booked to the airport never arrived, and repeated phone calls finally established that there were no taxis available. In the end it was the kindness of the chef who had cooked our lunch, who jumped into her van and got us there. At the airport we swanned through passport control and security and boarded the plane first, all because of our father and his pre-booked wheelchair. The best accessory for a French holiday, we decided, is your 88-year Dad.
HOW TO DO IT
Ryanair flies to La Rochelle twice weekly in season. Or take the ferry. La Rochelle is about five hours’ drive from Roscoff or Cherbourg.
We stayed at an Airbnb and there are many options. A hotel worth considering is Hotel la Monnaie, well situated close to the centre. hotelmonnaie.com
We ate great value lunches at Le Trot Quai, about 10 minutes from town at 12 Avenue Jean Guiton. Breakfast and lunch only, Monday to Friday.
Beach Bar, Plage des Gollandieres, Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré. Reservations via Facebook.
Ile De Ré – the bridge toll is €16 return in summer and €8 off season.
Bunker de la Rochelle, rue de Dames bunkerlarochelle.com
General tourism information larochelle-tourisme.com
Local transport information, including the yellow bike scheme yelo.agglo-larochelle.fr