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Attraction in the Vendee.
 
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La Rochelle   by Tate
Every cloud has a silver lining, or so they say, but I must admit that when the suction brush disintegrated halfway through Trevor’s valiant effort at cleaning my pool and this coming hot on the heels of finding a hole in the net used for scooping the detritus from the surface of the pool, I was failing to see anything but red. Then I remembered that the shop for buying these accessories, Castorama, is just outside of La Rochelle and my mood suddenly brightened. Following our successful trip to the Puy du Fou, the decision to go there to buy the necessary pool tools and then spend the rest of the day in La Rochelle was a shoe in. I have been to La Rochelle with Trevor before but that was BT (Before Thunderbirds) and we were very seriously restricted in what we could do. This time the gloves were off.
We started the day early as it takes a good hour to get to La Rochelle from my place, and the last thing we wanted to do was to restrict ourselves to time. The journey was uneventful with a good navigator and T2 coping easily, we arrived at Conforama in good time. Even trips to large French versions of B&Q are interesting for me, now that I can scoot around them. We had a good look at the BBQ’s, I have a dismal record when it comes to buying BBQ’s I don’t think I’ve ever bought a decent one in my life, unlike Trevor who had just bought an all singing all dancing gas job which was on offer at  Bricomarche for peanuts, but then he is a clever little monkey. Having found everything we needed we headed upwards and onwards to La Rochelle.

We arrived in La Rochelle passing the railway station on the way in, from the outside this is far too grand a building to house a rail terminus, with its imposing arches, beautifully crafted decorative façade and a central clock tower that is simply too handsome for it’s purpose, the station is more like Versailles than St Pancras. On arriving we easily found a disabled space in the car park outside the ramparts, parking in the shadow of the twin towers at the entrance to the old port (Port Vieux). There was no mention of free parking for the disabled so using the maxim “it’s better to be safe than sorry” we fed the ticket machine and made our way into the beautiful old harbour. Our attention was immediately drawn to the restaurants which ring the quayside, Trevor showed me a couple that he’d eaten in previously, Andre’s which looked very posh, and the rather appropriately named Comedians, we both agreed that they were both a bit pricey and that we’d look for something less expensive. It is of course true to say that it’s hard to put a price on the ambience of eating right in the middle of such a spectacular place, and were we not committed, on your behalf, to the pursuit of value for money eating I would have happily settled into a chair in one of the waterside restaurants and indulged myself in a seafood extravaganza. As it was we were a little early for lunch so we settled for a coffee at a café called Encas before heading off into the backstreets. The service and the coffee were good, and at 5 euros for 2 large white coffees, considering the surroundings, I didn’t feel too badly ripped off. The weather was being kind not too hot but with prolonged sunny spells, consequently we were both smiling. 
 
La Rochelle is purported to be the second most visited place in France after Paris and it doesn’t take long to realise why, the architecture is old and beautiful and the small cobbled streets wind their way through the town, opening unexpectedly onto stunning squares of all shapes and sizes some large and adorned with statues and cafes, others with trees and some small with little gardens or nothing at all. Our next major architectural find was the Town Hall (Hotel de Ville) this richly decorated Renaissance building is an absolute must on any tour of La Rochelle Passing through the imposing archways and into the courtyard the flamboyantly gothic nature of the building becomes more obvious, with a carved facia that runs the whole width of the building without repetition, stone stairways that sweep up to resplendent balconies that would befit a certain scene from a certain play and a cloister that has an intricate and highly decorative ceiling. The stone walls are bedecked with ornate windows festooned with carvings and the whole edifice is topped with towers and battlements. To say it is imposing would be an understatement.
We continued our tour through the narrow streets full of tall buildings, not skyscraperesque in either style or proportions but bursting with character until we came to the Old Market, the building itself is another triumph of French architecture, built in 1835 it actually looks as if it should be the train station. One side of the building with its metal and glass superstructure and clock tower fronts the small square which houses the outdoor fruit and vegetable stalls. The other side of the building has alternate red and white striped courses of brick and stone and is one of the most striking facades I’ve ever seen. Housed within this building are numerous stalls of fresh meat, fish, cheese, pates and a small wine counter. It is one of the best markets I’ve seen, it may not be the cheapest market but the produce looked so fresh and appealing that I only wished I lived close enough to visit it on a regular basis. I’m sure that if you did you would soon get to know the market traders and visiting would be as much of a social event as a shopping trip.
After looking around the market we started feeling a bit hungry so we made our way back towards the harbour. In one of the small streets approaching the harbour called the Rue Saint Michel we came across a small café/restaurant called L’Atelier Gourmand with tables inside and out, it was nearly full and all of the diners appeared to be locals. We decided to give it a try, we both had the entrecote with a béarnaise sauce, frites and salad it cost 12 euros, the steak was a good size and perfectly cooked, the béarnaise sauce was just right and the frites and salad were excellent, we followed it with a chocolate fondant at 3 euros, it was exactly as I think a fondant should be the cake exterior gave way to an oozing liquid centre, it was rich, it was chocolaty, it was delicious. We followed it with coffee, and we both agreed that considering where we were it was hard to find anything to criticise. The service was first-rate, friendly and efficient, we didn’t have to wait long for anything yet we never felt hurried and the lady who was running the restaurant was happy enough to stop and chat at the end of the meal.
There was however no time for us to dawdle we still had the other half of the harbour to see plus the beach and the gardens. Lining the quayside on the far side of the old port are more restaurants side by side, but behind them is an area that has been redeveloped. Looking more like an American harbour side development than France it is, still very attractive. This area has not taken off and unlike everywhere else that we saw it was relatively deserted with many empty shops. I thought it a shame as it really was a very pleasant place. We stood on the quayside and watched a brand new 62 foot catamaran come alongside and tie up; the boat was a very impressive sight unlike the standard of seamanship displayed by its crew. After watching the debacle we meandered back towards the car park as the meter needed feeding again, stopping only to partake of an ice cream in one of the cafes. As we sat eating our ice creams looking at the harbour full of the most fantastic sailing craft large and small framed by the elegant old buildings I couldn’t help thinking how fantastic it would be to live in this beautiful old town.
We spent the rest of the afternoon looking around the outer edges of the citadel, at the sailing school, the town beach and wandering through the gardens with its children’s zoo. There was much more to see, including Fort Boyard a 61 x 31 metre fortification which rises some 20 metres up out of the sea. Then there is the aquarium which is widely recognised as one of the best in Europe, with its guided walkways stretching over two floors of massive seawater tanks containing approximately 10,000 species of flora and fauna from the oceans of the world, living in what looks like their natural habitat, but all of that would have to wait for another day, perhaps when the weather was a little less clement. We ended our day by driving out to the Port des Minimes and having coffee on the seafront at Les Minimes Beach, looking out at the Isle de Re.
It had been a truly wonderful day and La Rochelle certainly is fabulous, I think it would be hard to ever exhaust the possibilities of this beautiful and enchanting town. If you make one excursion during your visit to the Vendée I highly recommend that you visit La Rochelle.

Tate June 2009
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