13.08.2012 - 16.08.2012 34 °C
After a week of smoggy Parisian air, it was time to move on to our planned three day stay at the beach-side town of La Rochelle on the mid south west coast of France. The distance involved did not seem to justify using a day of our Eurail pass, so when I realised that our need to travel was less than two days away, I leaped up, jumped into the Metro and travelled one station to Gard de L'Est. In such a large station there are different windows to buy different types of tickets, leading one to stand in several lines before getting directed to what I hoped was the correct place, at the level where the fast trains come and go from the platforms. Here, I eventually learned that queuing for a 'live' ticket seller was of no use; they were selling tickets only for the trains actually leaving today. To buy tickets for any other day, the only option now is to use the electronic self-service machines, several of which were scattered around the station.
Fortunately, there is a choice of which language the display presents, but still there are surprises as you work through the choices presented. The choice of "departure" is easy enough, as it appears automatically. For "destination", as you start typing, with each keystroke the number of possible towns you might have meant narrows, but weirder, the keys on the on-screen keyboard go grey and unavailable - I mean, as you press L - A the keys that would allow you to choose any town in the whole of France that does not commence with those letters becomes greyed out and unavailable. After working through that part, you then have to go through further rigmarole concerning any concession cards you may claim to hold, and if so, must be able to produce both to enter the numbers on such card, and to show to any railway official who may demand to see them. Yeah, well, I just wanted two tickets. OK. enter details for passenger number one. Ah ha, so both passengers travel on the one ticket. Bon. Please enter concession details for second passenger. Sacre bleu! Will the questioning never end? But at last this yellow dalek of a machine advised that I should insert my credit card, and extracted from my account the required amount. My French is not too bad, especially after receiving a vigorous work out on this trip, but honestly, if I had to use that machine in its native tongue we might still be stranded in Paris, maybe sheltering under a bridge with the street dwellers.
The following morning we made the short trip by Metro to the Gare de L'Est again, and exactly at the appointed time our train pulled out and was soon speeding towards La Rochelle. This trip was notable only for the fact that we did not see a single conductor or railway employee during the whole trip. The ticket seemed to indicate that there would be a need to change trains at a certain town; but when we got there, the illuminated signs said that this train would continue to La Rochelle. Snap decision to stay on, resulting in getting there an hour earlier than the alternative train would have done; if it arrived at all.
The station at La Rochelle, like many in regional France is quite grand in itself; this one has enormous and beautifully executed mosaics at either end, high up on the walls. One depicts sailing ships of the Renaissance period, the other the three towers for which La Rochelle is quite famous. These were done in the 1920's in tiny tiles that together give a wonderful subtlety of colour, almost like a Seurat painting but not dotty.
As has become our habit, we first trooped into the closest cafe for a coffee to recover from the trip and seek some local advice on how to get to our hotel. It turned out that we just needed to continue heading along the street that the cafe had at its side to reach the centre of the town, where our hotel should be. Soon I spied the Office de Tourisme, always a great place to grab a local street map. Ten minutes for an unencumbered person at a moderate stroll; twenty minutes for two profusely sweating middle aged folk with suitcase wheels beginning to squeak and squeal, despite their fifteen year warranty. Soon we were in the midst of narrow medieval streets that grew ever narrower as we progressed, with human statues plying their trade and the usual round of buskers squeezing pained cacaphonies from accordions and other instruments of musical destruction. Presently, the Rue de Fleuriau hove into view, and the familiar Ibis sign winked at us from the end of the street.
This Ibis was a different creature to the one we had stayed at in Paris; for starters, this one didn't smell like an old folks' home, had only three floors of accommodation, and treated their guests with politeness. But there is no escaping the standard breakfast, the machine coffee, the machine orange juice, the croissants, the croissants, and the croissants. Once again, no option to make your own hot drinks provided: make your own arrangements to ensure you can do this independently is my number one tip for travellers, unless you want to be going into hotel bars at all hours and blowing your dough on drinks at four euros a pop.
So what's this La Rochelle joint all about? In essence two things: medieval history by the bucket load, and a swinging place for French folk to cavort at the beach. Old stuff first: this was a key place to defend French interests against the English during the 100 years war, way back in the 13-14th century. To do so, it had some excellent technology. Like, the entrance to the cute little harbour, now filled with expensive cruisers of the bourgeoisie, had a chain that was drawn across the entrance at night so unexpected visitors couldn't sail in and invade.
Around the harbour are clustered the towers that kept watch, and the Tower of the Chain had the role of putting the chain barrier in place at night. For those who have a taste for ancient French literature (Halloooooo? Is anybody there?) this very chain is mentioned in Rabelais' work Pantagruel, where a giant is held down by four massive chains "and one of these can still be seen at La Rochelle." There is also the Tower of the Four Sargeants, where four unfortunates were held pending there execution at Paris. In that tower, there is graffiti from a range of prisoners including pirates and other n'eer do wells of the high seas. Instead of the bland sea walls of Melbourne, the sea walls here were once the ramparts that held the enemy at bay, and they still hold a few spiky extrusions to make things hot for anyone trying to climb up from, say, a rowboat instead of from the harbour. At night the three towers are brilliantly lit and make a delightful fairy tale scene for a beachfront walk. Around the harbour, the Vieux Port (Old Port), with a strip of restaurants jostling and spruiking for their share of the tourist euros, along the Rue Des Femmes where women would come and look wistfully out to sea awaiting the return of their men - if they came back. The sailors could get rowdy at times, but there were several gates (one still existing) that could be sealed to prevent the sailors from coming into town to make trouble. These gates were also a way to stop the spread of fire, should a vessel catch alight in the port.
Surrounding the Old Port, of course the Old Town. Here the streets are narrow, the houses almost all built from limestone of a whitish shade, and you enter this part of La Rochelle through a magnificent gothic arched gateway that has stood since the 15th century. This is known as the Grosse Horloge (Big Clock) because when it was last renovated (about thirty years before Captain Cook sighted Australia) a tower to hold this massive clock was added atop the gate. Apart from the lapse in taste of this anachronistic timepiece that clashes in style with the grandeur of the gateway itself, La Rochelle is doing itself proud in preserving and restoring its heritage. The main shopping streets have Les Arcades, arched porches that protect the pedestrian from the hot sun between the edge of the street and the shop windows. The shops riff on the nautical theme with lots of sailor style clothes with thin stripes, crafts based on sea themes, and the typical seaside resort souvenirs that visitors to any sea facing town must endure and some, apparently, buy.
In the oldest, tiny square of the town, where money lenders once had their tables, a man and a woman set up their human statue act each day at about 10 am, work for eight hours at keeping very still and very grey (that make up must be hot and unbearable in August!) with the woman occasionally waving her fan, the man turning his head slightly. They seemed to have a nice little earner going. Kids loved it. Apart from the legitimate buskers, there was an infestation of youngish beggars of prime working age, some wearing French army camo gear and mohawks, each with their own massive, ugly dog to sit at their feet. One was cheeky enough to have two cans set out, labelled Biere and Fumer (Beer and Smokes) to receive donations. After they had gathered enough coins and been moved on several times, they would congregate off the tourist beaten track to drink the rest of the day away. This seemed to be the major growth industry in La Rochelle. The grandeur of commerce has faded a little, where once they had their own Stock Exchange, preserved still, with a magnificent carved wooden door facing out on to the main street of merchants.
Although facing the sea, there was hardly a breath of a breeze in our three days there, and to escape the sweltering conditions a stroll around the botanical gardens was a suitable tonic. these were small but lovely, with species from around the world laid out in a small park with only about twenty six rules listed on a board to ensure the visitor shall behave in a manner befitting the dignity of the town. At one end of the park, some enthusiastic topiary fiend has gone berserk and created the zig-zaggiest examples I've encountered. It could make a certain enthusiast I know green with envy.
As for the beach, here unlike much of Europe there is actually fine white sand there, much to the delight of visiting children. This appears to be a place that many families seek out for their August holidays, and when the Bank Holiday / Assumption of The Virgin day rolled around on the 15th August, suddenly there was a huge upsurge in the number of people swarming in the streets. The chance to wander among the ancient streets was lost among crowds that rolled around the Old Port like a tsunami, if a tsunami can hold a gelato cone upright.
In view of this, we were kind of relieved to get ready to move on to our next port of call, the great inland capital of the red wine regions, Bordeaux. More of that in my next bulletin.