A month on the road, la belle et bonne route, ended the other day when I drove into La Rochelle, turned in the rental car, and checked into my hotel in the quartier St Nicolas. One of the old neighborhoods, it is next to the historic port at the center of this small city on the Atlantic (pop. about 85,000).
I am glad not to be encumbered by a car in the city, but I had fun with it – a very small Fiat, stick shift, with lots of pep to it. Here it is on my first evening in France, photo taken from my hotel room and the car parked next to a Romanesque abbey across the street:
I am always surprised how far I can go on a tank of French gas, which is good because it is so expensive.
The port I referred to above is the beautiful and historic port for which La Rochelle is famous, bracketed by two 14th-15th-century stone towers. Here, two different views:
La Rochelle’s commercial, fishing, and pleasure-boat ports have all been moved elsewhere within the city or on its outskirts. The tourism literature says that it is the largest deep-water port on the European Atlantic coast, and also the largest pleasure-boat port, with over 3,500 yachts, etc. One shot of a beautiful yacht early in the morning:
The history of La Rochelle is complex and, yes,… long. I will spare you and me the details. Suffice to say that from the 10th to the 17th centuries, it was a rich, thriving center of international trade and commerce and enjoyed a great deal of autonomy because of privileges granted to it by various rulers. (The trade involved, depending on the period: salt, wine, grains, sugar, furs from Québec, and slaves.) Its autonomy as a city was not diminished by the fact that it passed back and forth from French to English control, nor by the fact that there were a lot of Protestants here – indeed, the city was the capital of French Protestants between 1568 and 1628 – and they and the Catholics often fought each other.
A photo of the Protestant church (called a “temple” of “the reformed church”):
But in the 1620s, Louis XIII and his First Minister Cardinal Richelieu had had enough of the Protestants – or, more accurately, of the defiance of central state authority by some of the nobility who used Protestantism as a means of defiance. (The English also encouraged the Protestants in their defiance of the French ruler.) This led to the famous 13-month siege of La Rochelle by the Royal forces, commanded by Richelieu. Some 15,000 inhabitants of La Rochelle – three-quarters of the population – died of starvation. The city capitulated, marking the triumph of the French nation-state over feudal aristocrats; this led to the ascendance of France in Europe. Until the Revolution.
So there are those beautiful fortified stone towers at the entrance to the port. And other historic buildings, most of the Renaissance period, i.e., 15th-16th centuries. The City Hall is especially beautiful, but not easily photographed at the moment due to a large renovation project. Here are a couple of photographs of parts of the building not hidden by scaffolding:
Love that mermaid.
What I like most in La Rochelle’s architecture are the many arcaded streets in the commercial heart of the old city. Some of the arcades are 13th century; the most recent are 17th century. Arcades were used by merchants to display their wares out of doors but protected from the elements.
Several of the arcaded streets lead to the city’s central market. It is open seven days a week, somewhat unusual in French provincial cities these days. The hub is the covered market, built in the 19th century, and surrounded by lively cafés. I have gone there every morning for my café crème and tartine beurée (baguette with butter and jam) instead of breakfast at the hotel. Here is a photo of the market, and one of a neighboring café.
Most of my lunch-times in La Rochelle have been deliciously spent at this small bistrot, sitting outside under an umbrella on the cobblestone “place.” La Solette (small sole) is its name, and it is run by two genial young people who take their time and are glad that their clientele does, too. I have had wonderful tartine de poisson (pictured), and salmon gravelax here. One of the things I like best about déjeuner in France is having a perfect espresso after the meal; la Solette’s is perfect – strong, but never sour or bitter. This, too, is pictured.
The young woman who works at la Solette – Véronique – somewhat resembles Liza Minelli. She has a hearty laugh, a sparkle in her eye, and a roll-with-the-punches attitude. Her outfits are wonderful. Every day a different, vivid, color scheme to the dress, but the dress is always the same short simple style; and custom-made barrettes in her hair that go with the dress of the day. How the French love style! Here she is greeting a regular customer:
Last night I went to the theatre. A very good one-man show written and acted by an Algerian, who lives and works mostly in France, called by his last name: Fellag. His full name is Mohamed Säid Fellag; he is 62; he has won many awards for his writing. His acting career is successful, too, and you can see him now in the US in a film called “Monsieur Lazhar,” which has gotten good reviews. The show I saw last night is titled “Petits Chocs des Civilisations,” and it’s a long comedic riff on French-Algerian relations, i.e., between French people and Algerian immigrants in France. Most of the time on stage he posed as a French cooking show cook demonstrating the fine techniques required for a genuine cous-cous, using that shtick for humorous commentary. He was funny, insightful, only mildly caustic from time to time, and directed his humor at both parties to the relationship. The overall message: we need each other. (For example – but he said this funny – the French with their low birth-rate need the Algerians living and working here, with their higher birth-rate, to keep the country going.)
Now a photo from the very good Natural History museum here. Wonderful displays not only of flora and fauna, the ecology of the salt marshes, and so on; but also a lot of African, Polynesian,
pre-Columbian, and Native American art.
Tomorrow I take a TGV rapid train to Paris. Here’s a last photo taken one evening in La Rochelle, from my hotel room: