Drink to cap­i­tal of Co­gnac

Toasts the city of La Rochelle

Rochdale Observer - - TRAVEL -

At 4.30am the next day, I was given a tour of ‘Un matin à la criée ,’ or ‘the fish mar­ket.’ Why oh why would I want to do this? I hear you ask.

If you’ve ever eaten seafood in a restau­rant nowhere near the coast and won­dered how it can be fresh, then I strongly en­cour­age you to ex­pe­ri­ence this kind of tour. The vast ware­houses are a hub of ac­tiv­ity with chefs and restau­ra­teurs al­ready buy­ing the first catch of the day.

Al­most all the auc­tion­ing of the pro­duce is done on­line, by busi­nesses all over France. I’m told even the finest restau­rants in Paris will be buy­ing their seafood from the ports at La Rochelle.

It re­ally makes you ap­pre­ci­ate the hard work peo­ple do just so you can en­joy fish and chips!

I was then off to see some fish that were not des­tined for din­ner plates, at Aquar­ium La Rochelle (http://www.aquar­i­um­larochelle.com).

Ar­guably the most vis­ited aquar­ium in all of France, it is a cen­tre for the study and con­ser­va­tion of sea species, boast­ing over 12,000 sea crea­tures.

It’s in­cred­i­ble to be able to see sea tur­tles from the Caribbean, jel­ly­fish swim­ming around you as you walk through a glass tun­nel, sand tiger sharks in the shark the­atre and lit­tle sea horses all in one place - just mes­meris­ing.

Thank­fully, an au­dio­gu­ide avail­able in English was able to in­form me of all the ex­hibits, in­clud­ing be­ing told pi­ran­has oc­cupy a tank be­low a wooden foot­bridge that I hap­pened to be walk­ing across!

And eat­ing fish should also be on your itin­er­ary. At Le Prao for ex­am­ple I had some of the tasti­est mack­erel fil­lets I think I’ve ever had (http://www. prao.biz/).

Then it was Cog­n­ac­tast­ing at Do­maine Nor­mandin-Mercier. (http://nor­mand­in­mercier.fr)

Not an ac­tiv­ity I would nor­mally have cho­sen for a hol­i­day but one I would wholly en­cour­age you to try.

Our guide was Edouard Nor­mandin him­self, great­grand­son of the dis­tillery’s founder, a pas­sion­ate and suave host who spoke of his legacy as if it were more im­por­tant than any other prod­uct of France.

Just en­ter­ing the stor­age rooms filled my lungs with the smell of Co­gnac and oak: I could have lived there it smelt so good.

The huge bar­rels dom­i­nat­ing the space held Cog­nacs that his great­grand­par­ents had made and he ex­plained the process, stor­age and the rea­sons why the ge­og­ra­phy of the area was per­fect for the con­di­tions needed.

I tasted too many to count and learned that all the Co­gnac in the world can only be made in this area in France which has very heav­ily im­posed re­stric­tions, mak­ing ev­ery sip that lit­tle bit more ex­quis­ite.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers vis­i­tors the chance to blend their very own brand of Co­gnac that they can then take home, but I set­tled on one made by the pro­fes­sion­als.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, I put on my train­ers for a walk­ing tour, but I could have worn my stilet­tos as this was more of an idyl­lic strolling tour.

Our in­cred­i­bly knowl­edge­able guide Mar­ion took us through the wind­ing cob­bled streets, the beau­ti­ful tem­ple in the old town square, and on to the Satur­day mar­kets.

What you get with a walk­ing tour is an ex­pla­na­tion of all the sights you find in­ter­est­ing, and to be shown things you would have oth­er­wise over-looked.

I would have missed a hid­den bunker used by Nazi U-boat com­man­ders, wooden doors be­low the streets which used to store slaves, lo­cals who opened up their homes to us so we could see orig­i­nal wall paint­ings that are as much a part of the build­ing as the bricks them­selves. For only a few Eu­ros you can re­ally see the city for what it is and hear its story through the pas­sion of its res­i­dents.

The bustling mar­ket at the end of the tour was the ‘French­est’ thing you ever did see. The whole town seemed to have emp­tied and de­scended on this spot.

No one buys from su­per­mar­kets - ev­ery­one gets all their pro­duce here. A kind fish­mon­ger al­lowed us to sam­ple his fresh oys­ters, cheeses were stacked up and snapped up by pun­ters by the wheel, with chairs and ta­bles placed nearby to al­low you to rest your feet and en­joy a catch-up with your friends over a cof­fee in the sun while the smell of fresh bread fills your lungs.

If you come to La Rochelle you have to ex­pe­ri­ence sail­ing in some way. There are count­less op­por­tu­ni­ties to get on the wa­ter, be it in kayaks, sail boats, yachts, the so­lar­pow­ered taxis that will take you across the port for only €1, or a boat tour of Fort Bo­yard, an im­pres­sive for­ti­fi­ca­tion off the coast.

This is a city dom­i­nated by its ports and you have to feel that ocean breeze to get a sense of life in this mar­itime haven.

Although all the places I ate at in La Rochelle were won­der­ful, one which stood out the most was Le Bar An­dré (http://www. baran­dre.com). Per­fectly lo­cated on the edge of the port, with the tow­ers of La Rochelle cre­at­ing a beau­ti­ful back­ground on which to dine, this fam­ily-run restau­rant of­fers a wide range of dishes, but it is renowned for its seafood, served in its sim­plest form.

I opted for a taste of the sea with Bar An­dré’s “Croustille” – lan­goustines, cut­tle­fish, hake, mus­sels and saf­fron rice. It was pure joy on a plate. For dessert I had Café ou thé gour­mand, which put sim­ply is an es­presso and sev­eral mini ver­sions of the restau­rant’s desserts: teeny creme brulle, tiny al­mond tart, minia­ture mac­a­roons... Why have one when you can have a lit­tle bit of them all?

The next morn­ing we hopped on the so­lar powered boat to the Mar­itime mu­seum (http:// www.musee mar­itime larochelle.fr).

My favourite part of this was that a ship once used for long sea voy­ages had been turned into an in­ter­ac­tive mu­seum where you could see the cabins, the kitchens, the ship’s wheel (yes, I had a go) and the en­gine rooms.

Ev­ery part of the ship was ac­ces­si­ble and meant you could re­ally get a feel­ing of what life would have been like at sea. The ship also has a par­tic­u­larly good restau­rant.

Like the other restau­rants I tried you can or­der a starter, main, dessert and a glass of wine and still come away with change from €30.

As well as great food, La Rochelle is also known as a shop­per’s dream thanks to its eclec­tic mix of styles and ex­clu­sive bou­tiques.

Not many cities can boast such a di­verse amount of at­trac­tions and yet still re­main pic­turesque and crowd free.

●●Edouard Nor­mandin with his Co­gnac col­lec­tion and the en­trance to La Rochelle’s main square and wa­ter­front

●●Christina Blaney in La Rochelle and in­side the city’s cathe­dral

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