Drink to capital of Cognac
Toasts the city of La Rochelle
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