Journeying back in time
La Rochelle is steeped in history and has some terrific places to eat – the perfect place to step back into old ways with family, writes Margaret Ward
We hadn’t all been on holiday together since the 1980s, when our Volkswagen Jetta was a regular fixture on the Irish Ferries boat to France as soon as school finished. And sometimes before then, if there was a particularly good deal going.
It was time to go back to la belle France en bande, although sadly without our mother, who had marshalled the sheets, towels, stove and picnic gear and masterminded the appearance of full meals for six, on ferry decks, roadside laybys, windswept Brittany beaches and gite kitchens.
Back then we picked a place to stay from a green directory with a little yellow house on the front, sent off a bank draft and hoped for the best. This time we clicked on Ryanair and Airbnb, still hoping for the best.
The “bande” was my three sisters and me, and our 88- year- old Dad, who turned out to be the best companion one could have on a long weekend abroad. We picked La Rochelle because it had an airport close to town and flights at civilised hours. It was the perfect choice.
Our house was a small villa about 10 minutes from the sea, with a pretty front garden and another small courtyard, which was ideal for breakfast. When we arrived a little early, there was no one to meet us so we stood in the street with our bags debating what to do. Dad’s fitting response was, “Let’s go for lunch.” This set the tone for the weekend, as we rarely finished one meal without discussing the next.
A neighbourhood bistro produced a three- course meal for ¤ 14.90, including a tomato salad from the owner’s garden, entrecote, frites with salad, hake en persillade or a warm salad of smoked duck and poached eggs, and a choice of desserts. We sat in the sun and toasted our adventure. By the time the girls had downed a bottle of rosé, our house was ready, and so were we. For a sieste.
In the evening we walked to the Vieux Port through a park, skirting the sea, passing the town beach at La Concurrence. Starlets pouted as they posed for photographs on the quayside, and champagne bottles popped in marquees celebrating a French television festival taking place in town. The old port was buzzing, and party boats entered the inner harbour through the small gap between the Tour St Nicolas and the Tour de La Chaine at the defensive entrance to the city.
La Rochelle is midway down the Atlantic coast and has a rich history. A Huguenot outpost in Catholic France, it fell foul of Cardinal Richelieu and most of its walls were razed during a great siege, leaving only the towers behind.
After our three- course lunch earlier, we were happy to crack open another bottle or two of rosé in a wine bar off the port, and order charcuterie and fromage platters to share, along with an assiette of grilled prawns with mayonnaise and a delicious aubergine tapenade. This time we managed not to eat all the bread. As a family of four kids, we had often attracted waiters’ sympathy; they would dump the uneaten contents of other people’s breadbaskets into ours.
Back then a restaurant meal was one of the highlights of the holiday and a rare treat. Otherwise our mother had cooked up delights bought in the marché. It was in France that we first tasted aubergines, courgettes and artichokes, and bought what were then exotic jars of Bonne Maman jam.
Next morning it was time to do some proper sightseeing. As kids, the deal was always sights in the morning, and beaches in the afternoon, and we had been dragged around most of the cathedrals in northern France at some stage or another. We were more fascinated by the D- Day beaches and cemeteries of Normandy and the fate of France in the second World War. Now we discovered that La Rochelle was the last city to be liberated from the Nazis, and was freed only after the German surrender in 1945. The street where we were staying was named for a “martyr of the Resistance”, George Emonin, shot summarily in 1944.
“Mind your head and watch the steps.” We were heading underground beneath what used to be the Hotel des Étrangers. We squashed into a tiny corridor still lined with Nazi- era exhortations and instructions. This was the Bunker de La Rochelle, where German admirals directed the activities of the submarine U- boats, which plagued Allied Atlantic shipping. For our father, watching the videos was reliving history. “I remember the teachers telling us the Germans were crossing France at the rate of 25 miles a day,” he said. “We thought they would be in Dundalk by Christmas.”
The walls and ceilings were decorated with delicate drawings of fish and mer- maids, the work of two female German artists who were brought in to cheer the place up during the war. The bunker even had a bar. Through films, life size models, documents and photos, the museum tells the story of the occupation, resistance and liberation of the city and the story of the German U- boat sailors, whose average lifespan once at sea was just three weeks.
La Rochelle has several other sights including a Musee Maritime, which includes visits to several ships, a museum that traces its relationship with the “New World” and a fine aquarium. The city is protected from the rigours of the ocean by three islands, two of them joined to the mainland by bridges. We rented a car and headed out to Ile de Ré, a flat island of saltpans and oyster beds, and superb sandy beaches. Pretty villages and fishing harbours like St Martin and La Flotte are now tasteful retreats for well- off Parisians, who provide ample people- watching opportunities from the seafront cafes and restaurants.
Dinner at La Croisette in La Flotte and lunch at the Beach Club at Le Bois Plage allowed us to dip into this scene, polishing off pots of mussels, millefeuille au crabe and sole meuniere while engaging in conversations that began with, “Do you remember the time that . . .” For an occasional break from the rosé, we tried Orangina, whose bulbous bottles we had brought home as souvenirs in simpler times.
By this point, a dip in the sea could no longer be postponed. Exploratory forays established that the water was “not quite as cold as Ireland, but we are still on the Atlan-