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

The Irish Times Magazine - - TRAVEL -

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-

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