Being the kind of traveller that is happy to sleep in a tent or hammock somewhere in a wilderness, yet know I have slept in worse places, so five star La Rochelle boutique hotels maybe considered a little out of my league.
It is surprising how easy it is to adapt to huge, comfortable beds, private showers that actually work and being treated to excellent cuisine day in day out.
“trekking approach shoes, softshell jacket and daypack are a seamless fit”
Luxury was the order of the day on the recent trip to Poitou-Charentes, where I visited the lovely cities of La Rochelle and Rochefort. The region is at the higher end of the travel market, where rubbing shoulders with the well heeled of French society in Michelin guide restaurants, attractive walkways and stylishly upmarket hotels is common place.
In my trekking approach shoes, softshell jacket and daypack I was a seamless fit with the chic, beautiful people that frequent these cities. In all seriousness it is actually quite true as although there are plenty of ‘fashionistas’ equally there is a mixture of people from all walks of society.
La Rochelle is an extremely attractive and historic city with a rich maritime heritage. Built around the picturesque ‘old’ harbour with its twin towers guarding the entrance it is easy to picture fishing boats and leather skinned salt merchants busily plying their trade in the founding days of the city.
They would hardly recognise it now with tourists strolling from coffee shop to ice cream parlour occasionally pausing to peruse the wares of the modern day merchants selling designer handbags, chic clothing or expensive cognacs.
There are three other ports; the fishing port ‘Chef de Baie’, the commercial port of La Pallice and the marina Minimes which at the time of this visit was being prepared for the ‘Grand Pavois’ which is a very large annual boat show.
“aristocrats of the hobo world”
Many of the streets have covered arches which date back to the original shopping arcades and in combination with some of the cobbled side streets have a feeling genuine stone antiquity.
In common with any city of this size there is a homeless community, however even those that sleep on the well maintained streets seem to be the ‘aristocrats’ of the hobo world. One especially impressive character I spotted was robed in a long black studded coat and carried a stout walking stick; he resembled a modern day wizard. There is not any image of him in case he turned me into a toad when my camera was aimed in his direction.
La Rochelle has an excellent electric car and bike hire system with a number of locations around the city where they can be collected and deposited. I believe it was the first city to adopt such a scheme and is the perfect way to discover the city. Proof of identification is all that is needed to register at the tourist office and enjoy exploring the city. The bikes are very reasonably priced and the electric cars are comparable with normal hire care prices.
“time to check out just how comfortable those beds are”
The market is worth a stop to browse the stalls which sell everything from fresh fish and oysters to high end wines and the local aperitif ‘Pineau des Charentes’. Fresh vegetables, spiced meats, cheeses, chocolates and of course freshly baked artisan breads are all available with the local housewives stopping off each day to get the ingredients for the evening’s well crafted meal.
After a tough day of cafe culture, retail therapy, sight-seeing and high class dining it is a great relief to retire to the comfort of the bar in the luxury hotel. Maybe now is a good time to give the Pineau des Charentes a try; a combination of unfermented grape juice and cognac. It is rumoured to be the result of an accident when grapes were accidentally dropped into a barrel of cognac.
After enjoying one or two of them it’ll be time to check out just how comfortable those beds are …………. you can take my word for it they all seem extremely restful.
“I even had the chance to make my own rope”
Whilst Rochefort may not be as old as La Rochelle its history is no less interesting. Dating back to the 17th century it was chosen by Jean-Baptiste Colbert as a suitable home for the naval armoury. Despite the difficulty of building upon the wetlands of the Charentes-Maritime area King Louis XIV instructed that it be fortified throughout the estuary and several gun placements were strategically placed throughout the delta.
The town was built in straight lines out from the harbour and still remain relatively unchanged. It is also home to the impressive Corderie Royale which has been designated a historic monument and houses an interesting museum where I even had the chance to make my own rope. I am not totally sure how useful the twelve inch long piece of cordage will prove to be, maybe not a good idea to give up my day job just yet.
“The attention to detail is mind boggling”
There is also a coffee shop but honestly did spend more time in the museum than here.
Le Chantier de l’Hermione is worthy of a post all of its own, an amazing project to construct the 18th century sailing ship Hermione. The attention to detail is mind boggling and although when it is eventually floated it will be way overdue it is obviously a labour of love for the multi-national team completing the reconstruction.
Wandering over its upper and lower decks listening to the details of the reconstruction, including the research, collation of materials and expert craftsmen who painstakingly ensure she remains as true to the original as possible this becomes understandable. It is also easy to imagine how emotional and exciting it will be for all those involved when she is eventually afloat.
Experiencing all that history, culture and watching craftsmen working so hard is quite exhausting and it was time to head back to the understated luxury of my clean sheets and large bed. Not surprisingly after sleeping like a pampered baby, I could get used to this!
Fortunately thanks to Virgin Trains the luxury lasted a little longer as they very generously provided me with a first class ticket for my return journey to Manchester from London Euston. It made for a very pleasant and comfortable climax to my trip and I am very grateful to them for their assistance.
My gratitude to Poitou-Charentes Tourism for arranging this trip and to their agencies for all accommodation and meals provided, however all opinions were formulated in my own inimitable way.