Picture the scene: 30 books open at the same page, a scattering of scarlet gingham amid grass-stained shorts and charcoal trousers. Thirty pairs of eyes looking restless at the sun beyond the window. And being redirected back to the page, to the sound of cassette tapes whirring and uttering the immortal words…
“Un aller retour à La Rochelle.”
For some reason, the staple textbook for teaching French across Engalnd had a fascination with this near mythical city. A generation of schoolchildren recited verbs and discussed the weather amid words like orangina, citron presse, a comic woman called Fifi Folle and, time and again, the city of La Rochelle.
And, as you’ve probably guessed, I was one of those schoolkids.
So ingrained was this phrase that years passed before I finally twigged that the “aller retour” could be split from the “La Rochelle.” But perhaps that was Tricolore’s plan all along. Hundreds, if not thousands, of stuttering rosbifs arriving bewildered in La Rochelle any time they tried to get anywhere. Even when I lived in France, the silent, second La Rochelle part ran through my mind each time I bought a ticket.
Well, that was then and this is now.
Now I’m standing on the platform in Paris Montparnasse. Croissant in one hand, train ticket in the other. And that’s right, you guessed it. It’s un aller retour a La Rochelle.
I snuggle into my comfy first class seat and watch the world go by (well, OK, sort through and edit photos, prepare invoices and answer emails. But I didn’t want to burst your bubble!)
After three and a bit hours of blurred meadows and yellow-flowered fields, I arrived.
In La Rochelle.
I’d actually very little idea of what to expect, the only survivor from my Tricolore schooldays seemed to be the name of the place.
The air was fresh, the breeze sharp. Sunshine seared past clouds as I picked up my keys and headed to my cosy B&B. In the very short journey, my childhood heart skipped with glee to see baguettes, orangina, and rhomboid-red signs for tabacs pass me by. I even saw a poodle being served french fries in a restaurant.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, I’d better give you a flavour of the place (in case you spent your formative years painting CND symbols on your bag with tippex instead of paying attention in class as well.)
La Rochelle is a harbour town with fortification after fortification leading into a sheltered cove. Much of its design stems from days when life in western France largely revolved around fending off attacks from the English. (Although, as an interesting side note, sometimes England was actually on La Rochelle’s side since they were Protestant and the rest of Catholic France was, well, not and apparently no one then tolerated a mix and match combination.)
Riches arrived through the slave trade in sugar and the fur trade in Canada and, as ever, it’s odd to remember that some of the most beautiful places in Europe come from some of the ugliest moments in history. The Knights Templar had a stronghold here and La Rochelle was also the last city in France to be liberated from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War.
While many French town centres have looping medieval stone arcades, La Rochelle gets an A on its report card with street after street of these beautiful arched walkways that provide shade from the sun and headaches for photographers.
And while you can’t actually see the Little Rock that gave La Rochelle its name (it’s buried underground somewhere. Perhaps as insurance against those pesky Brits?) you can climb the Lantern Tower and overlook all that Atlantic blue.
Like all good French towns there’s a fresh food market
And a magnificent cafe.
In fact, the Cafe de la Paix began life as a military hospital before switching to the cream and caffeine trade back in 1793. It had an Art Deco makeover just over 100 years ago and has kept the look ever since. If ever you’re passing by, I’d recommend the French version of rice pudding just-as-grandma-makes-it. (Suspiciously lump free and not a thick brown skin in sight.)
Yet for all the lavender and poppy dreams of La Rochelle, I also found a saltier, edgier side to the city.
The place is no stranger to tourists, that’s for sure, but unlike parts of Provence and the Dordogne, it’s escaped being consumed by them.
It has a modern university, a stark Scandinavian section, a thriving cinema scene (with a festival second only to Cannes according to the locals) and at least one B&B at least that’s not afraid to innovate (my room for the night was a renovated wine cellar now lined with plum violet, a glowing bathtub and a lampshade of twisting fairy lights.)
La Rochelle has energy and a song of summer lightness in the air. It has bicycles and baguettes, orangina and a sense of style.
And above all else. It has fulfilled a childhood dream.
It allowed me to say, without fear or foggy confusion, un aller retour a La Rochelle.
Now the only thing left to do is to search for Fifi Folle.
Disclosure: I travelled to La Rochelle as a guest of Poitou-Charentes.
Rail Europe provided my comfy first class ticket and asked me to share with you the following information. It seemed useful and accurate so I agreed! (I’d have put “you’re welcome to head to the Rail Europe Travel Centre” instead of Personal Callers but that’s as fussy as I’d get ;-) ) All other writing my own, as always, as usual, as rambling, as…oh, well, you get the idea!
Fares from London to La Rochelle start at £109 standard class return. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit www.raileurope.co.uk or call 0844 848 4070. Personal callers are welcome at the Rail Europe Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU.
That reminds me, I was once in a car that broke down on Piccadilly Circus. But perhaps that’s a story for another day…
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com