June 10th to 17th 2006
We spent a week in La Rochelle on the west coast of France.
La Rochelle is a beautiful city on the Bay of Biscay in the Charente-Maritime Department.
The city is located in the second sunniest part of France, which makes it great for summer holidays.
And indeed, a lot of driving there was….
This was the first time we’d experimented with crossing the Channel on the train, and through the Tunnel. It was also the first time we’d tried going abroad with a child (Ami, in this case – she was two) and the first time I’d driven my own car abroad. It was the first time we’d taken a foreign holiday in the summer since Ami had been born too. All of which makes for a lot of firsts to be packed into a single week.
As we’d never done it before, we naively assumed there’d be no difficulty whatsoever in driving 562 miles (or 906 km, whichever you prefer) through the middle of the night in a foreign country with a two-year-old child in the back. What could possibly go wrong?
Well on the way down to Folkestone for the tunnel trip, not much did go wrong apart from the usual Friday night crush around the M25 and we arrived comfortably in time for our train. We had quite a late one booked and all went smoothly, and we arrived successfully in France just the wrong side of midnight.
From here, it was a matter of driving as much as we could manage, whilst stopping every couple of hours to buy more coffee and to give our precious two year old the necessary amount of servicing, if you know what I mean. As we pulled out of the tunnel terminal we stopped to fill up with fuel and consumables for the journey. Apparently though, my car didn’t need headlight converters because it had a flat beam profile.
Progress from Calais down to Rouen was pretty good. When we got to Rouen though, we got a bit lost. There wasn’t (and still isn’t) a decent loop motorway, so you are pretty much obliged to drive into the town centre and then attempt to find your way out again. This is not as easy as it seems when your sat nav isn’t keeping up. In-town roadsigns in France can be difficult to follow, especially if you’re tired. At one point I ended up having to do a U-turn on a big bridge over the Seine when we realised I was going the wrong way (again). Thankfully it was about 3am, so there weren’t many cars around.
We did eventually find our way out and continued along the A13 heading west, but noticed that the little ‘un was getting more and more grumpy and generally unable to settle. Well we hadn’t had a stop since Calais, so we were about due one. Anyway, the little dear didn’t seem to want to settle so we opted for staying at the services for a while to try to get a bit of sleep in the car rather than continuing to drive. It didn’t work particularly well, mainly because as soon as Ami was anywhere near Kas and no longer strapped in the back she simply wouldn’t settle, so we had about 3 hours of torture, with Ami wriggling, crying and generally doing anything other than sleeping, before we eventually gave up and started driving again. By this time it was light and we were able to go and grab some coffees before setting off.
We stopped for breakfast at the Parcé-sur-Sarthe service station on the A11 south of Le Mans, having pushed on for a good couple of hours. We made this a fairly long stop, as we needed a breather and we were in no rush.
The drive from here along the A87 past Angers and Cholet and then the A83 around La Roche-sur-Yon went fairly smoothly and all was well until we hit a big queue trying to get through Marans which was caused by the combination of weekend traffic and a particularly bad set of traffic lights. I guess it’s also caused by the fact that the autoroute system doesn’t run into La Rochelle, despite its being the biggest settlement in the area by some huge distance.
On the way by, and because we needed another break, we dived into the massive Carrefour on the edge of La Rochelle to grab a few “essentials” for the coming week. Quite a few of those came in 75cl bottles, it has to be said.
From here we negotiated our way rather unconvincingly to our destination, Le Moulin Boutillon in Angliers. There was a bit of faffing about trying to figure out where to go, as the maps weren’t great and the sat nav wouldn’t let me enter enough details. We got there eventually, having done a couple of laps of some nice single-track country roads. The location was what you might call “off the beaten track”, which equates to quiet but rather hard to find.
We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and our hosts let us in straight away, which was great, because we were all pooped. We’d booked an apartment with two bedrooms, which theoretically should sleep up to six people. The layout was a double room, a twin room, and an open-plan lounge/kitchen/diner that had two sofas, both of which could be used as beds if required. The furnishing was simple but tidy and in good condition, and the rooms were sufficiently large. If you look at the photos of the gite, our bit was the double doorway on the right side (including the shuttered window to the right of that. The Moulin Boutillon hadn’t been open for long but they’d manage to get this block (also containing a one-bed apartment on the left and a studio in the middle. They’d also opened a 2-bed flat in the main farmhouse and a 4-bed house. The buildings were surrounded by masses of open space – big lawns mainly – and they’d also got a small swimming pool. Several other areas were yet to be developed, but on this trip it was all quite new and not-quite-finished, but in a good way.
So we chilled for a bit, made something to eat, put Ami to bed and then settled down outside on our patio watching both the sun and a bottle of wine go down. OK, the sun would have gone down on its own, but the bottle of wine needed a helping hand that we were very willing to give it. We’d been away from home for nearly a whole day without having been to bed. We could cope but Ami had long since had enough.
By the way, the 2006 FIFA World Cup was on while we were away on this holiday, and because we were either travelling or sleeping we managed to miss England’s first game (against Paraguay, a 1-0 win for England played in the Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt). It wasn’t the only game we missed, but that didn’t bother us much, to be honest.
Obviously when you’ve spent an entire night and day in the car in fiercely hot temperatures driving through a foreign country the correct thing to do the following morning is to get up early, drive a long way, and have a full day out.
As I’m writing this blog post nearly 10 years after the event (sometimes it takes me a little time to get around to these things) I really can’t remember a lot of detail about the day other than that we went onto the Île de Ré and drove to the very furthest end to visit the Phares des Baleines, a rather large lighthouse at the very western tip of the island. I remember it was very warm, but that was true of the whole week.
The Île de Ré is about 30km long and is pretty much totally flat. Essentially it’s an offshore sandbank that’s just high enough to have been occupied and hence protected from the sea. Until 1988 you had to catch a ferry to get there. The new bridge from La Rochelle is the most expensive piece of road (per km) in France. Which is shorthand for saying it costs quite a lot to cross the bridge. Evidence from a subsequent trip in 2009 suggests also that they put the price up in the French school holidays. This was June though, so the price was (relatively) modest.
The photos in the gallery provide evidence that we actually went up to the top of the lighthouse.
“Venise Verte ?” Surely that just means “Green Venice” doesn’t it? Yes, it does.
It’s an area of marsh lying in between Niort, La Rochelle and Fontenay-le-Comte which is now heavily farmed, but towards the Niort end there’s a little bit that is essentially still full of little canals which are used primarily for tourism. This is the part known as the Venise Verte.
I’m not sure where we read about this area, possibly in our Lonely Planet guide to France, but it looked like somewhere that might keep us busy for a day, so off we went. The weather was fiercely hot (again).
Our first stop was the village of Coulon, which sits nicely on a bit of canal that is quite broad and open (by local standards) and which houses a load of very photogenic little boats, which presumably can be hired out if you’re that way inclined. We weren’t.
We walked around here and took a few photos, which kept us busy until lunchtime. I seem to remember we sat in quite a nice restaurant here to grab some lunch, and that during a part of that I held a fairly creditable conversation in French with one of the other patrons. A lot of the discussion was about where we’d come from, and a lot more of it was about Ami, who was doing her best to be cute and not at all irritating to other customers.
After lunch we took a bit more of a walk in the area of Coulon, which involved walking over a couple of fields, sitting down for a bit (because it was hot) and spotting some cows.
From here we moved over to the village of Arçais, which is in the “proper” hard of the wet bit of the marsh. Arçais has a number of little piers where you can rent a small boat or punt for a few hours and go for a wander around the canals. We decided to give it a go here and were rewarded with a pleasant couple of hours punting around a series of small and confusing canals, not really going anywhere but enjoying the fact that the canals all had overhanging trees and so were mainly in the shade. Lush !
Once we’d finished in there we needed to let Ami run around a bit, so we disembarked from our boat and she had a run around on a open paved area near a tourist information centre in the middle of town, which was also close to some old small-scale dock loading machinery.
It turned out to be an excellent if rather hot day.
Our third full day and our first trip into our host city of La Rochelle. We’d uncovered information that the centre of town is quite pretty to walk around, especially around the old harbour, and also the Aquarium was supposed to be rather good, as such things go. We did both things on the same day, and therefore by definition, it must have been a long day. The weather was very, very hot again. Whilst it’s nice to see some good weather, there is such a thing as “too hot”, and most of this week was like that.
As I remember it, we parked up by the Tour de la Lantern and set off for a walk, taking in most of the old port and its immediate backdrop first of all, then wending our way around to the Tour St Nicholas (which we went into), through the area known as the Gabut, and around to La Rochelle Aquarium, which we went into briefly to get out of the heat if nothing else.
The Gabut is an area of the old port that’s been redeveloped as a series of traditional-looking buildings (but presumably modern inside) which are clad in wood and painted in various bright colours. Near to here is also the Maritime Museum, which is on a ship sitting in the harbour. We didn’t go aboard but it is quite photogenic.
The Aquarium features a lift which gives the impression of descending through water. It’s a neat trick even though you actually only go down about half a floor. It was air-conditioned and in shade, so a welcome break from the heat. Once we were all fished out, we walked back around this side of the harbour and caught the small boat across the harbour back to the Cour des Dames, and so back to our car. We had various meal, drink and ice cream breaks during the course of the day, as you do.
The Château de la Roche Courbon is a really rather spectacular historic monument just over an hour’s drive south of La Rochelle. We set off fairly early in the morning to make our way down there. It’s mainly motorway with 20 minutes of Route Nationale at the end.
There are a number of things to do when you’re there, including tours inside the castle (which we didn’t do), walks around the gardens, and a slightly longer walk to the grottoes. The walk to the grottoes was good because it was partly in the shade.
The Château is privately owned and has limited facilities inside (i.e. there isn’t a massive cafe with a selection of fine foods and some clean toilets) but there’s some passable mobile food just by the entrance gate.
Of all the days on this holiday I remember this as being the hottest, although that may just be because we chose to go somewhere that afforded very little respite from the heat, and I remember we had to keep stopping for drinks and ice creams, and at one point we just had to sit down or lie down in the shade under some trees to let Ami cool off a bit. She was suffering more than the rest of us, seemingly.
We were quite glad to get back into the car and the air-conditioning for the drive home again.
Every holiday we have abroad has at least one day where we don’t really do a lot. It’s a bit of a tradition for us.
This was that day.
I know we didn’t do much because whatever we did, it didn’t involve taking any photos at all, so I guess we didn’t go anywhere or do anything really. The photos below were taken a couple of days earlier, but I don’t like doing pages with no images at all.
In the afternoon and evening we went into the centre of La Rochelle. It was warm again. We walked around the old port for a little while and then retired to a bar so we could grab some dinner and watch England beat Trinidad and Tobago 2-0 in their latest group game in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The match was held in the Stadion Nürnberg at 6 pm, so by the time we were in the pub, it was definitely late enough for dinner and beer. England were a bit drab and scored twice in the last 10 minutes.
For our final full day we couldn’t really decide what to do and in the end we plumped for returning to the Île de Ré to do a bit more exploring. When we’d been earlier in the week we literally drove to the western end, walked around the lighthouse, and then drove home again. There are a few other bits that are worth doing.
So we drove over to Saint-Martin-de-Ré to see what we could find.
We found a lovely little town with a nice pedestrianised central area (where we had some lunch) and a little harbour surrounded by some old fortress walls. The place has quite a lot of history, apparently, including a siege in 1627 in which a bunch of English troops surrounded some rebel French ones in the hope of relieving some of the pressure on the royalist French troops who were kind of stuck in a siege in La Rochelle. It’s all very complicated.
Also just outside Saint-Martin-de-Ré is a bigger fortress area that was converted to a prison at some point.
So we had a good day of walking around, taking photos and taking breaks for food, drinks and ice cream. It was a good way to spend our last day before having to spend another whole Saturday negotiating French motorways.
Time to wave bye bye to our adopted home of one week and get ourselves back to Milton Keynes again.
The drive was, as I remember it, a bit boring and a bit busy (especially at the toll booths). It was also a long way. Funnily enough, it was the same 430 miles it had been on the way down.
At least the good thing about French motorways is that unless you’re queuing for a toll station you generally get to drive at the speed limit, and the speed limit is a fairly generous 130 km/hr, which works out at a fairly healthy 81 mph. 430 miles from La Rochelle to Calais can therefore be done quite comfortably in 6 hours of actual driving.
We arrived at the Channel Tunnel early enough to go have a sit down and some dinner in the big shopping centre next to the terminal. I think we bought a case of wine to take home as well, but it might have been cheaper to get it in La Rochelle.