Gallic greatness with plenty to do on the Western coast of France

Taking advantage of new direct flights Sean O’Riordan headed to the Atlantic coast of France and enjoyed the beautiful La Rochelle and its scenic surrounds.

A new direct flight from Cork to the western coast of France has opened up opportunities for Irish tourists to sample the delights of the historic port of La Rochelle and its hinterland. 

The area boasts picture postcard villages, fine restaurants, beautifully flat countryside dotted by canals, marshland, ancient woods and an absolute plethora of things to do.

The town of La Rochelle, which boasts a 5,000-berth marina, just oozes class and history and this is combined with a modern setting presenting visitors with a multitude of choices for what to see and do.

The beauty of the new City Jet flights is that La Rochelle is only 90 minutes away. 

We left at midday on a Saturday and within minutes of landing our guide was showing us so much it was almost sensory overload.

The Romans developed salt production in the area, which is still going strong today. 

The town itself was founded during the 10th century and La Rochelle became an important harbour in the 12th century.

Later it became a stronghold for the Knights Templar and their headquarters can still be seen today. 

It was later invaded by the English who were eventually driven off in 1372 and until the 15th century it was the largest French harbour on the Atlantic coast, dealing mainly in wine, salt and cheese.

From 1568, La Rochelle became a centre for the Huguenots, several of whom later fled to Cork after religious wars between Catholic and Protestant faiths. 

In the mid-1700s the port became a centre for slave trading between Africa and the New World.

Gallic greatness with plenty to do on the Western coast of France

There are buildings all around the town which detail its rich history. All are worth a visit and most are free.

The city survived World War Two bombings by the Allies who were intent on targeting the massive German U-boat pens situated on its outskirts. 

It was the last French city to be liberated at the end of the war.

Unfortunately these pens aren’t open to the public, but it’s probably only a matter of time before the locals cotton onto their obvious attraction.

The submarine base became the setting for parts of the movie Das Boot; the U-boat scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark were also shot there and the base is featured in the computer game Commandos 2: Men of Courage.

Apart from history and heritage there’s plenty of other attractions for all age groups. 

A must see is the aquarium, which is massive. It houses 600 species of marine life from all over the world in tanks containing 3 million litres of sea water. 

It’s known widely for rehabilitating turtles, which get injured and washed ashore on the French coast.

It’s hardly surprising that it gets more than 8,000 visitors every year. 

It would take around two hours to tour properly and features multi-lingual audio headsets and a restaurant. 

See www.aquarium-larochelle.com 

On our first night in La Rochelle we stayed at the Hotel Saint Nicolas, which is right in the centre, but in an unbelievably quiet spot.

It’s worth noting that just a few metres away is the Irish pub, General Humbert. 

There are two other Irish pubs within a short distance, and loads of really classy and welcoming French watering holes, many which wine buffs would relish.

The hotel staff were the friendliest I think I’ve ever met in France and were quick to engage if you were Irish, pointing out they loved the way our soccer fans behave.

Rooms there cost from €94 per night and it’s rated just three-star, which to be frank is a complete undergrade.

For dinner we went to the nearby trendy “Le Prao,” check out http://prao.biz 

It had a lot of unusual dishes which were very tasty.

The following morning we visited the ancient, impressive towers which were built to protect the harbour and are well worth seeing.

Then it was onto the nearby expansive island of Ile de ré. It’s about a 40-minute drive and can only be accessed by an impressive 3km-long toll bridge.

The island is as flat as a pancake and a mecca for cyclists, many of whom have adapted baby carriages attached and who stay in a plethora of campsites or holiday homes in the area.

We had an exquisite lunch in La Cabine de bain restaurant at the beautiful village of La Couarde sur Mer, which is owned by Irish chef Michael Curran. 

Lunches are from €17 and dinners from €32. Excellent value for the cuisine on offer.

I was there during the Euros and was able to watch the Ireland v France match at a packed pub close by and the locals were very friendly, even when we were still 1-0 ahead at half-time.

There’s a sailing school a stone’s throw up the road which is run by Antoine Albeau, a resident of the island and 23-times world champion windsurfer. 

He is the first windsurfer to have exceeded 100km/h and the most successful French sportsman ever.

Close by and worth a visit is salt farmer Cédric Fortunier’s, who practices the ancient trade and then check out Phare des baleines (lighthouse) which was built between 1682 and 1854.

A visit to the village of Saint Martin is a must because of its character and for oyster-lovers a real mouth-watering treat is to chat with Tony Berthelot, whose family have cultivated them for generations.

Just seconds after meeting the man you are enthralled with his passion for the industry and see how he set up a museum to detail his forebears’ role in it.

He provides guided tours and sells some of the finest produce, which you can taste on site. The highest grade mussels cost just €7.50 a dozen.

The restaurant L’Auberge de l’écluse is foodie heaven in the region, getting rave reviews from people who visit. It’s close to the village of Coulon.

Unfortunately the weather was dull that evening, because it’s in a sumptuous setting on the side of a canal with its preserved locks, residents ducks and if you are a coarse angler, absolute paradise.

Restaurant staff threw out bread for the ducks who would only go out so far to retrieve it.

That’s because you could see large pike lurking nearby. One jumped out of the water and I’d estimate it was 20lbs. 

Be advised you need a permit to fish, but I suggest it’s worth every cent.

I had a delicious duck pate for starter (not from the local population I suspect), which would have done as a main course. 

I then had lamb which just melted in the mouth and had to dispense with dessert because of overload.

Children’s menus start at €9.90 and adults at €17, but for a proper meal adult menues go up to €55. 

See www.aubergedelecluse.com 

The picture postcard village of Arcais was our next stop.

It’s the only village in the centre of the Marais Mouillé, the so-called “wet marsh” which forms the eastern half of the Poitou Marshes.

We stayed at the Maison Flore hotel, which is right next to a canal.

It was airy, spotlessly clean, the bedrooms were large and the staff were extremely friendly. 

Rooms average at €65 per person per night, which is exceptional value considering the service and breakfast. 

See http://maisonflore.com 

Be warned though the bar next door closed at 10pm on weekdays and this was the case in several other rural villages, even when the Euro 2016 soccer tournament was in full flow with all the qualifying rounds going on.

There are 6,000kms of canals in the area, many of which run through beautifully unspoilt woodland.

It’s very tranquil, but if you really want to experience what it has to offer avoid the temptation of nodding off and keep your eyes glued because we saw coypu (a kind of beaver), otters, woodpeckers, kingfishers and more.

Boat trips on the canals vary in price depending on how long you want to go out for and whether you want a boatman to guide you. 

I would suggest you take the guide who knows where to find the wildlife and because you could get lost in the myriad of waterways.

For further information on that check out http://marais-arcais.com 

GETTING THERE

CityJet operates scheduled services from Cork to La Rochelle and Nantes in the heart of France. 

Cork/ La Rochelle operates twice weekly on Tuesday and Saturday with Cork/Nantes weekly on Sundays. www.cityjet.com 

CityJet offers seven flights a day from Dublin to London City Airport – one way from €35 including first 23kg checked bag free and complimentary inflight beverages (including beer and wine) and snacks.


Lifestyle

The penultimate instalment of Normal People, and a Champions League goal-fest are among today's top picksTuesday TV Highlights: The penultimate instalment of Normal People and a a Champions League goal-fest

More From The Irish Examiner