When you think of traveling to France, do you immediately picture the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, the beaches of Normandy, and Gothic churches dotting the colorful fields of Provence? My guess is that most people (including myself) do, which is why making our way to the West coast of France to a place called La Rochelle was so rewarding.
Admittedly, it has been a while, but the Travel Tales is finally making a reappearance for the last episode of my Spring Break travels! If you will recall, we were last boarding a train to leave Paris (http://theadventureisafoot.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/travel-tales-a-lesson-in-louvre/). Betsey, Amanda, Iris, and I were on our way to La Rochelle where we would be staying with Amanda’s cousin and his family. We would also be spending Easter with them, which was great in terms of trip timing. Plus, I was excited to spend an authentic Easter in France with our half American, half French companions – it was sure to be an experience.
Upon our arrival at the station that afternoon, Betsey, Iris, and I made ridiculous guesses as to who her cousin was at the people passing by and what he would look like. Well, until Amanda put our silliness to rest by leading us over to her cousin when he came to pick us up. It was then that I got my first impression of the seaside city on the fifteen minute or so drive from the small station to their house. It looked lovely, truly.
Coming from a small, seaside town myself, it was comforting to drive along the water and see the busy but not bustling nature of the town. After so many large and iconic cities I had been to in the past two weeks, it was nice to be able to stay in an actual home (which we did in Zurich, but it was slightly different as there was a family connection this time) in a city where we didn’t have to rush to see everything and fight crowds.
La Rochelle became an established harbor in the 12th century, two hundred years after the city was founded. It is located off the Bay of Biscay, the harbor opening up into the Pertuis d’Antioche strait. The city has switched hands from the French to the British a couple of times over the years (though mostly remained French), and was an important location for the Knights Templar from the 12th to the 14th century. La Rochelle has a fairly robust history, and would be interesting to look into more.
The first afternoon we explored the center of town, checking out neat little shops, looking for postcards, and strolling along the water where harbors were lined with sail boats. We stumbled upon this amazing macarons shop where I had my first taste of these tasty treats! Iris and I split a box of 8, each picking four flavors we wanted to try. It was hard to choose, however I was able to narrow it down to pear, coconut passion fruit, caramel, and banana. All were excellent and I was glad to have spent the few extra Euros to taste some authentic macarons.
While we were in La Rochelle, Amanda’s cousin drove us over to Ile de Re one day where we took some food for a picnic. It’s a popular summer vacation spot (population grows by approximately 200,000 people from winter to summer!), and it’s not hard to see why. So on we drove across the 3 km long bridge connecting the mainland to the island.
Once there, we walked along the beach for a bit, encountering an old WWII bunker along the way. Il de Re was fortified by the Germans in case of a seaward invasion, and you may have seen this beach before if you’ve seen the film The Longest Day. Afterwards, we found a nice spot in the more wooded area to have our picnic. The island is serene and just beautiful. Oyster farming and fishing are largely the industry on the island.
We stopped to walk through the town on Ile de Re and managed to sit down and have a crepe before leaving – that seemed to have happened far too often during our travels…but really, who’s counting?
That night, the four of us went out for a nice dinner in town, which was very kindly on Amanda’s father (thanks Amanda’s dad!). It took a few tries to find a place that wasn’t full for the evening, but the restaurant we did settle on was fantastic. It was called Le Boute en Train.
One of the most fun parts of the evening (to me) was being able to play interpreter with the waitress. She spoke very little English, and I speak very little French (I’m going on three years now since my last French class). But between the two of us we were able to lay out the options and get everyone’s order settled.
Dinner was a set course meal – similar in this way to the amazing restaurant my parents and I stumbled upon in San Casciano, Italy – so we each had a starter, entrée, and dessert. As we had been in the habit of doing, Amanda and I split meals with each other (I am so thankful for having such a great “food partner” while traveling!).
The two of us split the croquant de boudin au chutney de pommes and the gambas marinees aux fruits exotiques for our appetizer. The first was a beautiful dish which my description will not do justice to; what comes to mind is a sausage taquito. But fancier. It was great with the apple chutney, too. The gambas marinees is a seafood appetizer of cooked prawns. It was excellent as well!
For the main course, I ordered the entrecote poelee avec beurre d’estragon while Amanda got the mignon de porc a la cannelle – again, we split each dish. Entrecote is cut of steak (from the rib area), poelee meaning it was pan-fried or cooked. What really made this dish was the beurre d’estragon, or tarragon butter. It melted a bit and spread nicely over the steak, adding that extra zing of flavor.
The porc a la cannelle, though, was even better! The pork is cooked in a sweet cinnamon sauce and it was served with veggies and polenta. The sauce was amazing and made this dish.
Then came dessert – what we’ve all been waiting for. The dessert was a very satisfying white chocolate pear crumble. It was served hot with a strawberry and some strawberry and mango sauce on the side. The sauce helped cut the sweetness of the dessert and perhaps drizzling it over the crumble itself would have been nice, but regardless, I made quick work of it.
We were sure to tip our waitress quite well for her patience and helpfulness with us. She was polite and so nice to us the entire time. No matter what others may say, I have never had a bad experience with French people. Sure, Paris is like any other big city which means you need to be aware of things and realize that not everyone is going to stop and help you out or treat you differently.
In the smaller towns I’ve had the pleasure to visit, people are just genuine and good people (who probably will have the time to help you in a restaurant, shop, or with a map). As with traveling to any different country, cultures have similarities and differences. What may be offensive in some way to you, may not be perceived in the same way by another – this is especially true when it comes to something abstract like humor.
Ok, cultural perception spiel aside, dinner was a good affair. Our final full day in La Rochelle was Easter Sunday. We started off with a late breakfast and then were off to the market with Amanda’s cousin. We had met their son the previous day and would be meeting their daughter that afternoon. Both were around our age.
The market was great! Similar to other markets we’d been to in our travels around Europe, it was filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, all kinds of meats, sea food, pastries, cheese, and chocolate! We picked out some vegetables, cheese, and meat for dinner and were shown some parts of the city center we hadn’t yet seen.
I have to say, it was really nice to be in such a homely environment and among friends and friend’s family for Easter. It was relaxing and such a pleasure to share the day, a glass of wine, and a good meal with them. Our stay in La Rochelle was low key and just what we needed after so much traveling. Amanda’s cousin’s family was so nice to take us in for a few days and it was great getting to know them and see what normal life was like here in La Rochelle.
The next morning we packed up and were driven to the train station, sent off with fresh croissants, roule aux raisins, and pain au chocolat. I would be headed back to Brighton that evening while Amanda, Betsey, and Iris were staying a night in Paris and then heading to Madrid. After dropping their stuff off at the hostel they would be at, we spent the next couple of hours heading to a well-known falafel place called Mi-Va-Mi.
Located along a small street (more like an alleyway) on Rue des Rosiers, this place is a small restaurant with a take away street option as well. There was quite a line but opted to wait it out for the take-away falafel and it was so worth it! It was now the second time I’d had falafel, but was really more like the first. This wrap was delicious and if you’re in Paris, I would highly recommend checking Mi-Va-Mi out!
Afterwards, it started raining so we took refuge in a café and had some hot chocolate. Then it was high time I headed back to the train station to catch the Eurostar for my journey under the English Channel and into London. It was a fairly uneventful ride and I arrived safely back to my room in Sussex that night.
So readers, if you’re looking for a place outside of Paris to go, consider making a stop to this sea port on the Atlantic. It’s a beautiful city, full of history and right on the water – a great place to stop and slow things down a bit while traveling! Truthfully, just a lovely place. If you don’t have the time and are only in Paris, get yourself over to Mi-Va-Mi and try their falafel wrap. This is the sage advice I can offer you for this post.
I do hope you have enjoyed the Travel Tales as much as I have enjoyed retelling these adventures! I also hope I’ve allowed you a good glimpse into what these 3 weeks of travel over Spring Break while studying abroad were like. If you’re new to my blog, check out the other Travel Tales (I do apologize for how spread out they are) starting with Salzburg, Austria (http://theadventureisafoot.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/travel-tales-lets-get-started/).
As mentioned in my last post, while this is the end of travels over break, there are still more adventures to recount, pictures and videos to share. So be on the lookout for more posts of my time spent studying abroad! More recipes to come as well (last night, for example, I made some tasty peanut butter and m&m bars…mmm).
I know this was another monster of a post, so as always, thanks for reading, cheers! Until then…