Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tourist towns without any tourists

Rebecca's students were on vacation again last week, and since we've got some visitors coming in a week, we decided to preview some local destinations that people might (or might not) find interesting to visit. We had two criteria: things we haven't seen, and train access.

While the winter in Poitiers has been pretty mild by Jefe's standards, the sun has been playing hard to get. And poor Rebecca grew up within two hours of the East Coast of the U.S. and has been craving the beach since we left Wilmington. We quickly settled on the sunny, seaside locale of La Rochelle as the perfect destination. In order to maximize the discovery factor, we were looking for another destination close to La Rochelle. Following the local train routes and trying not to stray far from the sea, we decided on Rochefort.

When Rebecca mentioned this duo of destinations to people, trying to solicit ideas for things to do in the area, she got a bevy of similar responses.
La Rochelle: Oooh, how nice, you're going to love it, it's beautiful!
Rochefort: Hmmm...(Silence).

Well, La Rochelle is nice. A popular summer destination for French and English tourists, the area boasts one of the highest concentrations of vacation homes in France. There are almost as many hours of sunshine every year as the Mediterranean coast but without the endless stretches of beachside hotels that you find in Nice.

Nice, France: land of beaches and hotels

Despite its un-Nicey-ness, La Rochelle remains a primarily tourist-driven economy. Restaurants have different hours hors saison (out of season) or are closed entirely for their congés in late winter; hotels are cheaper; some museums/attractions are closed. It's not as though we're panting to fight the throngs during the Festival Francopholie, but there is something a little odd about port-side restaurants in a tourist haven who have to fight for the few off-season visitors. We even spotted one restaurant with a designated crier, an older woman standing out front listing the delicacies inside in a loud voice to no one in particular.

Even though some of the posted menus of the restaurants in the tourist area looked interesting, we were disconcerted by the prospect of having people watching us eat, peering in the restaurant windows and trying to determine if you're enjoying yourself enough to merit them coming inside to try it.

Port-side restaurants in La Rochelle...probably to be avoided

Luckily we were able to find excellent restaurants away from this area. La Rose des Vins was wonderful, small, earthy restaurant serving traditional French fare with a little bit of a twist, and occasionally featuring ethnic cuisine from around the world (Jamaican chicken). They also have an extensive wine list, with some wines available by the centimeter (get a bottle and only pay for what you drink), and excellent recommendations.

We also stumbled upon Le Cabanon des Pêcheurs while craving a seafood restaurant. Baked oysters topped with melted cheese, salmon terrine, and fish with spanish chorizo were more than enough to satisfy our urges. And Jefe couldn't pass up a post-meal rhum arrangé (rum with fruit soaking in it) as the giant jars (pineapple, passion fruit, strawberries, and more) were lined up enticingly on the bar.

Lovely Rhum arrangé at Le Cabanon des Pêcheurs

We also wandered along the coastline and the ramparts of ancient castles. And, perhaps even better, we went to the sprawling central marketplace, got snacks, and took them to the beach. We ate our picnic while basking in the sun. Sublime.


Rochefort-sur-Mer (as opposed to en-Terre) was just a short train ride away. We noticed something odd about it almost immediately. The city blocks are square! How un-French. Apparently, it was a planned community started in the 17th century as a naval base and shipbuilding yard (wiping out the former pesky Protestant town that was there before). The military influence led to the straight streets and right angles.

Apparently, Rochefort is one rung down on the tourist ladder from La Rochelle, it was mostly a ghost town in late February. There are a few interesting things to see (as our extremely enthusiastic hotel personnel pointed out), notably the Maritime Medical Museum, the house-cum-museum of Pierre Loti (author, seaman and general eccentric), and the rebuilding of the frigate Hermione (which La Fayette used to aid in the American revolution).

On top of everything, it seems we picked up some nasty stomach bug while we were there. Not so nice. Reminded us a little of our friends Jessie and Tom, who came home from their honeymoon early because they got sick. And bored.

Well, we stayed it out, but we were happy to get back to good 'ole Poitiers. And now we have the first of our visitors to look forward to, the Jefe's brother, Josh...we can't wait!


Anonymous said...

I went to Nice many years ago and absolutely loved it. It was so quiet when we went. I'm not sure if that's the way it is year-round, but it was wonderful. I so want to go back to the South of France again.

Thanks for the great post.


rebecca said...

Hey, thanks Misty!

I would love to go to the south of France (not sure about Jeff). We're both a bit introverted, so the prospect of thousands upon thousands of co-tourists is always a little intimidating. But your post leads me to believe there may be an off-season for Nice, as well. The big vacation month in France is maybe we could go in June, when I finish my teaching duties?

I love the beach. I noticed on your viscape page that you want to go to the OBX of NC -- so cool!! I love it there.

pinardier said...

salut rebecca,
j'ai rencontré des américains trés cool, professeurs d'anglais à l'université de Poitiers qui vivent depuis le mois de septembre à Poitiers. ils seraient heureux de vous rencontrer avec Jefe. J'ai leurs numéro de telephone à te donner (passe au magasin).
il a un blog

A bientôt

william "le fruit défendu"