A full day’s ride is a mixture of pleasure and pain. At times you encounter aches and pains, extreme weather conditions and sometimes just boredom, where you find yourself continually watching the white lines on the road, then your odometer. Then you suddenly turn onto a smaller stretch of bitumen which reinvigorates your heart, mind and body. It might be a forest, a small running stream, a long descent or just a beautiful or unusual hamlet. It doesn’t have to be much, and it’s one of the reasons I love to ride.
So with the wind at my back I reached the outer edges of La Rochelle very quickly. Yet again, there was the problem of finding our accommodation amidst the entanglement of roads and the huge volume of traffic still on them. Nevertheless, I was starting to come to terms with this constant frustration. Approaching my destination at the end of a day’s ride, I’d allow a full 60 minutes to find where we were staying. Anything short of an hour was a bonus, anything more and I didn’t lose the plot for as long. It was a plan, anyway.
Our accommodation at the youth hostel overlooked the reclaimed land of Les Minimes. Being on the Atlantic coast, La Rochelle had a rich seafaring history, long before tourism kicked in. One of France’s major seaports between the 14th and 17th centuries, it was even used by the Romans, who manufactured and exported wine and salt throughout their empire.
A German stronghold in World War II—they had established a submarine naval base at its main port of La Pallice—La Rochelle was also the final French city to be freed at the end of the war. In more peaceful times, it became the setting of Wolfgang Petersen’s fatalistic war movie Das Boot. In the film, having survived depth charges, near-implosion, British fighter planes and a desperate lack of oxygen, the German U-boat limps back to port at La Rochelle, only to be sunk by Allied fighter planes. The heroic captain, riddled with bullet holes, despairingly watches his beloved ship sink to the bottom.
La Rochelle’s most stunning feature is its harbour, the Vieux Port, which lies in the heart of the city. It was picturesque, and never more so than just before dusk. We took our time soaking up the atmosphere before eating at one of the crowded restaurants lining the harbour. It had the hubbub of a vibrant coastal town where everyone is out to have a good time. Taking a final stroll along the promenade after dark, there was an energy that could be felt, not just seen. La Rochelle was another one of those places we really regretted leaving.