For the third of the 4-day weekends in May, my wife and I took a trip by car to the town of La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast, going via Tours and returning via Nantes.
I have already written about the quality of the French autoroutes, although it should be mentioned that they do add to the cost of a journey. This trip saw me rack up about 90 Euros in road tolls, which is not insignificant, although I made no attempt to avoid them and I use a device which lets me go straight through the barriers without stopping, thus avoiding both the queues and seeing how much it’s costing (until the bill comes).
One other thing is worth mentioning. During this trip we stopped at several motorway service stations, and found them to be very nice indeed, and far better than those in the UK (or at least, how they were 10 years ago). They are bigger, cleaner, more modern, and just more tastefully designed in France and competition between them is fierce. I know this because I attended a presentation by one of my colleagues in that side of the business who told us that market research shows it is women, not men, who choose which station to stop at, and the men simply fill up wherever missus has ordered him to stop. And women judge service stations on cleanliness and other criteria, and as the petrol companies can’t compete much on price, they compete on these.
Also, probably because of the longer distances and greater internal tourism in France (more on this later), the service stations are used slightly differently. In the UK they are used primarily to stop for a piss: few British people fill up with overpriced motorway fuel, nor buy what passes for food at record prices in the Little Chef or whatever they have there. A bag of crisps and a bottle of coke bought during a 5 minute stop is about the height of it in UK service stations. (Maybe 10 minutes if you stop to bargain with the bloke selling dodgy watches or leather jackets out of the boot of his car, which was a feature of service stations on the M6 when I used to drive that route.) By contrast, the French actually seem to stop for a while, and eat a proper meal. Some of the service stations were more rest areas with nothing but an unmanned toilet block and lots of picnic tables, and these were very nice as well. And however else you might describe the French motorway service stations, you cannot deny one thing: they are busy. Every one I went to was seriously busy, probably unsurprising for a long weekend in France, but few families seemed to take the option of bringing sandwiches and stopping to eat in a lay-by somewhere. We stopped at quite a number of these places during our trip – and not just the ones run by my employer – and all of them were pretty good.
So we left Paris at about 9:30 in the morning and got to Tours sometime around 1pm, to find it grey and raining. Tours is historically important for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourselves (I’d not heard of it before, but my knowledge of French history is pretty poor), and the main feature of the town is an impressive cathedral (the same caveat applies here, too).
We poked our heads in and looked around, and it was worth it.
Then we went to look for somewhere to have lunch and we stumbled across a place done out in a rustic theme packed full of French enjoying what looked to be large, leisurely lunches. Welcome to provincial France. So in we went, and over the course of the next hour and a half had two rare steaks with Rocquefort sauce, a cheese platter, coffee, a coke, and half a bottle of wine with excellent service in a wonderful, lively ambiance for a grand total of 35 Euros (£28). Try getting that anywhere in the UK. Or Australia.
The weather had brightened up by the time we left the restaurant and we continued on our way to La Rochelle. We didn’t spend any time looking around Tours, which may have been a shame because it looked like a nice spot to do so, but time was pressing on. One thing I learned on this trip is that France is actually quite large and the distances a bit longer than you first think when looking at a map. It was several hours later by the time we reached La Rochelle at around 6:30pm in glorious sunshine, but the long summer evenings meant nothing was lost.
La Rochelle is another place of historical importance about which I know nothing except that it was one of the locations out of which the Germans based their submarines during WWII, and a raid on the concrete pens was part of the Commandos 2: Men of Courage computer game which I played a lot in 2002-3. The local tourism office is unlikely to snap me up. Nowadays it is a very pleasant port town with an enclosed yacht marina guarded by two large fortified towers between which they used to run a chain to prevent boats from entering.
It is known for its seafood, and the area around the marina was chock-full of restaurants which were in turn chock-full of people. For a place to sit in the evening sun and get a beer, it couldn’t be beaten.
From wandering around the harbour area it was obvious that La Rochelle is a sailing centre, based on the number of yachts and sailing schools.
I intend to get back into sailing at some point, and part of the reason for visiting the Atlantic coast was to identify suitable locations for doing so. La Rochelle may well prove to be one such possibility.
Having been turned away from a few restaurants because they were full, we eventually found one and had the type of meal that we’ve come to expect in France by now: good, inexpensive, and served with panache. We did notice that the crowd – both customers and servers – were considerably less formal than they are in Paris, though. I think there is a sizeable student population in La Rochelle, and whereas a waiter in Paris would be in a white shirt and black trousers, they tended towards jeans and t-shirts here. We only stayed one night, which was nowhere near enough to see the whole town, but what we saw of it was great and we had a very pleasant evening.
The next morning we headed over to the nearby holiday island of Île de Ré, which can only be described as magnificent. The island has an interesting history but…oh, you know what I’m going to say! Anyway, you get there via a long and elegant toll bridge that was built in the late 1980s, and even crossing the bridge we could see this place would be busy. To cut the description short, it is a largely flat island about 20 miles long and 3 miles wide, and stuffed full of holiday homes and campsites. The French flock there by the tens of thousands, park their cars, and ride around the island on the miles and miles of cycle tracks that have been installed, visiting the beaches and small towns. The weather was bright sunshine and roasting hot when we drove through, and hundreds of cyclists were out enjoying themselves. We didn’t stay long, but the road took us through the quays at Saint-Martin-de-Ré and out towards the northern coast, providing ample evidence that the place would be superb for a family holiday. No wonder the French love it so much. As we were to see in the other coastal holiday towns that day, huge supermarkets have set themselves up to serve the influx of holiday makers, and their size and frequency gives you an idea of how the population must explode in the summertime.
We stopped at one beach and found the tide was out and people were picking what I assume were cockles from the sands. No stranger to the Atlantic coast having grown up in Pembrokeshire, I recognised this kind of beach at once.
We left the island without really stopping, using this trip as a sort of reconnaissance mission for taking a proper holiday somewhere later on. We drove back to the mainland and then headed northwards following the coast towards La Tranche-sur-Mer. We drove through a series of small holiday towns, spotlessly clean but with barely a soul in sight, with hundreds of signs for campsites and caravan sites, and holiday cottages set back off the road in the trees adjacent to the beach. It reminded me a lot of the small towns (Sorrento, Mornington, and Frankston) that I drove through last Christmas Day on my way to Point Nepean. Throughout the day I found myself in places which reminded me of the coast around Point Nepean and Cape Woolamai: long stretches of beach fronting an ocean that spends as much time grey and angry as it does tranquil and blue, with footpaths and cycle tracks running along large sections of the coast.
We pressed on northwards up the coast, stopping for lunch in a seafood buffet place filled with pensioners, stopping every so often to look at a beach or two, and arrived in a town I’d never heard of before called Les Sables-d’Olonne. We stopped on the coast a few miles south where small rocky cliffs pushed into the sea, with sandy beaches a little further along which continued right the way into the town. My wife and I agreed that this spot looked like the one a short distance along the Bass Highway from Phillip Island, and noticed how similar some of the other villages were to those we passed through on the Great Ocean Road.
The road took us right into the centre of Les Sables-d’Olonne, but veered away from the beach which ran right across the length of the town creating a promenade of 2-3km in length. We drove around to the northern side and parked the car up opposite a huge marina sporting hundreds of yachts and giant signs of the two best-known French yacht makers, Beneteau and Jeanneau. This was obviously a huge sailing centre. It was also very busy, packed with tourists who, judging by the looks, language, and car registrations were almost all French or Belgian. The boats entered the marina area using a sort of creek alongside which a long promenade-cum-pier had been built, and we walked along this to the end, where a concrete breakwater stood with a lighthouse on the end. All of this taking place in brilliant afternoon sunshine beneath blue skies, watching the yachts motor in and out of the marina, I was impressed.
As I said, I had never heard of this place, which surprised me. This was a sizeable town and looked a fantastic holiday spot, but which seemed to be kept somewhat of a secret from foreigners (Belgians and, I was told afterwards, Dutch excepted). It later dawned on me that the French internal tourism industry is enormous, probably bigger than anywhere else in the world outside the USA. Almost all of the places we’d visited on this trip were set up for French tourists, mainly coming from Paris and the Île-de-France region, and probably don’t advertise for (and probably don’t want!) foreign tourists, who generally head for the Mediterranean coast. I am sure that as we continue to explore France we’ll discover more nice holiday towns that are off the map for foreigners, as internal tourism seems to be pushed heavily in France: travel programmes on TV are often showing the various regions of France, which seem to compete with one another for visitors and (judging by the slick advertising as well as the smartness of the actual places) probably receive considerable state funding. I believe the result of the competition between the regions and the fact that the visitors are domestic is standards that cannot be found in the foreign holiday resorts, where visitors are only likely to come once and if they do complain, it’s in a foreign language on a website weeks later. If a French holiday town lets its standards slip, especially in terms of food and drink, this will be all over Paris by the next weekend. Sadly, the same effect did not apply for the British holiday destinations such as Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, and Skegness.
As with Tours, La Rochelle, and the Île de Ré, we left Les Sables-d’Olonne thinking we’d not spent anywhere near enough time there and it would be well worth coming back for a proper visit. It was getting late by this point and so I left the coastal route and took a main road to Nantes, but it still took a couple of hours. France really is a bit bigger than you think. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Nantes it was pouring with rain and the best we could do once we checked into the hotel was to find a restaurant. As expected, this one was absolutely packed but they managed to squeeze us into a two-person table on the upper floor, and they food and drink predictably didn’t disappoint. By the time we finished we had only enough time to briefly look at the Château des ducs de Bretagne in the drizzle before we’d had enough of getting wet and exploring and went back to the hotel. As with the other places, Nantes is probably worth looking at in more detail. It supposedly scores the highest in the French quality of life index due to its relative cheapness compared to Paris, its ease of access to the capital via the direct TGV link, and its proximity to a wide selection of beaches and resorts on the Atlantic coast. The bits we saw in the rain didn’t look particularly inviting, but another time we might see it in a different light.
The next morning we drove back to Paris in about 4 hours, arriving mid-afternoon…and then I went on the piss with an Angolan until 5am and awoke the next day at 1pm too drunk to drive my wife to the airport to catch her flight to St. Petersburg. So I bundled her into a taxi instead. As you can tell, the haute culture of France is rubbing off on me.
Overall, I was mightily impressed by the small section of the French Atlantic coast that we visited. A return trip, and further exploration, are a must.