Getting Out Of Paris And Into The Oyster Beds
Getting out of Paris is what a lot of Parisians do every weekend…to their country homes or friends’ country homes or just for a relaxing weekend in some spot they hadn’t been before. A visiting friend and I took their lead, rented a car and had in our minds just to drive and land wherever our hearts took us.
I learned only too soon that wasn’t really a good idea, considering it was Easter weekend with four days off (Good Friday, Saturday, Sunday and today, the official holiday) and the tourist destinations would be swarming with visitors. Instead, at the last minute, we opted to determine our destination: La Rochelle/Ile de Ré on the Atlantic coast neither of which we had been before.
The next step was to book a “chambre d’hôte” (bed and breakfast) for both nights. The most wonderful way to explore La France Profonde by car is NOT to stay in the towns in hotels, but to choose quaint chambres d’hôtes in the country, where it’s easy to drive in and out of, where one can arrive late and enter easily and where 99 times out of 100, the people who run them have opened their homes to strangers and therefore their hearts. Not only that, they are usually quite a bit less expensive than hotels and ten times more loaded with charm.
We were lucky to find via the Web site “Fleurs de Soleil” (http://www.fleurs-soleil.tm.fr/crans-maisons/17-nourisson.htm), a beautiful old stone farmhouse completely refurbished and rebuilt run by newlyweds Yvonne and Emile Nourisson, right on the Route Nationale 11 a few kilometers before La Rochelle, for 54 Euros a night for two people, two nights. We were given a suite that could sleep four, special low cal breakfasts (to assuage our diets) and they could not have been more hospitable, offering such service as to purchase on my behalf a bushel of fresh oysters from Marennes (at wholesale price) I could take to Easter dinner as a gift.
On the brilliant Via Michelin Web site which outlines a perfect route from any point in France to any other (http://www.viamichelin.com), if one were to drive directly, it would be 293 miles done in 4 hours 23 minutes, most of which is done on Autoroute. We chose not to head straight for the coast, but instead to drive only the national and department roads to slowly work our way southwest by stopping along the way…Chartres to see the stained-glass windows, through the Loire Valley to see the château Azay-le-Rideau and through the Charente, to visit a few châteaux I had come to know from days past (particularly the magnificent Saint-Loup dating back to the 14th-century (http://www.chateaudesaint-loup.com/).
We landed at La Rochelle at 9:30 p.m., on fumes, which is a lesson to be learned as well — keep your gas tank full on holiday weekends in France, because stations that are open for business are no easy task to find. On the way back to Paris, we drove 30 kilometers out of our way to get gas!
La Rochelle is a beautiful 16th-century city which was a Huguenot stronghold under King Henri of Navarre with a bustling port anchored by stone towers and city walls. The Calypso, the ship used by Jacques-Yves Cousteau as a mobile laboratory for oceanography, and which was sunk after a collision in the port of Singapore (1996) is now displayed at the Maritime Museum of La Rochelle.
Saturday morning, forty-five potters were setting up their stands on the “Cours des Dames” for the 8th annual weekend-long “Marché des Potiers” (Potters’ Market). The sun was bright, in spite of the cool temperature, and the portside cafés were coming alive.
The city is connected to the Ile de Ré by a 2.9 kilometer bridge, a 30 kilometer long, 5 kilometer wide island with as many bicycles as their are residents (16,000) and two lively ports, Saint-Martin and La Flotte. The ruins of the 12th-century Abbaye Cistercienne Notre Dame de Ré sit poised on an open field amid grazing cattle reminiscent of Stonehenge — a stunning site. I fell in love with the island architecture of low pale-toned stucco houses with varying shades of pastel colored shutters in blues and greens and sometimes lavender.
Oysters are the regional specialty — Oléron, Ile de Re, Marennes and all along the coast of the Charente-Maritime. The Marennes we opened on Easter Sunday were a deep shade of sea green, transparent and not too salty. As a native New Orleanian, I learned to down a raw oyster at the age of two and couldn’t wait to dribble lemon on a dozen or two! Avoid the portside tourist-trap restaurants — fine for a pleasant spot to light, but don’t expect fine dining there. The best restaurants for fresh seafood are André Grande Brasserie de Poissons at 7, rue St-Jean-du-Pérot in La Rochelle and La Fumée at Pointe de la Fumée in Fouras, a small and beautiful village just north of Rochefort.
The Ile d’Oléron is not worth a visit — it’s sad and void of life. Why is a mystery, but the only thing alive and well there seemed to be oysters and a jewelry maker named Myriam Bataille at Retour de Plage, on the Port de Saint-Trojan with beautiful and inexpensive handmade creations (05.46.76.42.93).
Homeward bound took us through the tiny roads into the Vienne and a stop for Easter dinner with Bill Bonner (founder of International Living) and his family at
Château d’Ouzilly south of Mortmorillon. Bill shucked open the Marennes, the kids found all but one of the hidden hand painted Easter eggs, matriarch Elizabeth had set the table with baskets of chocolate eggs to make a perfect setting for the holiday in front of the limestone carved 17th-century fireplace flaming the room with warmth.
Gliding into Paris late Sunday evening was a breeze since the rest of France was still on vacation and we delivered the keys of the rental car within 15 minutes of closing.
It all simply couldn’t have been more perfect.
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
E-mail: [email protected]
P.S. Remember there’s no Parler Paris tomorrow, but Wednesday look for Parler Paris Previews…A Weekly Community Calendar for English-Speaking Paris!