Thursday, 26 November 2009

A tale of three towers (I/VI)

Written 19th November

It didn't really stop raining on Monday so, leaving Jules in the unexpectedly free car parking spot we had stumbled upon right near the old harbour, we took up our umbrellas and, tourist leaflet in hand, set off on the recommended 3h 'see everything worth seeing in la Rochelle' walking tour.  And it was good - damp - but good.

La Rochelle has an interesting history from way back when it was the only protestant town in france and its privileged and sheltered natural harbour position meant that it was the only place who could and would trade with both the french and the english.  The town itself was protected from land by a massive defensive wall and moat (and by being a long way from anywhere else and surrounded by marsh land!) and the harbour was protected by three towers;

St Nicolas Tower where the harbour captain lived  (apparently once sworn in, he took a vow not to leave the tower duing his year long stint although it was unlear if leave meant 'abandon his post', 'go on a nice 2-week holiday to the south of France with the wife and kids' or 'pop out for a pint with the lads'!)

The Chain tower on the other side of the actual harbour entrance got its name from the big chain which used to be strung across between it and the St Nicholas tower and which was pulled up across the entrance at night or if it looked like enemies might attack. 

It is a suprisingly slender chain but I can only assume it did the job.

Lantern Tower (Four Sergeants) a bit further round the wall which was at various times a look out, lighthouse and a prison.

Eventually in 16-something, one of the Louis' (I forget which one, it was at least XIII) and Cardinal Richelieu (yes the evil baddy in Dogtanian and the three muskahounds!!) decided enough was enough and set about besieging the heathens who dared trade with the english enemies.  As well as surounding them on land, they also built a big wall across the entrance to the harbour - a pretty impressive feat when you look out over the channel and are told it was out where the big red bouy is now!  It is slightly more believeable at low tide when you see how shallow it is and actually that only the daily slog of the dredger keeps the harbour open at all but impressive nonetheless.

Eventually, after about a year!, the town gave in and was forced to become Catholic (or at least not openly protestant) and all its defenses were torn down except the three towers although you can still see where bits of rampart and city gates were and the moat on the north side is now a small river with a nice park and joggers path. 

Deciding to leave the towers for another day, we carried on into town and wended our way round various churches, palaces and ancient stone arch-covered pedestrian streets until we found the town hall.  One side of it is fairly dull in a narrow street - although it had a useful internet weather report printed out which confimed it was raining...  to be fair it also said it would be sunny by wednesday which in french is described as "no weather phenomenon predicted"  In England, sunshine would be the most phenomenon-y thing anyone wanted to be predicted or talked about!!   I love France!

The other side, in the square, is a fairytale castle of walls, turrets and statues of kings in lookout towers.  It also has four statues of women apparently depicting the virtues; Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance although as Temperance is pouring wine from a big jug and Prudence has her tits out, I'm not exactly sure that the French subscribe to the same virtue system as we do... ;)

As dusk was falling, we found our way back to the tourist office and deciding that we needed a more efficient way of charging the laptop - we are currently going from 12v to 240v thru the transformer then back to 20v thru the lap top power supply which, as neither the laptop battery nor the leisure battery are in particulaly good shape, is not very efficient.  The french lady in the tourist office was a bit nonplussed by our request for 'a shop which sells things for computers' but eventually pointed us in the direction of Darty (PC world equivalent) at the centre commercial at Angoulins 'only 5 minutes away'.  We are discovering that the french have a different concept of time and distance than we do and evetually some 30mins later we found ourselves at the right place, or so we thought. 

After 20 minutes of fruitless searching and trying to navigate our way round the maze of roads and carparks in the dark - fortunately we only ended up down a one way road going the wrong way once! - we stopped to ask someone who was trying to sell double glazing outside a Leader Price (Aldi equivalent supermarket).  He had no idea but was willing to look it up on his iphone and confirmed that there wasn't a Darty closer than Bordeaux - it turns out he was wrong and there is one at the other La Rochelle commercial centre that has a big Carrefour but that is another tale... - so frustrated in our power supply search, we turned our attention to the other thing we really ought to have by now, new headlamps for Jules as we are still driving with our UK ones. 

Rather than just stick tape on them, which cuts out a lot of light (and the roads and signs are ill-lit enough as it is without making navigating in the dark any more complicated than it already is by losing half the light!) and as we are going to be driving on the right for a whole year, we had planned to get whole new replacement units once we crossed the channel. I mean how hard can it be, VW's are a german bus and Germany is in Europe right?  isn't it all the same these days??? 

We haven't actually seen any VW garages en route so far, or for that matter many VWs.   We ended up in FeuVert, another Halfords like place which also has a Kwikfit like garage section, where we met a very helpful, if a bit technically clueless boy, whose ability in English about matched my french.  After working out that yes, we really did want to buy new lights, and yes, we know it will be more expensive than sticking tape on them(!), and finding out from his technician that no, you can't just make some sort of adjustment with a screwdriver to re-angle the lights, he tried looking them up in his book to see if he could order them.  That proving not to be possible, he did go as far as looking up VW garages and scrap yards in the yellow pages, and all 5 mins before closing time - he really was a nice boy.  He also helped us find grease for the battery terminals, to stop them getting damp as the rain is getting in the air vents [we had initially tried to find vaseline which does the same thing and had tried several pharmacies, looking something which I could only think to describe as lip salve in pots, one shop tred to sell me some v v expensive fancy perfumed stuff and the other only had chapsticks and looked at us very oddly when we said we needed it in a pot as we needed lots - goodness only knows what they thought we were looking for it for... :) it just goes to show that when in foreign you should look for what you actually need, not what you would buy in the UK...]

We then headed to the Carrefour (think massive Tesco Extra plus plus some) for some bits and found that they have a whole car section where we could have got the grease anyway - oh well he really was a nice boy :)

The very helpful tourist leaflet had indicated that "Camping-Cars" were very welcome in la Rochelle and that there were even 3 car parks in the town where there were places where you could stop for free for up to 48 hours so we set off back in to town in the rain to see what we could find and lo and behold, spaces there were, completely free (except €0.30 to use the public toilet) brilliant! 

Tucked in between some much bigger motorhomes, we settled in for the night and cooked our delicious dinner of pan fried tournedos of beef and haricots verts with red wine gravy (at €0.85 the cheapest table wine we have yet had, proving that I am as classy now as I was then - it was very nice!) and boiled new potatoes - yummy!  (I'm sorry if you're bored of the illustrated tale of "what I had for my dinner"  but we need to reassure anxious mothers that we are eating proper food - green veg and everything! - and I think we are doing rather well on 2 gas hobs and the occasional bbq!) 

The next morning it was still raining when we woke up and peered out of the curtain so we snuggled back under the duvet until it stopped at about lunchtime.  [I have to thank Laura for the conversation we had about travelling, sleeping bags and duvets, without which I would have just packed the sleeping bags as usual - there is just something about a duvet, you know when you are just the right temperature and you can't tell when you end and the duvet begins... bliss :)] 

Eventually we decided that we really should get up and go and investigate the towers but not before we had our breakfast of yesterday's bread dipped in hot chocolate - well this is what my first year feench textbook said that real french people have - I have no way of verifiying this but who are we to argue!  The chocolate was made with some actual belgian chocolate drops melted in the mug by hot milk  - you know the sort that you get in christmas present packs with a fancy mug and stuff (probably just where this came from) - which we had found, unused in the back of the cupboard at home when we were clearing out and chucked in the van just in case - they were only 6 months out of date but hey, chocolate doesn't actually go off...  BTW it was delicious, I am never making hot chocolate any other way again!

Thus fortified,  and leaving Jules with its new friends, we set off and found that the towers were of course closed, this being france and it being lunchtime. 

So we headed off for a wander down the harbour wall towards the big new marina and on the off-chance, decided to try one for the many sailing shops to see if they might have our charger.  There we met yet another extremely helpful young man who was amazed that we had come all the way from england by camping car - presumably if we had sailed he would have thought it was nothing out of the ordinary...  He didn't have the thing and expressed concern that it was very specialised but suggected we try the computer shop on the corner.  This time, two minutes was acually two minutes, and after a considerably longer wait behind people wanting to debate the relative merits of all sorts of different print cartridge and the non-stop phone calls, we asked the man for 'something to plug our computer into our car which transformed 12v to 20v" and he came straight back with the very thing - hurrah!  Bouyed by our success and feeling generally well disposed towards french men in shops, we headed back to the first tower on our list - The St Nicholas Tower. 

It is €6 to go in one tower and only €8 to go in all three and the recommended time to visit all three, including walking between them, is 2.5 hours.  We spent at least 1.5h in each (over two days) and they were excellent so money definately well spent.

The st Nicolas Tower was, as promised, a labyrinth of rooms, and corridors and staircases within the 6m thick walls and tells the history of La Rochelle up to the siege in 1600-something.  And the sun came out by the time we got to the battlements for a view over the town - lovely.

Having run out of time for more tower that day and feeling in need of a celebratory cake to mark our success at buying a laptop charger - it's the little things these days ;) - we set of in search of such a thing and after dismissing several ordinary fruit tartlets in inferieur boulangeries, we came across Patisserie Jolly and a mouthwatering array of deliciousness and soon a strawberry and rhubarb mousse surrounded by mini macaroons was his and a dark chocolate shell filled with dark chocolate and rasperry mousse topped with white chocolate wings and more rapsberries were ours, they even came hand wrapped in a little box with ribbon and everything. 

With hindsight, such fine and expensive delicacies are probably supposed to be appreciated and savoured leisurely, with cutlery, after a nice meal, and before thoughts turn to coffee, perhaps even by candlelight, rather than scoffed down with your fingers sat on the steps of a catherdral at dusk but they were truly gorgeous :)

Stopping only in Monoprix for dinner (casserole of chicken legs with slices of potato and sweetcorn in tinned tomatoes cooked slowly for about 2 hours until the meat was just falling off the bone  - not very photogenic but mmmmmmm) we settled back down in our little carpark spot for the night.

The next day dawned bright and sunny - so really, no weather to speak of(!) and, reflected off the white stone, La Rochelle's light did indeed shine soft and dazzling, as promised by the guide leaflet so we headed back into town to the Chain Tower.  This tower tells the story of La Rochelle after the siege when it was the main port from which french people set out to colonise 'New-France', what is now Quebec, Montreal and New Orleans.  Thousands of people went out, some voluntarily seeking a better life and others, like the orphan girls who were sent under the protection of the church with the sole goal of populating the new world, who didn't have a choice.  Again, the exhibition was very interesting (although all in french which took a bit of translating) and the sun was once again shining for our view over the town and harbour. 

We also learnt that, before the siege, there was a plan to connect the two towers by a massive arch acros the harbour entrance.  Unfortunately it was never more than a plan once the defences were ordered destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu (and as during the contruction of St Nicholas tower, it started leaning on it's foundations and had tbe be propped up with some clever underpinning) but it was an ambitious idea, let alone reality.

We didn't have time before lunch to go to the last tower, so after a bargain lunch of baguette and sticky bun sat on the harbour wall in the sun, and with important internet correspondance to attend to, we found oursleves in a bar just off the harbour.  It is debatable whether it was better to consider the internet as being free in the bar or to cost €4/h with free drinks but three hours later and after three coffees (him) and one coffee and two beers (me) we stumbled, blinking into the sun, wired (him) and giddy (me), to climb our last tower. 

The Lantern Tower (also called the Four Sergeants) has the least in the way of exhibition but as it was used as a prision in the 16th and 17th century (mainly for English and Dutch sailors caputured at sea) it is covered in scratched graffiti, some simply names and date scratches and some extremely detailed - boats complete with rigging, sails and ladders all in relief and a later steam train showing all the wheel linkages -

there is even a block on one floor where tourists can have a go - it soft stone but making any actual picture is harder than it looks! 

It is also the highest tower and just keeps going up and up via a spiral staircase - the tower is so narrow by that point that the staircase is housed in a totally separate spire - until you emerge at the top onto a seemingly fragile balcony with a low wall. 

 I don't usually have a problem with high up wobbly places but I have to confess to clinging to the wall a bit :)  but the view of the sun setting over the harbour was fantastic.

We left just as the tower was closing and, having seen all there is to see in La Rochelle - well those things which are either free or interested us, there are many other no doubt excellent museums and touristy things for those with the inclination and deeper pockets - we set off towards our next destination,  Ile de Re.

It was at this point that disaster struck as after some hesitation at a couple of junctions, Jules spluttered to a stop, fortunately just off a major road and on a slip road.  Mindfull of the law for such eventualities, we dutifully dug out the warning triangle and donned florescent jackets and set about removing the bikes and bike rack - the only downside of such a sturdy and secure contraption is there is no quick releaase option for emergency engine bay access - so that Will could see what what was what.  The inital fears were serious as, by mistake I had last filled up at Carrefour with some wierd shit french petrol which "to facilitate more environmentally friendly driving" is cut with 10% ethanol and we hadn't really driven very far since.  Will had heard of it from the internet as being used in the US and had a vague recollection of classic car drivers complaining that it rotted rubber bits in the engine but no idea how quickly such bad things happened or what bits of engine were rubber - fuel injectors and fuel pump were the worry, both of which would be diffcult to source and/or expensive if damaged.  I had thought something didn't look at the time and had asked Will to check but he said if it was unleaded 95 to carry on - we will not ignore my gut instinct in this regard again!.  There was also an ominious hissing noice from the engine bay which Will couldn't find and we therefore feared could be important bits of engine disolving before our very eyes (well, ears as we couldn't see where it was coming from)....

After some digging about with a torch, and the discovery of a loose but important earth wire, we were at the stage where the engine would start but not keep ticking over and Will had broken out his multimeter and timing light when, like an angel of mercy, a little yellow flat bed vw appeared from out of no where.  We have seen few VWs of any age and absolutely no classics of any type yet lo and behold, one appears, and beter still stops!, when we are in trouble.  Unfortuantely we could explain what the problem was, partly because my french business degree inexplicably didn't cover the inner workings of VW engines but mainly because we still didn't know what the problem was.  The guy spoke a very little english and at the sight of our unfamiliar engine and Will's already advanced tools expressed an inability to contribute much but he was at least willing and confirmed that the wierd shit petrol shouldn't be a problem - apparently, if anything, when using it, vans just don't stop rather than refusing to go!  Just at that moment, Will spotted a vacuum hose which had come loose, reconnected it and bingo, we were back in business!  (Keen blog readers will remember that it was a similar incident which caused my first breakdown - different hose this time but one could argue that, in temporarily heading north again, we were once again vaguely approaching the Cambridge/Essex border....)  The guy asked where we were going and on learning that we were going to Ile de Re via a food shop offered to escort us the the closest Leclerc and, obviously fearing for our future good fortune and general sanity, told us where a VW specialist could be found in a nearby industriel zone - I love classic VW drivers!

Crisis averted, we stocked up on steak and wine and headed isle-wards over the bridge.

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