travel journal: discover the world
LA ROCHELLE (BORDEAUX) FRANCE
La Rochelle is known as La Ville Blanche (the White City), La Rochelle's luminous limestone facades glow in the bright coastal sunlight. One of France's foremost seaports from the 14th to 17th centuries, the city has arcaded walkways, half-timbered houses (protected from the salt air by slate tiles) and ghoulish gargoyles, rich reminders of its seafaring past. The early French settlers of Canada, including the founders of Montreal, set sail from here in the 17th century. This 'white city' is also commendably green, with innovative public transport and open spaces. It's kid-friendly too, with lots of activities for little visitors.
La Rochelle's late-20th-century district of Les Minimes was built on reclaimed land, and now has one of the largest marinas in the country. Unlike the Med with its motor cruisers, the 3500 moorings here are mostly used by yachts, which fill the harbour with billowing spinnakers. La Rochelle and all its wonders provide an excellent entrance into Bordeaux, which is truly a bucket list item for any wine lover.
The new millennium was a major turning point for the city long known as La Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty). The mayor, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, roused Bordeaux, pedestrianising its boulevards, restoring its neoclassical architecture and implementing a high-tech public transport system. His efforts paid off: in mid-2007 half of the entire city (18 sq km, from the outer boulevards to the banks of the Garonne) was Unesco-listed, making it the largest urban World Heritage Site. Bolstered by its high-spirited university-student population (not to mention 2.5 million tourists annually), La Belle Bordeaux now scarcely seems to sleep at all.
Mention Bordeaux and you will spark thoughts all around the world of good wine. As you travel through the vineyards by bike (easy to rent) on carefully chosen routes you will experience much more of the Gironde. Unique castles will catch your eye, rivers meander their way across beautiful countryside, the unspoilt Natural Park, oyster beds and the Atlantic coast add a multitude of dimensions to your journey. This terrain is easy-going, and allows in depth exploring of the delights of the Gironde region. Best known for the vineyards that produce Bordeaux wines, this area that stretches south of the Dordogne and west to the Atlantic also harbours shady forests, the Garonne River, quaint rural villages and enormous sand dunes on the coast. Apart from the rolling nature of some of the vineyards, the ride is generally flattish and covers modest daily distances. There will be plenty of time for relaxing, looking around and perhaps having a long lunch. Serious students of the grape can enrol at the École du Vin, within the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux (Bordeaux House of Wine), across the street from the tourist office. Introductory two-hour courses are held Monday to Saturday from 3pm to 5pm between July and September (adult €25). To really develop your nose (and your dinner-party skills), sign up for one of three progressively more complex two- to three-day courses (€335 to €600) scheduled between May and October, including châteaux visits.